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Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Here Comes The Jackpot Question In Advance

I'm a fan of the AMC's Mad Men, and thought last week's episode, "The Good News", ranks among the series' best so far. Don Draper and Lane Price end up bonding on New Year's Eve, as each of the divorced men find they have nowhere to go.

They down a few drinks (at the office, of course) and decide to go see a movie. After rejecting Zorba the Greek, The Guns of August and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, they wind up drunkenly laughing their way through a Japanese monster movie.

It's a hilarious scene, but I was surprised Matthew Weiner allowed so big an anachronism to slip into his otherwise meticulously-researched series. Generally speaking, any pop-culture reference in Mad Men is carefully chosen.

For instance, if you took a time machine to New York on December 31, 1964, you could have gone to the movies and seen Zorba the Greek, The Guns of August or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg -- were all released during the last two weeks of December 1964. But the movie they actually saw, Gammera The Invincible wasn't even released in its native Japan until a year later, and didn't make its way into American theaters until December of 1966.

I suspect the problem here was that there weren't any giant monster movies in New York theaters on December 31, 1964 (Godzilla Vs. The Thing was released in mid-September, and had probably finished its first-run theatrical release by New Year's Eve). And the sight of a giant, fire-breathing turtle attacking Tokyo was probably too much for the producers to resist.

More importantly, I suspect the producers figured it was just a generic monster movie and nobody would notice.

Unfortunately, for me, there are no generic monster movies.

And I always notice.

Monday, August 09, 2010
Philistine Meets The Wolf Man, Continued

My previous post on Blockbuster Video didn't mention (or perhaps just glossed over) the fact that Blockbuster really did try to change its business model as it was getting squeezed by advancing technology.

The videocassette rental giant began offering on-demand viewing on home computers in its waning days.

Too little, too late, the Blockbuster critics hooted. But at least Blockbuster tried to change.

As a sidebar -- or perhaps a bookend -- to the Blockbuster story is the story of Fotomat, which made a very aggressive effort to remake itself in the late 1970s.

They are pretty much forgotten now, but Fotomat drive-through kiosks were once ubiquitous. They were little yellow booths that stood in parking lot of every shopping center in America, or so it seemed. They offered what was (in the early 70s) lightning-fast photo processing: 24 hours, as opposed to the couple of weeks you had to wait dropping your photos off at the drugstore.

Perhaps recognizing that one-hour photo shops would soon displace them, Fotomat embarked on a daring experiment in 1979. The idea was to use their existing infrastructure of kiosks for movie rentals, an infrastructure that just happened to cover the suburban areas where VCR market penetration was highest.

Of course, very few people owned VCRs in 1979, and the major studios were just starting to experiment with licensing a few titles to pre-recorded tapes. A couple of entrepeneurs had already tested the waters of video rental, usually in the form of mail-order "clubs" that required steep annual membership fees.

So Fotomat's concept was really quite brilliant, but unfortunately its system was too complicated: you took a paper catalog, made your rental selection, called a phone number to reserve your tape, picked it up 24 hours later, then had five days before you needed to return it.

That model failed, but it wasn't long before another succeeded: the video rental retail shop. That, of course, was a model that worked brilliantly.

Until it didn't.

Monday, August 02, 2010
Philistine Meets The Wolf Man

Back in 1987 I got a job at a video rental store. It was a mom-and-pop operation on Saint Paul's Grand Avenue, and it offered each of its titles in two videocassette formats -- Betamax, which was still cherished by many, and VHS, which was quickly becoming the industry standard.

The video rental market had gotten started in such little shops, and in the beginning, business was good. On a Friday or Saturday night in the early 80s the place had been able to clear a grand or more.

Although weekend business was still brisk, by the time I came along things were clearly in decline. That was because VCRs had saturated the market, and the novelty of movie rental had worn off. The days when people would walk in and rent three or four titles at a go were over.

One day I told my boss about a video store that had opened near the freeway -- a gigantic place. "It's got a billion titles," I said, exaggerating slightly for dramatic effect. "It's beautiful. It's clean. All the movie boxes are in plastic slipcases. They're going to crush us like insects."

My boss smiled tolerantly and patted me on the shoulder. "Don't worry," he said. "People will never abandon their neighborhood video store". Within a couple of years he was out of business, as were nearly all the small-time video proprietors. Mammoth operations like Hollywood Video and Blockbuster and Title Wave took over.

And so it was fashionable throughout the 1990s to bash the big chain retailers like as soulless, corporate philistines. What did they know or care about the movies they rented?

But reading about Blockbuster's impending bankruptcy made me feel a twinge of regret.

The age of the dinosaurs has ended, but the dinosaurs, in retrospect, weren't so bad.

This was brought home to me while looking for an old movie for the Horror Incorporated Project. In the old days it would have been easy enough to drive over to Blockbuster and grab a copy. But I realized I hadn't been in a Blockbuster for years; my habits had changed. Gone were the days when I browsed the rows of plastic snap-cases, without any particular movie in mind.

Now I fiddled with Netflix queues, or clicked through Netflix on-demand titles, or opened the on-demand menu on the TV.

There is still a Blockbuster Video in my neighborhood, but I'm not even sure what goes on there.
Last time I checked they still rented DVDs, but much of their floor space was devoted to selling used discs. This was because the store, in trying to keep up with customer demand for the latest red-hot video release, would buy thirty copies of the same title. After a few weeks, the demand slackened, and the store was stuck with dozens of copies of the same movie (back in 1987, of course, videotapes were never sold -- because the retail price for a commercially-produced cassette was often $100 or more).

Because so much space is taken up with selling used DVDs, the rental selection had diminished considerably. I doubted they would still carry the obscure movie I wanted. While I could place it on the top of my Netflix queue, I'd have to find the movie I currently had out (I've had it out for months), return it, and wait a few days for the new one to arrive. It wasn't on Netflix On Demand. And Redbox, which has become the rental option of choice these days, only carries the two or three dozen most popular titles.

So it finally dawned on me that offbeat and obscure movies are less accessible today than they were twenty years ago, not more accessible.

The fact that the movie I was searching for was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man should not be counted against me. You go live in your dreary little world, sad sack. I'm doing fine in mine.

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