Video Rental Store History Through Early 1980s Newspapers

Season 2 of the Rental Return podcast recently launched with a Preview Episode hosted by Adam, Chad, and myself. In case you haven’t listened, Rental Return’s tagline is “Tales From the Video Store” which alludes to the stories told by former rental store employees in the regular episodes. Think of it as an oral video rental store history.

In the Preview Episode, we feature a segment discussing some old newspaper stories I discovered on the Google Newspaper Archive. Two of the stories are from nearly 40 years ago when video stores were just becoming popular. Movie studios, store owners and consumers alike were still wrapping their minds around the business model and how best to offer movies to screen at home.

There were many challenges that came about in the early 1980s from all perspectives. Movie studios wanted to make sure they were adequately compensated for the films. Store owners had to decide (and sometimes forced to decide) which films they would make available to rent or purchase. Consumers had to weed through the confusion on a weekly basis of films that were for rent only while other films could be purchased for their home library.

Beyond the video store business model, other noteworthy topics came to light about “videotape recorders.” For the first time in history, consumers were able to control the content on their television sets beyond what broadcast or cable television could offer. Not only could consumers choose what to watch but when to watch it with the ability to watch pre-recorded movies and recorded TV programs at their convenience. VCRs were also in the news, taking the blame for dwindling ticket sales at local cinemas.

As a companion on Video Rental Store History through 1980s newspapers in the Preview Episode, I thought I would share the newspaper stories in their entirety here and go a little more in-depth on each article.

“Cashing in on Videotape Craze”

Gadsden Times, March 26, 1982

Nearly 40 years ago, consumers were just breaking through on personalizing their television sets, that is, taking control of the content they could watch. Think about it. As cable television was just becoming an option, there were many households still limited to what channels they could pick up over the air. And if you lived in a very rural area, you were probably lucky to pickup just a couple stations. “Videotape recorders” or VCRs made it possible for those folks to watch movies at home (with a clear picture) instead of just depending on network television programming. For those who did have cable television, VCRs made it possible to not only give more variety but also the ability to tape a show and watch later or even build a home library.

This article explains in the urban area of San Francisco, video stores were booming with the trend of rental movies. With the prices of VCRs dropping, more people were seeing home entertainment as less of a frill and more of an option compared to the traditional movie theater experience. And as movie rentals became more popular, this article even hints at how the movie studios were attempting to change the business model to increase their profit.

“Sight & Sound: The great debate over videocassette rentals”

The Free Lance-Star, March 13, 1982

How complicated can renting movies really be? In the early days of the video stores, it was VERY complicated and not just for consumers but the store owners as well. In early 1982, you would see tapes in video stores available for rental only, for purchase only, and a rental or purchase option. From week to week, a movie that was “For Rental Only” might change to “For Rental or Purchase.” These changes made by retailers were based on movies being rented the most and movies collecting dust. The most revenue, as stated in this article, came from rentals.

Hit titles would earn the retailer a quick return on their purchase price from movie studios. Once that threshold was reached, hot rentals became pure profit. The movie studios were privy to this model early on and added another level of complication to the mix. They began changing the pricing structure of tapes based on which titles they believed would be rented the most.

The categorization of cassettes by studios put more profit back in their hands and made it more complicated for retailers to know just how many tapes to purchase or LEASE. Yes, Disney and MGM/CBS designated titles that could be leased by retailers to rent in their stores for a certain period of time and then were returned to the studio! MGM/CBS went as far as having different packaging for the initial rental release of the film and when the tape was returned by the retailer four months later, they used new packaging for a rental/purchase option. MGM/CBS and Warner Bros divided their films into three categories: Recent releases, slightly older films, and classics. The first two categories could only be rented to consumers while the classics were able to rent or purchase.

This article really shows just how frustrating it was in the early days of home video.

“VCRs take the entertainment industry by storm”

The Cavalier Daily, Jan 29, 1986

Just like the modern day debate of new movies being released to streaming services alongside their theatrical releases, cinema owners were worried that video stores were cutting into their profits 35 years ago. This newspaper story sheds light on a time when VCRs were invading homes across the country. The rise of “video clubs” (not just at video store retailers but at pharmacies, convenient stores, and other locations) were accused of dipping into the cinema profits by movie industry executives. However, critics struck back that “the recent dearth of interesting films” was the real reason why people were looking more at home video.

The other anomaly is the unpredictable nature of some films. A film might do poorly at the box office based on variables like content, critical reviews, or being overshadowed by other films released at the same time. That same film, viewed as a box office bomb, may become a hot rental and outperform other rentals that were a mainstream success.

So, the battle between theaters and home video is not a new argument. Trying to simplify an argument for either side really can’t be made because audiences can have a preference for either experience. Plus, the film’s content alone can determine which medium the masses prefer to consume it.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Video Rental Store History through these newspaper stories. I have more stories saved from the Google archive and will release those at a later time. Topics include a look at how library movie rentals affected retail stores and the challenge of renting adult films. Make sure you subscribe to Rental Return and check out these other posts on The Retro Network for more content from the video store era:

About Jason Gross 356 Articles
'80s Kid, '90s Grad, and '00s Dad. I've been writing and podcasting about 1980s pop culture since 2011 at my Rediscoverthe80s.com website. I collect vinyl, cassingles, '80s comics, Batman memorabilia, and all things Mobile Armored Strike Kommand.