(I recently came across this story which provides a snapshot in time of the consumer video-rental business. In mid-1987, rental shops purchased videos for between $50 and $80 each, then rented them to the masses who paid a few bucks per night, per title. By this time, most consumers had their own VCRs (remember when we rented those along with the tapes?), but the cassettes themselves were prohibitively expensive, so only video stores could afford to purchase them. And, like the story says, Hollywood was dumping movies from their backlog into the marketplace along with newer releases.)
May 1, 1987
By DONALD PORTER
People who rent a lot of videos know how to play the game properly. They know where to get any sort of videocassette a person might want to see.
Since not all video shops are created equal, they have several memberships spread around town at different stores: ones that carry zillions of copies of the newest releases like "Top Gun," another with a good selection of classic films, and maybe -- if they're a little bit daring -- a membership at a store that devotes a corner rack to (gasp!) adult video fare.
Video enthusiasts who subsist on the latest releases, of course, are able to get by with a single membership. But for serious video-movie watchers, the multiple-store rule is a necessity of life, since no single store has the cash -- or the inclination – to stock their shelves with all the older movies available on tape, even if they are classics. So folks with slightly esoteric tastes in movies are, by necessity, well-traveled.
"'Top Gun' and 'Tough Guys' are the ones you can't keep in," explained Shirley Ward, manager of Movie Tonite Video in North Ogden. Very few older titles are really popular with the masses, she said. The movies of John Wayne, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Walt Disney and various musicals are the most popular of the comparatively unpopular older films on her store's shelves, she said.
The video-renting public's insatiable appetite for films fresh from the movie theaters makes filling the shelves with older motion pictures a marginally profitable prospect at best. At worst, it can be a disaster.
Said Ward: "When you have to depend on them going out (on a rental basis) to pay for them, you can only put the ones on the shelf that get rented."
Granted, finding a video shop that carries the movie you're looking for may involve a lot of effort. But even more frustration comes with an attempt to secure an accurate list of films that are and are not available on videocassette.
With literally hundreds of new titles being offered each month, ranging from classic motion pictures to made-for-TV junk, it's next to impossible to find out whether an oldie but goodie is available for playback in the home. This month's definitive list or book on the subject is obsolete in a matter of weeks.
Several video dealers interviewed for this story say they can't justify spending the approximately $50 a month it costs to subscribe to an accurate and up-to-date listing of films available on tape. Typically, they rely on distributor-sponsored specials that offer new releases packaged with older films at special discount rates. Therefore, many older films are on the shelves almost by accident.
The fact remains that older movies simply aren't that attractive to shop owners. The bulk of the VCR owners in this country are baby boomers, and their tastes usually run to more contemporary films. The smaller number of middle-aged videocassette renters don't rent older movies often enough to make investing in classics a prudent option for most retailers.
Donna Payne, manager of Adventure Land Video in Syracuse, agreed: "Even if they are available there are some people who won't look at them."
Black-and-white films, she said, are much more likely to gather dust on the shelf than to be a hot rental item, although when a popular old actor dies – such as Cary Grant did recently -- the star's films are rented more frequently for a short time thereafter.
"For some reason, younger people … don't like the suspense that you have to imagine," and even balk at renting classics that were filmed in color" -- as were many Hitchcock films, said Ward.
"Some people may not like the idea," Payne said, "but colorization (of old black-and-white films) is great. It really makes them easier to rent."
Purists may be aghast at the suggestion of colorization. But if Payne's opinion is shared by the rest of the videocassette-retail business, the colorization process embraced by a small number of showbiz moguls like Ted Turner may alter the video marketplace forever. Crayola-colored versions of aging motion picture gems will be springing up like weed in a vegetable garden. Black-and-white classics perceived as having only a marginal potential for videocassette sales and rental success will finally see the light of day, albeit in a form their makers had never intended.
That issue aside, seeking out video movies that are different and unique in a business that deals mainly in recent-issue claptrap can be an unrelenting frustration.