On the shelf at Nicollet Village Video, there's a note taped to the box of Inferno,a 1978 Italian horror flick. It says the movie contains violence against cats. "Do not support the mistreatment of animals by renting this film!" it reads.
"The least I can do is respect it," says owner Chris Becker of the message, which was apparently scrawled by some customer. Becker says he hasn't seen the movie, but if the charges are true, he sympathizes. "That's my best friend over there behind the counter," he says, motioning to the red hound vegetating on the carpet.
Becker scratches his beard. "The fact that this person went to the trouble of sneaking in the store and taping that there, the fact that they returned the movie instead of stealing it or setting it on fire, I respect that. It says something about our clientele."
It also says something about the store. Becker, who looks like a mountain man and sounds like an ashtray, might be the rental-biz cousin of First Avenue manager Steve McClellan. He's just as staunch an independent--there wouldn't be a dog on the floor, or a note on the box, if he weren't. His shop's 35,000 VHS titles include foreign films, documentaries, pornography--anything you want. The 8,000-store Blockbuster chain, meanwhile, is notorious for carrying movies that have been specially reedited to earn an R rating. (For more on the straight-washed version of Y Tu Mamá También, see "Mamá Said Cut It Out".)
Still, I've recently found myself renting more at Blockbuster, where videos might as well carry a note saying: "Do not support the mistreatment of an artform by renting this film!" The reason is simple: digital videodiscs. Village Video doesn't carry them; Blockbuster does. And these days, that's all the difference I require.
Since last November, when Columbia TriStar announced that it had sold 11 million copies of Spider-Man on DVD in its first weekend, the new era has felt like a fait accompli. Lorelai on Gilmore Girls bought her parents a DVD player this winter; so did I. And even as audio commentary tracks rapidly wore out their welcome, the convenience of instant rewind didn't. (Viewers are now recording their own homemade DVD commentaries for download on the Internet--sort of the audio equivalent of a note on the box.)
At first, DVDs seemed like a good deal for indie stores. Where VHS rental tapes cost non-chains upward of $60 to buy from distributors, DVDs are cheap: around $20. But while Blockbuster and major competitors such as Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery have expanded, local shops seem tangled in fast-forward. Last year the holdings of bankrupt St. Paul-based chain Video Update were bought by Movie Gallery--and that was the good news. Video Update franchise stores closed, as did Movies on 169, Showtime Video in Blaine, Silver Screen in Virginia, and countless others. The small national chain Premier Video closed operations in Hastings and Mankato. The Video City stores are history. And a slew of Mr. Movies outlets were closed, or bought out by Blockbuster. (Eight years ago, there were 73 Mr. Movies franchise stores; now there are 18.)
Meanwhile, two revered collections of classic and foreign videos literally went up in flames: Home Video on Snelling burned down two years ago, reopening in September with an expanded DVD section but little of its hard-to-find older stuff. And the West Bank's Intercontinental Video couldn't rebuild itself from last year's fire, which destroyed an unparalleled selection of foreign titles.
Even Discount Video, whose 15,000 titles are often impossible to find elsewhere, feels the sea change. A longtime holdout for VHS, the Hennepin Avenue shop has at last decided to make the switch to DVD in Japanese anime (a genre released almost exclusively on DVD). Then there's Village Video, which also plans to start renting DVDs.
"I'm going to carry it for as long as it lasts," says Becker. "I thought by now that DVD would already be superseded by something more compatible with current television technology." He's talking about high-definition television and DVHS, a digital tape format that had major industry backing as recently as a year ago. "The marketing has been so amazing about 'the superiority of the disc to the tape' that I don't know whether tape will come back."
Becker shares with many indie storeowners a skepticism about the new format--and a reluctance to invest the capital required to make the transition. A former singer in one of Minneapolis's earliest punk bands, the Doggs, he compares the DVD invasion to the advent of CDs. "We were told how much better they sounded," he says. "But your ears told you differently: Vinyl sounded better. And the only way they enforced the thing was the industry stopped supporting vinyl. When somebody lies to you every time they open their mouths, how do you believe any word they say?"
Discount Video co-owner Chuck Hanson suggests that DVDs were devised to kill the rental market altogether. "They want to capture that money directly by selling the movie," he says.
He adds that the medium isn't exactly ideal for rental. "One reason we are very reticent to get into DVDs is that they are easily damaged, and a lot of them get thrown away," he says. "For these heavily capitalized companies, it's just the cost of doing business. But we don't have that margin."