Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Borrowed Time: The Future of Video Rental Stores

Video stores may not be the institutions of suburbia they once were, but is this a comment on how consumers feel about the contemporary state of cinema? Or, are film enthusiasts becoming slaves to modern technology that is conducive to convenience? As a resident of Smithfield in Sydney’s south-west, I have had very little luck with signing up to video stores in the past. N C Video Library at Smithfield and Boulevarde Video Library at Fairfield Heights are two independent, family-owned video stores that have been closed for at least three years. Network Video had a store at Smithfield that didn’t see out 2005, so I signed up to the new Blockbuster Video at Wetherill Park. Its tenure was about as long as Network Video—just over a year. Video Ezy and Civic Video both had stores located at Wetherill Park which are now closed. As of October 2012, there are only two big chain video stores located in the City of Fairfield: Civic Video at Fairfield and Edensor Park. I have not become a member of either store, fearing the disappointment of yet another video/DVD library sinking into obsolescence.   

In the United States, legitimate digital consumption of home entertainment accounts for less than 5 per cent of the total rental market. Digital delivery methods are not yet as pervasive in Australia, but the American data suggests that digital consumption is not the preferred viewing method among film enthusiasts. One of the reasons for this is that Australian digital movie players are not as rich in titles as the average video store. In the period from June to July 2012, there were 161 new DVD titles released into the Australian market. 55 per cent of these titles were available on services such as BigPond Movies, Quickflix and Foxtel On Demand. A common view is that, in the digital age, a trip to the video store is not worth the time or the money when movies can be downloaded illegally. However, the Australian Video Rental Retailers Association found that almost 30 per cent of the August 2012 new releases could not be located online. Hence, illegal downloads are not an infallible method of procuring films, due to a limited range and inferior audiovisual quality. Another reason video stores may be seen as the most desirable channel to rent new release movies from is that it can take at least six weeks and up to three months before a movie is available via legal download or pay TV. The film distribution hierarchy prioritises cinemas before video stores, with download portals at the tail end.

DVD vending machines are now commonplace in shopping centres around the country. The three main players in this growing industry are Hoyts Kiosk (formerly Oovie), RedRoom and MovieMate. These machines are located near places most people frequent, such as supermarkets, shopping centres and service stations. No membership fees are required, and you can collect the movies instantly, unlike mail-order services such as Quickflix. Hoyts Kiosks have a ‘rent-anywhere/return-anywhere’ policy, edging out brick-and-mortar video stores on the convenience front. On the downside, these machines just do not offer the same range available at video stores. Each Hoyts Kiosk contains between 300 and 400 titles, but all of the films are new releases. Good luck on finding a rare Krzysztof Kieslowski film from the 1980s. Also, the luxury of weekly hire associated with video stores cannot be savoured with these machines, which offer overnight hire only. Unlike snack and drink vending machines, DVD dispensers only accept credit cards, which is an indication of what demographic they are aimed towards. There are currently over 400 Hoyts Kiosks around Australia, and it is expected that another 100 will be deployed by July 2013. These machines are evidently on the rise, but whether they are preferred over traditional video stores is up to the individual, who must choose between convenience and range.

With big chain video stores closing all around the City of Fairfield, owners of independent video stores are not feeling confident that their stores will last much longer. Nineveh Video Shop at Fairfield has seen a 75 per cent drop in patrons since downloads have risen in popularity. The store exclusively stocks Arabic-language DVDs and CDs, and also operates an Internet cafe service. Rany, an employee at Nineveh Video, does not hold much hope for the survival of the humble video store. “People prefer to download because it’s easier. We convert wedding videos to DVD, and that’s almost becoming our main function,” he said. Ly Ly’s Video in Cabramatta, which trades in Cambodian DVDs and CDs, is also suffering the consequences of illegal downloads. Employee Kim has noticed a change in the customers who frequent the store. “Most of our customers belong to the older generation who don’t know how to use the new technology,” she said. She observed that people use video stores as a back-up option to downloading, and not vice versa. “When a television series is taking a while to be released online, people will come and look for the physical DVD,” she said. Like Rany at Nineveh Video, Kim thinks the days of the traditional video store are numbered. “I’ve lost a lot of young customers, and when that happens, you know the influence of digital technology is too strong,” she said. “They [video stores] will be gone very soon.”

It seems as though convenience is the main priority for the contemporary movie viewer. Downloading a film, either legally or illegally, negates the hassle of a trip to the video store. DVD vending machines are bridging the gap between video stores and downloads, but one must wonder if they too will become a relic of days gone by once digital technology tightens its stranglehold on the market. Despite the heavy influence of digital delivery platforms, there are two things that video stores cannot be faulted for: personal service and an expansive range of titles. Whether the industry can hang their hopes for longevity on these two things is something only time will tell. 

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