I Miss Video Stores (and common sense)

A long ramble about the value of video stores, making sense and the “one poster” rule.

Not long ago I had a conversation with a filmmaker about how we decide which movies we will see. At the time we were at a film festival and I was remarking on how I seemed to be out of sync with my fellow audience goers. On film in particular “Pickle” struck me as being a somewhat melancholy story about a couple and the pets they have loved and lost over the years. Everyone around me responded like we were watching Austin Powers. Uproarious laughter, elbow nudges to one’s neighbor – this was clearly funny stuff!

The film festival experience is an interesting one, at least for short films where people go into the theater with little to no information about what they are going to watch. I almost always watch a trailer for a film or series beforehand so I have a sense of what I am about to see. Looking at comments online I am surprised at how few people go in with an idea of what it is they are about to watch. 

I spoke with my filmmaker friend about this and he was convinced that I am in the minority. That few people watch the trailer for anything and in fact nearly everyone goes into a viewing experience blind. The numbers on YouTube paint a different story, millions of views for each trailer released often in the first day or so. But I think he’s not entirely wrong.

Lately I’ve been struggling to find films (and television shows) I’d like to watch. I feel, in part, this is because of the fragmentation of how I watch these days. Instead of paying for each film (or television show) I belong to several subscription-based services. I think, in this regard, I am typical.

What I have found is that I spend more time searching for things to watch than I did when I was seeing films in the theater or renting them on DVD. While this makes sense, a targeted approach rather than taking a look around to see what is available, what frustrates me is that because of how these services operate I know this will not change.

Visiting a video store, even a large one like the Hollywood Video that used to be in Arlington, Virginia (they boasted 55,000 titles) became easy after five or six visits. Typically the sections and subsections stayed in the same parts of the store. They added titles but rarely removed them. If you spent fifteen minutes in drama once a month after a few visits you had a good sense of what was there and the order you would come across these titles in (alphabetical).

Now if I want to find a specific title I work my way through the streaming sites (unless I know the title is specific to one particular service). If, at this point, it appears that no one has the title – which I would say happens at least fifty percent of the time, I have to choose to pay to rent/buy the title. How is this better than before?

I digress, although I do think the problem is only going to get worse. With Disney Plus and Apple TV (and the other numerous new streaming platforms) and Netflix continuing their push to show only their original content I miss belonging to the DVD side of their service. It wasn’t perfect and it certainly became much slower in 2019 and 2020 but it made some kind of sense. Titles didn’t disappear and reappear in a haphazard fashion. Films made by Paramount were not excluded because of some deal I could care less about.

I may be able to afford subscriptions to sites like Mubi and The Criterion Channel (I mention them because they offer curation, which is wonderful. Their selection is much less than other streaming sites and certainly more artsy – which does not always work for me) but that is the antithesis of what I want from my online experience. I want less clutter not more. I want to spend less time navigating various sites to find interesting content and more time enjoying the films and shows.

These look somewhat similar
Not at all confusing or making my point

Case in point, last month I heard about a show starring Martin Freeman called Startup. Having never heard of it but finding the premise exciting I looked for it. At present I could only watch the show at crackle.com or via their app. The good news is I didn’t have to pay more money to watch it, just suffer through commercials. The bad news is despite being owned by Sony, Crackle has one of the worst apps I have ever used to stream content. Finding the show took three steps each time. Another two steps to get to the episode I wanted to watch. It doesn’t remember where you leave off and each time you try to watch the show it pushes season two, episode one at you as though this must always be the answer. Every other commercial break causes the app to crash forcing you to restart the process to find the show again. You then have to scrub through the footage to get back to where you stopped watching. Considering I was using this as a show to run to on the treadmill I amazed at how long I kept watching. Startup is that good. (And all three seasons were just added to Netflix last week so if you read this anywhere near the time I have posted you are in luck!)

Now all of this complaining aside I want to delve into the real purpose of this post, to say something about how we find good content to watch. I’m not a snob, I watch many different kinds of things and depending on what I am doing (running for one) I want different content. That being said the age we live in, when it should be easier to find the things we like, seems to be making it harder.

When I was in college I worked in a bookstore and Roget Ebert published a book called “I Hated Hated Hated this Movie.” It sparked a bit of conversation among us who were interested in movies. I recall saying, “Who even reads his reviews?” and someone answered, “People who think like him.” Recently Martin Scorcese was quoted speaking against Rotten Tomatoes and the mindset the site inspires. While he two took ideas and put them together, the problem of being focused on the box office as the main means of determining the success of a film and lumping reviewers together to create a “score”, I feel that his point is related. 

While many people came to understand who Roger Ebert was and what his tastes were, today most people, I believe, are seeing headlines and reviews from people they are unfamiliar with. In the past week I have looked at my Twitter feed and noticed the headlines from sites like Film School Rejects and Film Stage and others and realized that I’ve been letting them affect my thoughts regarding films. Based on my social media feeds Blade Runner 2049 is a “box office failure” and a “missed opportunity”. Yet looking at it’s scores on Rotten Tomatoes I can see it has a 88% freshness rating with critics and 82% with audiences. So…

While I think the site has little value for helping me, personally, choose what to watch it is interesting to see how these scores so quickly refute sites that make outlandish claims. I don’t know who writes the reviews for these sites and even reviewers I do know, A.O. Scott and Anthony Lane to name two, I can’t say I have a good sense of. I know that Mr. Lane is going to rip apart the new Tom Cruise movie and prefer something less commercial but where does he land on something like The Neon Demon? I just looked it up and read it and honestly I still don’t know. He doesn’t praise the film but he doesn’t damn it either. Instead he gives some of the plot and says that the director Nicholas Winding Refn likes beauty and pretty images. I’m not sure who that helps or what that adds to the discussion.

My point here is that I think it used to be simpler. Siskel and Ebert would give a film two thumbs up (reviewers) and Pauline Kael wrote columns and everyone would think deep thoughts about how 1776 wasn’t all that good (a critical, incorrect take). Now there are sites that don’t seem to name the authors of the reviews, aggregates that compile the reviews and assign them an overall score and random bloggers who sound off on the whole matter. It’s a lot and most of it is noise.

This is saying nothing of the algorithms sites like Netflix use to suggest titles to you. Whereas before I would see a trailer before a film and think, “I’ve got to see that!” now Netflix has a small screen that plays automatically when I turn on the app. Or sometimes they have trailers for their content on their site. Or on YouTube. 

They divide up content on their site somewhat like the video store but it’s not alphabetical, it isn’t easy to quickly scan and the titles appear and disappear on a mostly random basis making it impossible to create a mental inventory of what they have to offer. To me it feels a lot like watching HBO in 1990 only I get to choose when I watch the limited offerings. I guess that’s progress but given how much time has passed it doesn’t feel like much. 

I’d like something more complete and comprehensive. I’d like a streaming service that owns its content and doesn’t play this game of here today, gone tomorrow. I’d like to be able to customize how I use these sites and apps and how I organize and view the titles they have. I’d like better and more detailed subcategories. I’d like each service to pick one poster for a title and never, ever change it.

This is evil

Mostly I’d like things to make sense. Just this past month I discovered that HBO Max, which is either owned by or owns (or something in between) Warner Brothers no longer offers the Harry Potter movies (at the time of me revisiting this post I can see they do have the Harry Potter movies but they may be gone again when you read this). They did but now all of the Harry Potter films are available on Peacock (the absurd new NBC streaming service) which makes absolutely no sense. If a film studio owns a streaming service their films should be on that service. All of them. Simple. I, the customer, do not care about licensing rights and copyright law and whatever other nonsense that complicates who has what. Think again of the video store, where titles from different studios sat comfortably side by side. All of us, blissfully unaware of who owned what or if there was a parent company pitting our two favorite shows against each other on opposing networks. Just the stuff we wanted to watch sitting on a shelf. That just makes sense. Let’s go back to making sense.

Author: John Ryan Sullivan

I am a writer and filmmaker.

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