Once upon a time, you saw a film in cinema, then that was it. The only chance you had to see that film again was at another screening, or when it turned up on television. Disney films were great candidates for serial re-releases, as the company just had to wait a few years for another generation of children to be born and grow old enough for cinema viewing. Cinderella, for example, first came out in 1950, then again in 1957, 1965, 1973, 1981 and 1987.
Christmas became a time to see some special films that ordinarily you couldn’t. One of the James Bonds perhaps. If 007 didn’t turn up, you could always depend on It’s A Wonderful Life or The Great Escape.
The idea that you could own a copy of the film yourself was outlandish. Not least because it probably existed as film, and you didn’t own a projector.
Then the VCR was born. Shortly after, along came the video rental store.
Cinderella came out on video in 1988.
Back in the 1990s, there was a video rental store on every UK high street. Their shelves were full of the fresh and the classics, the obvious and the odd, and no end of titles such as Cannibal Holocaust or Zombie Flesh Eaters. You could risk little by renting something you’d never heard of; you could always bring it back the next day.
The golden age of video was not without its frustrations. Go to the shop on a Saturday evening and you might discover that all the copies of the film you wanted had already been taken out. The quality of the tapes was sometimes fuzzy, too, requiring endless adjustments to tune out the static, or enduring crackly patches where the tape had been mangled by repeated viewings or pauses.
Then DVDs came along, making VCRs and videotapes obsolete. You didn’t even have to rewind the film after watching it any more because there was nothing to rewind. The rental stores weren’t bothered; they simply moved into DVDs.
Then came the rise of online film streaming. Why walk down the high street when you could download your choice of viewing without even leaving your sofa? Suddenly, the rental stores were surplus to our requirements.
Blockbuster, once the world’s biggest chain of video rental stores, and the last nationwide rental chain, went into administration in the UK in 2013.
In 1997, a Blockbuster customer, annoyed by a $40 late fee for returning a VHS copy of Apollo 13, decided to start a mail-order DVD rental service. His name was Reed Hastings. His company is Netflix.
Want to see a classic film, though? Forget the online providers. Haul out your film projector or try your nearest library’s DVD selection.
If you still have a library.