The Awl's Erik Bryan looks at what it was like to work for Blockbuster when the concept of renting VHS tapes was just picking up steam. Reading about the dirty business practices is fascinating, but I love how he laments the loss of a clerk's movie recommendations, now replaced -- but never comparable to -- YouTube comments, Twitter posts or Netflix's virtual suggestions on what to watch next. This part is great:
The previous year, in 1984, the floodgates had been opened for home video. A legal battle between Sony and the film industry over the invention of its Betamax home recording device was brought before the Supreme Court. The court decided that home recording did not constitute copyright infringement, and provided cover for the wider distribution of not only Betamax (which would justifiably die out because of Sonys own attempt at format dictatorship) but VCRs. What the film industry learned, as most entertainment companies begrudgingly learn after fighting new technologies, is that their industry would not suffer from the proliferation of VHS. Quite the contrary: selling a product for nearly $100 that cost them a few dollars to make turned out to be good for business.
Whats that, you say? Nearly a hundred dollars for a VHS cassette? Yes. As anyone who worked in a video store, or someone unlucky enough to accidentally damage or lose a VHS can tell you, the film industry made sure of a healthy return on its investment by charging between 60 and 100 dollars for each individual VHS cassette it released. This was part of a special deal created between the studios and the video rental businesses that helped keep both in the black. New releases were extraordinarily priced precisely so that Blockbuster and others were the only companies with the overhead to buy several copies and profit on the investment before reduced retail prices were made available, usually months later, for sale to the general public. That this kind of backdoor deal existed is all the evidence necessary that a corrupt industry was in need of comeuppance. This is every bit as egregious as the RIAA making deals across labels that CD prices would remain around 20 dollars a pop. When DVDs came out, perhaps Blockbuster and other chains had gained enough stature to bargain more effectively, because those were priced for retail at around 20 to 30 dollars immediately upon release.
Because of the high cost of VHS, I became a good deal more educated about the general cluelessness of consumers while working at Blockbuster. They didnt know what they were signing up for. Why do you think we insisted on having each customer's credit card number? This is something I literally asked some people after they left a copy of Nine Months in their plastic-warpingly hot car, or their kid tore the tape completely out of a Pok?mon video. I still feel terrible that I sided with this underhanded bait-and-switch capitalist ploy by the entertainment industries against its unsuspecting consumers. My only defense is in the cruel treatment I received from some customers, people Id have otherwise sided with against my faceless corporate overlords, had they not treated me as subhuman scum.
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