'I loved roaming the aisles': Iowans mourn the end of an era as Iowa's last Family Video stores turn out the lights
Video may have killed the radio star, but COVID drove the last nail into the video store's coffin. That became clear to Cameron Redshaw even a year ago, but he didn't expect it to happen so soon.
“When COVID started, less new movies were being released and new movies always made up (something like) 90% of our revenue," said Redshaw, a manager at the West Des Moines Family Video. "I was just seeing the pattern."
On Jan. 5, during Redshaw's first shift of the new year, he found out that all Family Videos would close permanently. The company announced the news in a release from Keith Hoogland, president of Family Video for the past 25 years.
On Wednesday, Redshaw — who had truly fallen in love with movies and video rental stores only fairly recently while studying engineering at Iowa State in 2015 — shut off the lights and locked the doors for the last time.
The liquidation sale is over, and there are no more locations to send Redshaw to. A decade after Blockbuster met the same fate, the last major video rental chain in the country has come to a definitive end.
"I’ll miss the co-workers," Redshaw said. "I’ll miss the experience of working here.
"I kept telling our customers ... 'I think I’ll miss this more than (you).'"
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We live in a moment where — between COVID-19's persistence and the rise of streaming services — watching from the comfort of your couch is the most common way to enjoy a film, but watching movies from home didn't become practical until late in the 1970s.
"In the really early days of movies, a movie was $100 or $120," Ross Meyer recalled in a recent interview. "In the early days, they were hardly meant to be a consumer good."
Before Meyer was the head projectionist at the FilmScene movie theater in downtown Iowa City, he was also the owner of the downtown business district's last dedicated video rental store, That's Rentertainment, which closed in 2011.
It wouldn't be until the 1980s, with the release of "Top Gun" on VHS, that the option to watch movies at home began to become less expensive and more accessible. Around that same time, the first Blockbuster opened in Dallas, Texas.
While Blockbuster wasn't the first video rental store — Family Video and others first popped up in the 1970s — it grew to become the most ubiquitous name in the business, an honor it retained even a decade after its demise.
For this and future generations, Blockbuster may be the popular face of video rental, but Meyer and others who grew up with an interest in movies during the height of brick and mortar rental stores remember a smaller, stranger variety.
"The best were the quirky little video stores that used to have weird little sections," Meyer said. "I saw a video store one time that had a Men-in-Prison section — it was all titles like 'Escape from Alcatraz' and 'Cool Hand Luke.'"
"You didn’t think of that as a genre — all about burly men looking to escape from prison? That’s nothing you see flipping through Netflix."
Those kinds of niche curations might be missed most with the loss of video rental stores. A local store's deep-cut films and older movies are things Meyer said he feels algorithms aren't able to emulate.
"I was always really hopeful, with my own store, that I could weather the storm and survive," Meyer said. "I thought maybe there could be a horizon line where video stores would become a sort of retro-hip kind of environment, but I never quite got there, and I don’t know that it ever will."
Even though Family Video was competition when Meyer's shop was still in business, he said he was rooting for the company right up to the end. Especially since he didn't see Family Video, Redbox or even Netflix as the primary thing pulling customers away.
"I felt like BitTorrent was my biggest competition," he said, alluding to the practice of sharing video files online. "(Especially) in Iowa City, where the majority of my customer base was under 25."
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As Family Video falters, a boon for a collector
Despite its name, one of the reasons Family Video, in particular, was able to outlast Meyer, Blockbuster and other competitors was pornography.
Though the company didn't comment when Time reported on the rental chain in January 2014 regarding the more risqué side of the business, the genre was enough of a draw that a Family Video store with an "Adults Only" backroom was a common sight.
The chain also generally undercut Blockbuster's prices, often renting and selling films at a fraction of what Blockbuster charged. But whatever advantages Family Video and rental stores like it had, they were reliant on the ever-vanishing in-person customer.
And then the pandemic took those few who remained out of the equation.
“Once COVID hit, all stores had to close at 8 p.m.; they cut our shifts down to two-and-a-half hours apiece," Redshaw recalls. "That was the month that I made the transition to manager — it was, like, that first Monday (when the effects of COVID took hold) that I was the active manager at a Family Video."
Throughout the year, Family Video stores were bleeding financially. Redshaw bounced between three locations — Ames, Urbandale and West Des Moines — as stores across the state shut down as the novel coronavirus spread.
The closings didn't escape the attention of Des Moines resident Landon Walsh.
A 2020 alumnus of the University of Iowa, Walsh grew up in Muscatine loving films. For roughly a decade, he and his family would visit a rental store every Friday to pick up a new movie.
As he browsed, Walsh stumbled onto films he says he wouldn't have picked up otherwise: "Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead" (2014) and "Diablo" (2015) are two standouts he remembers discovering while perusing stores' shelves.
But with the stores of his childhood disappearing, he figured he could at least use the opportunity to add to his own collection.
"Me and my girlfriend — we eagle-eyed when Family Videos went out of business," Walsh said. "In Muscatine, I bought, like, 10 movies for $15; then the North Liberty one went out of business and we got a whole bunch more."
While picking over what was left from the closing stores, including the recently closed Video Warehouse in Des Moines, he's found dozens of used DVDs and Blu-Rays to add to his 300-some collection of movies. He estimates half came from video stores that were going out of business.
"Something I heard in high school that I’ve just never forgotten is 'A library is always more impressive than a hard drive,'" Walsh recalled. "That was in reference to when people were buying Kindles and getting rid of their physical libraries.
"I’ve kind of adopted that."
Fast-forward to now: A smattering of US stores hang on
Though running That's Rentertainment was often financially tumultuous for Meyer (he estimates he lost 10% of his customer base every time a new batch of University of Iowa students graduated), he says he still misses it.
He remembers spending his mornings thinking of all the movies he might play on the TV at work. He recalls seeing groups of college kids come in to search his shelves and negotiate what movies they might watch for the night.
"I think it was always sort of a rite of passage for a group of kids in high school or college — to get together and go to the video store and collectively pick out movies together," he recalls. "It was part of the procedure, part of the ceremony — a whole car full of people would go to the store and haggle; you get six or eight people together and they haggle.
"(It's sad) to lose that experience."
There are still video rental stores around, though they're few and far between. The Black Lounge, "the last rental video library in Memphis," will conclude a $25,000 Indiegogo campaign this weekend, an online crowd-funding campaign it hopes will help keep the lights on.
But even if Black Lounge and a smattering of other stores like it across the country manage to survive the pandemic, Meyer still thinks the nearly en masse closing prompted by COVID-19 will have ripple effects in the film industry as a whole.
"I think you’re going to see a lot of smaller-genre films (affected by this)," he said. "If you’re making a low-budget action movie or a low-budget science fiction movie, getting into Family Video is what may or may not make your film-making venture profitable."
For director and former Iowa City resident Joe Clarke, he's seen some truth to that sentiment firsthand, although he believes smaller filmmakers like himself will learn to adjust without the brick-and-mortar distribution platform.
"Yes, (having the DVDs in stores) does impact the bottom line," he wrote in an email, "but now there are also more opportunities to reach bigger audiences through streaming.
"It definitely seems that streaming is here to stay, and independent filmmakers need to learn how to utilize the shift."
Though most of the population is likely content with the immediacy of Redbox and the various streaming services, for those who preferred the strange surprises and carefully curated collections that came with physical video rental stores, there's not much left. And it's unclear if there is any sort of future for the niche.
"Local video stores like Blockbuster Video were some of my favorite places to hang out as a kid," Clarke wrote. "I loved roaming the aisles and looking at different movie covers.
"I'm hoping, in the coming years, there will be an opening for a retro, record store-like market for places like Family Video and Blockbuster Video that has DVDs and VHS (tapes)."