It's not enormously easy to drum up fond memories of video-rental stores, but think back to the early days, when video-cassette recorders liberated a grateful nation from the roster of 13 channels. The thrill of choice was amazing.
Before the chain stores arrived, my hometown was served by a largish shop called Bandito Video, parked in a big, semi-industrial building with a Mexican bandit on the sign. A child could structure an entire summer around wrangling rides to Bandito Video to rent a Nintendo game. The aisles stretched on for miles, though it would be years before anyone let me in on the secret that most of the movies were terrible. (Steven Seagal on a battleship? How could this go wrong?)
That was then. Word came down last week that Rogers Video will be liquidating its inventory; it follows in the footsteps of Blockbuster, which closed shop in Canada in 2011. Their disappearance will go mostly unlamented – big-box video combined all of the inconvenience of leaving the house in exchange for none of the enjoyment of actually going to the movies. But for all the wonders of the digital age we're entering, there is no indication that we're going to get it right this time.
The extinction of big-box video comes only after the Internet trained audiences to expect instant gratification and unlimited variety. The rise of online video has had the curious property of making big-box video stores seem redundant without actually replacing them. Especially in Canada, where we're geo-blocked from the best online-video services, this leaves us in an odd spot.
There are certainly ways to rent movies online: Apple's iTunes Store offers a good selection of digital “rentals” in Canada for $4 to $5 a pop; Amazon offers something similar in the United States.
The problem is that the idea of “rental” doesn't translate well to the digital world. The rules of movie rentals were dictated by the need to fetch and retrieve physical items such as VHS cassettes. Recreating this system online means creating arbitrary rules.
On iTunes, for instance, you have 30 days in which to watch a file, but once you start watching, you have only 48 hours before it self-destructs. Moreover, the system makes you wait as movies download instead of instantly streaming them. Small wonder that many users still opt for pirated video, despite a concerted effort to all but turn the Internet into a police state to stamp it out.
This brings us to Netflix, which has reincarnated itself as a video-streaming site. In concept, it's a remarkable service. It matches the expectations of a YouTube-addled public: You click a movie and it plays within seconds. For a flat fee of $8 a month, it offers free rein of its catalogue, and a sense of the freedom that video stores offered cable-bound viewers when VHS emerged.
If only it had a better catalogue. At the moment, Netflix Canada offers you the best of Hollywood's discount bin, with quality lurking in the oddest places. Recently, I searched for Under Siege (a fine movie about Steven Seagal on a battleship), and Netflix offered Undercover Boss. I searched for Titanic; Netflix gave me a dubious offering called Titanic 2.
The poor selection is something Netflix promises to fix. As ever, its site for U.S. customers features a substantially better selection, which has led Canadian customers to use several grey-market tricks, such as Virtual Private Networks and applications that fudge their Internet address, to gain access to the U.S. Netflix catalogue. Closer to home, its TV selection is already substantively better than its movies, although it consists mostly of previous seasons' episodes.
The upshot is that, for now, Canadians looking for a way to play digital video are faced with lousy options: convenient, legal services with poor selection; inconvenient legal services with middling selection and onerous rights management; and pirated downloads that offer exactly what consumers want to watch, when they want to watch it.
I won't be particularly nostalgic when my computer no longer has a five-inch slit in the side that gets used once a year. But once video stores vanish from malls, and DVD drives vanish from computers, we would be well served by some better options. I watched a bit of Titanic 2, and I'll tell you how it ends: The ship sinks again.