Lance Mannion has a fascinating reflection on the cultural role of video stores, one that was inspired by Lance’s discovery that his local video store would be closing. A glimpse at the interior of the store suggests that it is a chain store, possibly a Blockbuster, but Lance’s post offers a nice antidote to some of the more celebratory accounts of the digital distribution of films. Although I rarely stepped into a Blockbuster for years until meeting my fiancee, who had a family member working for a nearby Blockbuster, itself now closing, I think the cultural role of the video store, the ability of a video store to become a “place,” to use Lance’s terminology, should not become trivialized as we shift toward VOD, streaming, and other forms of online access.
Lance starts by acknowledging that streaming access, itself, can offer forms of social pleasure. A viewing of Superman at his household prompted an impromptu screening of several of the Fleischer Studio Superman shorts produced between 1941 and 1943, allowing him and his son to dig a little deeper into history of the comic book hero. And streaming access may help to enable spontaneous screenings inspired by a current event. In teaching and doing research on film, I’ve found streaming access indispensable. One day when the DVD player in my film classroom wasn’t working, streaming access on Amazon allowed me to continue a lecture on North by Northwest with little interruption. Now, as David Poland points out, we can even use a Warner Brothers digital distribution app to watch not just Warner movies, but also supplemental features, as well. Direct digital delivery. All of the supplemental aspects that have been a part of DVD culture, right in the palm of your hand.
But as Lance points out, video stores aren’t merely sites of access to movies and TV shows; they also function as “places,” where interactions with clerks and other customers offer some of the value. Even as more and more online movie hubs develop recommendation engines and seek to aggregate reviews–note that Hulu is now working on developing their version of a personalized recommendation engine–Lance captures how some of these conversations may be lost when video stores no longer serve as social hubs. Lance’s arguments reminded me of Ted Striphas’s chapter on big box bookstores in The Late Age of Print. Seeking to counter assumptions that big box stores were always “villains” threatening to crowd out independent booksellers, Striphas examines the conflicts over a Barnes and Noble built in between Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to show how these stores can become community spaces, with the potential, in this particular case, “to redress some of [the region’s] racial inequities” (74). To be sure, other forms of community can always spring up. Lance points out that we’ve been told dozens of times over the years that moviegoing itself was obsolete, and yet local multiplexes continue to attract large audiences on Friday and Saturday nights. Now, a number of Borders bookstores in the Triangle area are closing, leading to changes in the ways in which a number of local communities and groups will be able to organize themselves. And although these stores may offer only a limited form of community (which is at least partially assured through the purchase of heavily marked-up coffee and desserts), the best bookstores and video stores can leave room for informal interactions.
Lance’s post also reminded me of just how fleeting video stores have been in the cultural landscape, sprouting up like mushrooms in the early 1980s, often as small businesses, only to see the rise of the franchises in the latter part of that decade. Now, just a couple of decades later, many of these same franchises seem to be on the verge of disappearing, and with it, certain forms of engagement with movies and television. Lance points out that, even with Netflix and other forms of access (Amazon and iTunes are often significantly underestimated as sources of video content), this shift may exclude a wide range of viewers from full participation in film culture, including those who don’t have a credit card and those without broadband access. People who don’t wish to invest large amounts of time skimming through online catalogs may also find themselves left out of this digital utopia, as well.
Lance’s post is well worth thinking about, especially as it seeks to challenge some of the common assumptions about our media consumption habits and bow they might be affected by online distribution.
Update: Edited to add a reference to the Raleigh News-Observer article on the closure of the Cary, NC, Borders.