Every Friday evening as a kid was the most exciting time of the week, when one of our parents would bring my sister and I down to the local video rental store. For many growing up in Ireland, the local video rental store would have been Xtra-vision, but we would venture down to a family-run video rental store called Advance Vision, evidently a knock-off brand that sounded as if it was a parody name created for a film to avoid copyright law. Except Advance Vision was real, and it was located in the Tesco shopping centre in Bray.
I can visualise the whole store in an instant. I can recall the children’s section being on a shelf across from the new releases, across from which was the comedy section, with the video games at the back of the shop on the right side, adjacent to the counter. I remember the manager behind the counter, a short, witty woman with black hair; with whom my father would always be negotiating our ever-recurring late fees. We would go home and devour the film, and if it was good then it was watched every night until it had to be returned. This tradition went on for years, until it didn’t.
“It’s not better or worse, simply different”
In 2016, Xtra-vision, Ireland’s biggest video rental store, let go of 560 staff members and announced they were entering liquidation as a result of little turnover in revenue. It was the last chain of video rental stores to go down in Ireland, and the remnants of Xtra-vision can be found in DVD vending machines. It can only be imagined that the lifespan of these vending machines will be short.
Ireland received the tail-end of the domino effect that was happening for a while before it hit over this side of the pond, as was the case from the beginnings of the industry. The video rental store began in the US in 1977 with the opening of the George Atkinson video station in Los Angeles, while Xtra-vision was established by Richard Murphy in the 80s as the first Irish store after Murphy acquired the funds from some insurance compensation received after a motorbike crash. The first shop was opened in Ranelagh, with solely VHS rentals, and made a statement with its bold and alluring red and yellow colour scheme, rapidly catching the public eye. At its peak in the 1990s Xtra-vision had 317 shops, with 146 in Ireland and the rest spread across Northern Ireland and England, with some even in America. In 1996, American video rental giant Blockbuster acquired Xtra-vision, and we all know what happened to Blockbuster in 2013. Fast forward to 2016 and Xtra-vision was bust, and an era had ended.
“Megaupload and Pirate Bay, although now defunct, were instrumental in planting the seed of the idea that films can be free”
The decline of video rental stores coincided with the rise of the internet, but the first concern was not streaming services such as Netflix. Well, it was Netflix, but not as we know it. In 2006, Netflix was a DVD rental service that operated online; people would order the film they want and it was posted to them. Once they finished watching it they would post it back. In 2006, Netflix was worth 1.3 billion, almost double the worth of Blockbuster at the time. The DVD rental idea hit Ireland and companies offered a similar mail service with sites like Busy Bee and Screenclick which had a respectable number of subscribers, estimated to be around 70,000. Due to Ireland’s small size and community-based shops, it was not that damaging to video rental stores.
What came to be more instrumental in the decline and the eventual closure of video rental stores was a combination of illegal pirated versions of films becoming easy to acquire as well as the ubiquity streaming services. Megaupload and Pirate Bay, although now defunct, were instrumental in planting the seed of the idea that films can be free and that audiences could access as much as they wanted for nothing. When the viruses and endless coming and going of various pirating websites became too much effort, streaming services took their ethos and offered audiences a better alternative.
“Stumbling across an unexpected film is no longer a thing; now, with intelligent algorithms, they anticipate and suggest what you like, almost enforcing what you watch”
Netflix now has an estimated 500,000 subscribers in Ireland, and an estimated 125 million worldwide. The ebb of Xtra-vision was certain in the age of the internet, but it still seems strange to our generation that those traditions don’t exist like they once did. They exist in a different manner now; everyone can come together and a pick a film on Netflix or another streaming service to watch. It’s not better or worse, simply different.
If anything that sense of spontaneous discovery has dissipated. Stumbling across an unexpected film is no longer a thing; now, with intelligent algorithms, they anticipate and suggest what you like, almost enforcing what you watch. One phrase used to describe the video rental stores before it ended was that it was a “sunset industry”. For me, Advance Vision on Friday evenings will be a sunset I won’t soon forget.