‘We’re the last bastion of rental’: the video stores resisting the rise of streaming

<span>Be kind, rewind … Dave Taylor at 20th Century Flicks, Bristol.</span><span>Photograph: Andre Pattenden</span>
Be kind, rewind … Dave Taylor at 20th Century Flicks, Bristol.Photograph: Andre Pattenden

A man shuffles along a royal blue carpet and props himself up against a stacked shelf of videos. Reeling off a list of films, he is handed three store-branded DVD cases. In return? A crisp fiver – plus his thoughts on South Korean horror flicks without any dialogue. This isn’t a sepia-tinged flashback from the past. Nor is it all just a dream. It is 2024 and the transaction is taking place at Snips Movies, one of the UK’s last video rental stores, tucked away in a town in Wirral since 1995. The odd passerby does a double take, staring back at the shop’s welly-green facade to confirm its reality.

Snips’ owner, Dave Wain, is part of a small cast of movie mavericks refusing to let video rental fade to black. Alongside Snips, just two other original video rental stores still stand. There’s TVL Allstar Video in Haverhill, opened in 1984, a detached brick video and print shop that’s barely changed in the last 40 years. Then there’s 20th Century Flicks in Bristol, which manager Dave Taylor says began as a “slightly piratical enterprise knocking out dubious copies of ET”, and has a focus on queer and arthouse cinema. Another, For Your Eyes Only in Forest Hill, south London, survived until November last year. A few months earlier, a parked car rolled down a hill and smashed through the shop window. Stranger Still, this literal block-buster was also a sequel – the exact same thing had happened before. A local fundraiser tried to save the business, but the damage had been done and owner Gulam Charania was forced to close after 25 years.

I have an issue with the word nostalgia. For me it’s about tomorrow

Dave Wain, Snips owner

For the next generation, there’s VideOdyssey, which was opened by journalist and Tarantino enthusiast Andy Johnson in Liverpool in 2018, offering an immersive movie experience, VCR hire and an arcade. While the original rental crew may be sceptical of a non-original shop trying to tap into a video revival, it proves that there’s an audience for new stores. Hackney’s film emporium Ümit & Son, too, deserves a special mention. While not really dealing in video rental any more, it does rent out its micro-cinema. Owner Ümit Mesut and film-maker Liam Saint-Pierre run a cult film club, Ciné Real, screening films with a 16mm projector in its red-curtained back room to cool young things who believe film-on-film is anything but hackneyed.

Unlike the UK’s other surviving stores, video rental wasn’t always part of the Snips script – it started out as a womenswear boutique. “My dad had no interest in films. But in the mid 90s it was a lucrative proposition and, by chance, the guy adjacent was a video butcher,” Wain says. A what? “Oh, he sold videos and he did butchery. It didn’t really pass food standards. People would rent a VHS and get it home and out would come this meaty aroma. It was quite unforgettable.”

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After buying up the butcher’s beefy stock, Snips now houses a head-spinning 15,000 films, which range from retro Euro-sleaze to the latest releases. Gaz, the customer in the shop with a thing for South Korean flicks, has been a regular for 16 years. “People have been waxing lyrical about saving our libraries. This right here is a veritable library,” he says, eyes widening. “It’s the last bastion of video rental.”

It wasn’t always like this. After VHS came to the UK in the late 70s, scores of video rental stores cropped up and Blockbuster opened its first British branch, in south London, in 1989. (Both Taylor and Wain cut their teeth at Blockbuster but were turned off by its lack of heart.) At its peak, there were more than 800 Blockbusters in the UK, alongside another major chain, ChoicesUK, and thousands of indie outlets. For years, these shops were ubiquitous, their names in lights on almost every street in the country.

The remaining owners remember this golden age of rental well. “The business was massive,” AllStar Video owner Colin Richards recalls. “On a weekend we would have six staff and it would be constant service. It wasn’t uncommon to rent out 1,000 movies over the week.” But when affordable DVDs for retail came into play (accompanied by even cheaper pirate DVDs) the scene changed. A little later came postal services such as LoveFilm, with its absence of late fees. “It was the first axe blow,” Taylor says.

You can come in for a DVD and spend a good half-hour meeting different people and chatting about film

Andrew, Snips customer

More damaging was the torrent of torrent sites. “That was us on notice. We knew it wasn’t long before internet speeds could let you download movies. We lost the students in about 12 months,” Taylor says. “It became a battle of attrition of cutting out bits of the shop to its bare bones,” he adds. And then the on-demand services truly crashed the party. In 2012, Netflix, itself originally a postal service, landed in the UK with an ominous tudum and a stream of streamers followed. It all but wiped out the remaining video rental stores.

A year later, Blockbuster left the UK. Since then, making a profit has been virtually impossible and the industry has been reeling. Rent is also a major issue. Somehow, though, these few stores still survive. But all rely on bonus features – Snips sells cards and party supplies, TVL Allstar does everything from photocopying to repairing scratched DVDs, and Flicks has two mini-cinemas to hire for parties and private screenings.

They are also supported by regulars. Some do so as part of a wider desire to bolster small businesses, such as farm shop owner Andrew, who visits Snips while I’m there. “You’ve got to keep the culture alive and keep passing it down,” he says, railing against the megacorp streamers. Others simply haven’t changed their ways of watching. “I think some of our customers would be quite tickled by the fact that the video shops are seen as quite unusual,” Taylor laughs.

But it’s not just charity or habit – supporters believe film rental can offer something better than streaming. For Wain, cost is king – Britons now spend £300 a year on average for on-demand services. “Watching films has become elitist. Now people with the most money who can subscribe to the most streaming sites have a choice but the working class doesn’t,” he says. Snips, living up to its name, offers a flagship bargain deal of three films for a fiver. For Richards, it’s all about experience. “You go home with a bag of popcorn, sit down and watch the film together. You aren’t as distracted. You’re creating an event,” Richards says.

Then there’s the choice. Gaz bemoans the fact that streaming services don’t feature classics or a truly wide range of films (Netflix UK, for example, has just a third of Snips’ offering). Another solution to this is Cinema Paradiso, the UK’s last rental-by-mail service, boasting 100,000 titles. “We believe it’s the largest film archive in Europe, if not the world, and it’s still going strong,” owner Zoran Dugandzic says. “We still have tens of thousands of customers, most of them with us over a decade. Pensioners really like to see a postman bringing a new disc.”

But the bricks-and-mortar stores offer something extra – a community. “You can come in for a DVD and spend a good half hour meeting different people and chatting about film,” Andrew says.

“Every person who rents a film from us gives us a review of it when they bring it back. They look forward to coming back to go into such detail like they’re real critics. We love it,” says Richards.

For me, standing in Snips, there are two great joys. First, the decision-making process: the kaleidoscopic array of DVD cases draws the eyes to flicks that algorithms wouldn’t dare suggest. Then, there’s the nostalgia. There is something truly magical about tangible media: the ritual of popping a disc out of the case, the artwork, the kitsch DVD menus, the blue carpets.

Related:‘Film is in my blood’: the secret cinema in the back of a London shop

Wain, though, is wary of this. “I have an issue with the word ‘nostalgia’. I get people coming in dropping to their knees saying it reminds them of being 16. And that’s really nice. But for me it’s about tomorrow,” he says.

Taylor feels the same way: “Nostalgia suggests what we do isn’t real or relevant or part of the present.”

Can video rental stores really still survive, or even enjoy a revival? There seems to be more than a popcorn kernel of hope. The streaming sites, after all, also face problems down the line with higher subscription fees and their offputting new advertising policies. Plus, all the owners of these rental stores have experienced a younger crowd coming in, craving physical video.

Wain has seen the excitement of this next generation first-hand. Just before I head home the Snips owner spins a yarn. “Recently, a kid from the local school came in and rented out Rebel Without a Cause. His three mates came with and mocked him mercilessly.” He flashes a smile. “Fast-forward two months later and they’re all renting films.” Perhaps, thanks to these rental rebels, we really will see a sequel to the golden age of video.