Film Feature: A Dispatch from Boston’s Last Video Rental Store
By Nicole Veneto
“If you really like something and want to make sure you have access to everything, you’ll never do better than having the disc.”
If the present cultural milieu is defined by anything, it’s by a collective nostalgia that yearns for the impossible: to recreate what’s already good and gone. The dream is especially overpowering for those of us born at the tail end of the twentieth century — mostly Millennials, but also younger Gen X-ers and Zoomers born between 1997 and 1999. They are able to recall a time when the Internet and social media wasn’t in control: they witnessed the heyday of analog technology like VHS and its subsequent obsolescence in the digital age with the arrival of DVDs, Blu-Rays, and streaming/VoD services.
Hence there’s no better example of this desire for yesteryear than the Proustian allure of video rental stores. Some of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories are of browsing through the children’s section in East Milton Square’s Video to Go; I remember the moss green carpeting, the Pepto-Bismol pink walls, and being too freaked out to walk past the blood-streaked display poster for Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake placed a little too close to the kids’ movies. There was Blockbuster of course, Hollywood Video, and a Mom and Pop rental shop near Hampton Beach where my sister and I rented the same god awful Goosebumps rip-off starring Shelley Duvall whenever we went up on vacation. Video stores were how I met Godzilla, Pee-Wee Herman, and every other formative figure of my childhood. They’re where my love of movies was born. Now you count the number remaining in the US with your fingers and toes.
Tucked away at the corner of Montebello Road and Washington Street in Egleston Square is the last video rental store in Boston — and possibly all of Massachusetts, if not New England. The Video Underground, or The VU, has been in operation since 2002, originally located in Hyde Square before moving over to Washington Street in late 2013. That same year, current owner Kevin Koppes bought the store out from two former employees and has since expanded The VU’s offerings to include a food and drink café.
Even if you don’t stop in to browse through The VU’s expansive DVD and Blu-Ray collection (which includes many out-of-print and obscure releases), their iced coffee and freshly baked goods are more than enough to attract a steady string of patrons. When I stopped in on my fourth visit to return the copy of Paddington 2 I rented, Kevin and co-owner Allyson Brown (who came on in late 2019) were busy prepping drink orders behind the counter. At the time of this visit, The VU had eased up on some of its COVID policies such as allowing indoor dining within its small yet cozy premises. This has since been ended with the Delta variant surge. For the foreseeable future, The VU will be reinstating COVID restrictions and rolling back services such as public film screenings that Kevin and Allyson had hoped to reimplement in the fall.
Once there was a lull in customers, I sat down with Kevin to discuss more about The VU, how it’s weathered the pandemic, the nostalgic legacy of video rental, and the future of cinema in the streaming era. What was originally supposed to be a quick chat between Kevin and I — with Allyson throwing in her own comments between barista duties — soon turned into a lengthy conversation about the importance of physical media and protecting cinema’s artistic integrity from the meddling hands of studios and content-provider platforms. With the topic of nostalgia on my mind, I brought up Kevin’s Instagram post to The VU account from a private staff-screening of Space Jam: A New Legacy, which he perfectly described as “a two hour cry for help from [a] studio…[that doesn’t] know who their audience is, what they want, what they’ll buy, what they like or dislike.” (I have since subjected myself to this heaping pile of garbage and came away feeling as if I’d stared straight into the soulless eyes of an ancient, evil Lovecraftian god.) We were in sharp agreement about the movie’s despicable use of Warner Brother properties as prominent court-side characters, especially Alex Delarge and his Clockwork Orange droogs and the hysterical Sister Jeanne (prominently placed next to Pennywise the Clown) from Ken Russell’s long-suppressed masterpiece The Devils. (Arts Fuse review)
In our shared disgust over Warner Brother’s shameless exploitation of intellectual properties (IPs) they’ve historically censored or withheld from release, Kevin raised a crucial point about why preserving and circulating physical media in the streaming age is more important now than ever before: “I think the idea is that nothing you consume, whether it’s movies or TV or even music, you actually own; you’re leasing all of that stuff, even the stuff you get digitally. That can still go away…You never actually own that thing and it’s never yours to hold forever.” Even before COVID hastened the shift away from traditional theatrical and home-release formats in favor of VoD and streaming, studios and production companies were exploring ways to cut down on physical distribution. In April, Warner Brothers announced it would begin phasing out DVDs and Blu-Rays starting in 2022. Apparently, the future of physical releases will be left to boutique collector companies such as The Criterion Collection and Arrow Video. Although digital platforms can and do acquire international streaming rights to media that’s long out of print or only ever been released in foreign markets, there is a downside. It leaves said media vulnerable to be being tampered with, adulterated, and even removed after purchasing.
As Kevin grimly put it, “[W]ithout physical media things will and continue to be lost in the sense that you’ve gotta have the disc, the tape, or a certain cut of a film, or else there’s really nothing that’s gonna keep a content provider from obtaining the IP and going back and changing things. You get to watch Alien on Disney+, but it’s going to be the Mickey version of Alien.” A subscription-based video rental store, The VU has long maintained a reputation for acquiring “weird, rare, and out of print” films, making the preservation of physical media a core tenant of its mission. “Physical media is the backstop for all these different wheelings and dealings and shifting ownership and changing alliances…There’s nothing like having the media itself that cannot be changed, won’t be changed, is static and immutable indefinitely.” Physical reissues and uncut restorations from boutique companies have helped to maintain a “tangible market demand” for home media collectors. Still, Kevin notes even that isn’t enough to sway studios and production companies towards investing their money in re-releasing or remastering older titles for home release and even streaming services.
Another hurdle to the future of physical media is the fact that a growing number of people don’t even own the hardware to watch any of it on. The rise of streaming platforms and VoD over the last decade has subsequently led to the masses watching movies on laptop computers and smart phones. “[F]ewer people have any device that has an optical drive in it…I know a lot of people who don’t even have televisions anymore, let alone TVs with players.” In addition to DVDs and Blu-Rays, The VU also loans out video players and hook-up devices to patrons. It’s a simple solution to an emerging problem and, to Kevin, it’s also a way of making sure patrons can watch movies in their intended format, which is something many streaming services can’t guarantee. “This is not the correct aspect ratio, this is the cut version, this isn’t the exact runtime, etcetera. There’s always gonna be stuff that’s adulterated [on streaming platforms]. If you really like something and want to make sure you have access to everything, you’ll never do better than having the disc.”
As for the nostalgic aspect of video rental, Kevin agrees that it gets people to stop in for the first time and browse. But it isn’t necessarily what keeps them coming back as loyal customers. “I chose to believe it’s the breadth of catalogue, value for money, and the nostalgia for having a chat with a real-life person about movies that’s a face-to-face interaction,” Kevin explained. And I am a believer, considering how long our conversation ended up going.“There’s definitely a nostalgia for flesh and blood customer service, and paired with the video store nostalgia, I think that’s the nostalgic component to this that’s more powerful than ‘here’s a movie with a circle sticker on it, please bring it back in mint condition.’ If there’s a more enduring nostalgic component it’s probably that and less so the experience of browsing itself.” Case in point: about midway through our chat I lamented that, although The VU had a copy of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch in its catalogue (something I’d desperately been trying to see for years), it was currently unavailable to rent. (It was due back in a week or so.) To my utter delight, Kevin and Allyson dug around in the back room and brought out an extra copy of the original 2-disc Criterion release. (The film was fantastic by the way.)
Clearly Kevin, Allyson, and I share a similar reverence for physical media, but what about the next generation of cinephiles for whom video rental is a mythic fixture of the past? After all, the media landscape has drastically changed since the ’90s — even more so, now that COVID is upending how movies are released. The future may seem grim, but Kevin is optimistic that there will still be a place for physical media — even after the Blockbuster generation is dust. “The kids now are basically starting out with physical media as a relic thing but also a permanent thing…to own and and even to collect,” Kevin told me. Considering my own ever-expanding movie collection, I’m more than a little inclined to believe him. “It’s a way of owning a piece of a film industry that doesn’t exist anymore in a consumer market that really doesn’t exist anymore. [Physical media will] become the things you don’t want to vanish, where so much of the stuff now is made to be disposable and then presented for consumption as disposable.”
Hell, if Maniac Cop 2 can get a 4K Ultra-HD re-release in 2021, then surely there’s a future for even the strangest and most niche of movies to have, to hold, and to keep forever. As with vinyl records, Kevin says “there will continue to be a collector’s market for all these things even as it continues to shrink. It’s a lot more durable than a lot of people would imagine.”
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter for weird and niche movie recommendations.