I recently got together with an old friend to belatedly celebrate his 31st birthday. It was great fun, as always. He wanted to rent a sports game for us to play which was a great idea. We ended up settling on one of those 2007 NHL games (there were two to choose from and I can’t remember now which one we selected since they seemed so similiar) and it turned out to be the greatest hockey simulation I’ve ever played.
When he went to the counter to pay for it, I was astonished at the rental price. 12 bucks for 7 days! Jesus. I don’t think Nintendo rentals were even half that price back in the early 1990s. What a relief that the game was so extraordinary.
Being in that store reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about on here for some time. Since 2001, I’ve been renting mostly DVDs from two major video chains: Steel City Video and Blockbuster Video. Back then, both stores were very slowly starting to realize that VHS videotapes had no future. As a result, they started stocking DVD titles. But because VHS still controlled the market (remember, DVDs were only 5 years old at that point and needed more time to conquer video), the majority of titles available for rent were on tape.
I remember vividly the day I rented my first DVD at Steel City. It was September 18, 2001 and because it had been so long since anybody in my family rented anything from there (roughly 3 years) I didn’t know if our old membership card was still valid or not. It was, thankfully, and I selected Red Planet, the so-so 2000 sci-fi film with Val Kilmer and Carrie Anne-Moss which I screened the next day.
Looking back, there were only 3 DVD sections at the store at the time. The blue section which featured maybe 40-50 older titles, tops; the adult section which also had very few selections and the red section which was completely made up of new and recent releases. (There was probably 2-3 times more titles here than the blue and adult sections.) For a brief period in 2003, there was a green section. These were films that had been available for at least 4 months. I don’t remember when they discontinued them.
I remember the new titles were displayed on a dark brown, wooden, rectangular shelf case near the back of the store and you had to crouch down to examine the DVD cases more closely because it was only as high as my waist.
As the years went by, you would notice major changes in the store. Before the Public Library started circulating DVDs, I would mostly rent them from Steel City and every few months or so, you would witness the inevitable transformation in progress. As they would get more and more popular, more space had to be made available for more titles. Gradually, there would be fewer new VHS releases but a lot more DVD titles. Originally, when you walked to the far end of the store you would see two full walls of new tapes (the wall directly in front of you and the wall to your right). When that shelf case couldn’t contain enough new titles, they got rid of it and started putting the DVD cases on the back wall. If I remember correctly, at first, they crammed so many movies on either a third or half of the back wall they couldn’t be displayed without excessive overlapping. Then, new VHS titles were relegated to the right-side wall after even more new release DVDs were displayed on the entire back wall. Now, there are no new VHS titles on any of the walls. (Hell, there aren’t any new VHS tapes being released, period.) It’s all DVDs. And as for that piddly little blue section, it’s been greatly expanded over the years as well.
Initially, older videotapes were organized by genre. Now, older DVDs are organized in that matter. You can still rent VHS tapes there but the selection is much smaller than before and they’re not as prominently showcased as they were in the past. It’s quite a change from 5 years ago.
Blockbuster went through the same transformation, although they don’t have any VHS tapes available for rent any more. So, they’re a little ahead of the game. It’s only a matter of time before Steel City catches up with them.
This leads me to my purpose here. Which video store is better? Let’s break it down category by category.
I remember when I started renting from Blockbuster in 1993. A Jumbo Video outlet had just closed, much to my shock (there was no warning) and I needed a new video store to rent from. A new Blockbuster location popped up at the right time and I started renting tapes immediately and quite regularly. Back then, their VHS rental prices were quite affordable. New titles cost $2.50 for the night and older titles were a little over 3 bucks for 2 or 3 nights. Then, after a while, they started jacking up the prices. Soon, it was 3 bucks for new one-night rentals and about 4 for the older titles. By either 1996 or 1997, I stopped renting there (I also was going through a mental crisis and stopped critiquing movies for the rest of the decade) and would return 5 years later to rent their DVDs.
Much to my disappointment, they weren’t cheap. It cost you $4.99 for new titles (2-day or 7-day rentals) and $3.99 for older releases (also 7-days) or Favourites as they started calling them. (Not a bad marketing ploy. Beats “You’ve Already Seen These Crap”.) If you rented a certain number of Favourites you saved a little money but, in my opinion, not very much. I once rented 8 movies for a week in 2003 (I screened and graded ’em all despite suffering from occasional dental pain. Long story.) and it cost me over 20 bucks.
If I had rented those same titles at Steel City, it would’ve cost me a lot less. (More on that in a moment.) Today, Blockbuster charges you $5.19 (!) for new titles but has kept the Favourites pricing policy the same as before. I last rented there in late August where two Favourites cost me a grand total of 9 bucks. Of course, if I rented a third title (as the sales clerk helpfully reminded me), I might’ve saved some money. Yes, but as I said, not that much.
For my money, Steel City has always had the best prices and unlike Blockbuster, they’re not greedy and they don’t screw their customers. Back in the tape era, if you rented three older titles, it would cost you almost 6 bucks. A great deal. Today, in the DVD era, they offer the exact same deal. Sweet. The only downside? You only have them for 5 days. It should be a week like Blockbuster.
As for their new releases, it used to be about 4 bucks per title and you would only have them out for 24 hours (they would be due the next day at around the same time you rented them). But they would offer cool deals. You could rent 2 new releases for 5 bucks (really, just under 6) on Wednesdays and later, Sundays, as well. (I don’t know if they still offer that or not.) Also, if you kept the bills of a certain number of new release rentals, you would get a freebie. (I’m not sure if that’s still offered, as well.) Today, they’ve actually reduced the price for new releases. It’s 3 bucks plus tax per title. Very cool.
If I had rented those 8 movies I mentioned at Steel City instead of Blockbuster, it would’ve cost me about 15 or 16 bucks instead of the 23 or 24 dollars it ended up costing me.
Advantage: Steel City
So, why have I rented at Blockbuster when Steel City’s prices are so much more reasonable? It’s because of selection. For a while there, Blockbuster had more titles to choose from, particularly older ones. However, Steel City has caught up. Today, both stores are more than likely to have roughly the same kinds of movies available for rent.
Then, there’s the matter of full screen and widescreen. For movies made before the early 1950s (as well as some notable recent exceptions like Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster which I recommend) full screen is your only option. Everything else should be in widescreen. There was an annoying period in late 2002 when both Blockbuster and Steel City decided to just stock certain titles in full screen only. There was such a public outcry, particularly in the United States, that Blockbuster reversed its policy and started stocking almost all titles in widescreen only (with the exception of those films only available in full screen as well as titles that have both full screen and widescreen versions on the same DVD).
Steel City took a different approach. It ordered full screen and widescreen copies of some films and full screen only for others. Very annoying. When titles are removed from the new release shelves and relocated to the blue section, depending on what movies we’re talking about, they’ll save the full screen and/or the widescreen copies for future rentals. Unfortunately, they don’t always clearly mark which copy is the full screen copy and which is the widescreen copy. Adding to the confusion is the fact that they only save one case for each movie. Sometimes it’s the widescreen case, other times it’s the full screen case. And they usually have 2 copies of each movie. Some customers with smaller TVs will scoop up what they think is a full screen movie only to find out the hard way it’s in widescreen. And, of course, someone who thinks they’ve rented a widescreen copy could end up accidentally taking home a full screen copy. That’s why, if you’re not sure, ask. And before you leave the store, make sure they gave you the right version. I rented The Scorpion King in 2002 thinking it was the widescreen copy. Instead of checking the label side of the disc before I left Steel City, I checked when I got home and was mighty pissed. (The confusion resulted in a misplaced red tag (which represents an available copy) being placed on the wrong DVD case.) My dad ended up watching half the movie before I went back and got the right copy which I’m glad I did.
And yes, this has happened to me with Blockbuster as well. 2 years ago, I rented 6 titles, all of which were supposed to be in widescreen. Again, forgetting the lesson of 2002, I didn’t know 2 of the movies I rented were in full screen until I got home. Unlike Steel City which doesn’t always clearly mark which movies are in widescreen and full screen, Blockbuster has very clear labels on those cases you take home with the DVDs. It very clearly said “widescreen” on both Unfaithful and Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. For some unknown reason, some dopey employee put full screen copies by mistake in both those cases. (More on those shortly.)
Since the advent of Public Library DVDs, I don’t rent to the near extent I used to. Right now, the Library has the best selection with over 9000 titles. For a while there, of the two video stores I frequent, Blockbuster had a better and wider selection. Steel City has since come back strong with a lot of movies you once could only rent at Blockbuster. This is a hard one to call. Some titles you can get in widescreen in only one store and sometimes there are films neither outlet stocks in widescreen. Ultimately, I can’t decide.
This is very easy to call. Sometimes, you rent a title and it’s in bad shape. I’m talking unplayable. I’m talking stutters, freezes, shoddy playback quality, bad sound, you name it. For some weird reason, I’ve had more playback problems with Blockbuster titles than Steel City ones.
I watch movies on my computer and it’s very sensitive to glitches. There have been moments when I watched National Lampoon’s Animal House, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Thunderball, Sling Blade, Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad and recently, Two Brothers (all Blockbuster rentals) where the computer just froze. Fortunately, we have a downstairs player and I’ve been able to watch those parts of the DVD that just wouldn’t playback properly on my computer.
As for Steel City, I’ve only had playback problems with a few titles. I rented Bean several years ago and parts of it were so damaged it was a struggle to get through the whole movie (but, thankfully, I did). It was a good thing it had full and widescreen versions on the same disc, let me tell ya. There were a couple of problems with 15 Minutes as well. (Recommended.) Recently, I rescreened Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare which was so badly wrecked, no matter which player you played it on you ran into problems. Some parts would play perfectly on my computer while others would not. On the downstairs machine, the same scenes that played smoothly upstairs would look distorted and the sound quality was off, sometimes non-existent. Very weird. It got so frustrating I had to skip a couple of minutes to find the next smooth scene to watch (something I never do under any circumstances). Eventually, I saw the whole movie, if a little out of order. (Despite the great difficulty in getting a complete, smooth screening of that movie, I felt the same way about Freddy’s Dead as I did 14 years ago. It’s not a good movie.)
Certain Warner Bros. releases stutter on my computer for some reason. I found this out in 2004 when I borrowed Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation from the library. (They played perfectly without incident on a regular DVD machine.) I ran into the exact same problem when I rented European Vacation from Steel City. I have no idea how to fix this or why it happens. I don’t remember any Blockbuster titles stuttering on my machine.
I’ve only had one real problem with a Public Library DVD other than the above-mentioned stutterings (which also includes the first 6 Police Academy movies). I borrowed Calendar Girls one time and everything was going fine until this one scene where the computer froze. I tried it a couple of times and it froze every time. I tried the downstairs machine. Same result. So, I ended up renting the movie from Steel City the next day so I could continue where I left off and my mom could watch the whole thing. Both screenings went perfectly.
Human beings are not perfect and as a result, neither is technology. But, for my money, I believe the Public Library has the best quality DVDs. As for the rental places, I’ve had fewer problems with Steel City’s copies.
Advantage: Steel City
I’ve had both good and bad experiences with Steel City and Blockbuster employees. Let’s start with Blockbuster.
Earlier on I mentioned that I rented 6 titles from them one time in 2004. I thought I had rented nothing but widescreen copies. When I got home, 2 of the movies were full screen. Some boob put the wrong versions of Unfaithful and the first Harry Potter movie in these specifically marked “widescreen” cases. I called the store to complain and they told me to come down and they’d sort it out.
This is late January. Very cold and lots of snow on the ground. I was not having a good day. Before I went to the store the first time, I stopped at a variety store to look around. I left without buying anything and about a block and a half past the store, I get a tap on my shoulder. This guy was frisking me and checking the contents of my plastic bag (which had movies that I had already screened and graded and was about to return to Blockbuster). It was the cashier from the store who quickly accused me of stealing a bottle of Pepsi. I looked at him incredulously and immediately protested his outrageous accusation. (Side note: I never drink the stuff because I’m allergic to caramel colouring.) He checked my bag, my pockets and after I unzipped it, the inside of my long, winter coat. Disappointed, he told me off and went back to the store which he had left empty and open all this time. So, if someone wanted to actually steal a bottle of Pepsi, that was their chance. Man, I was pissed off.
So, imagine how mortified I was that I had to go all the way back to Blockbuster after this to straighten out my rental difficulties. Much to my eternal delight, the employees (all women, I believe) were excellent. They apologized for their error (always a good start) and told me they found a widescreen copy of Unfaithful but couldn’t find one of that Harry Potter movie. We found two more copies and thankfully, there was a widescreen DVD in one of the cases. I was most relieved. That was the best experience I ever had dealing with them directly.
On the flip side, they once called me up accusing me of not returning Thunderball. I reminded them that I, in fact, did. We went back and forth and finally, they realized their error and I was off the hook. Totally unnecessary and unnerving.
I’ve had similiarly positive and negative experiences with Steel City. One time in 2004, a clerk (who I didn’t remember initially as the brother of one of my old Delta classmates) overcharged me for a DVD. I rented Treasure Planet (save your money) which is an older title found in the blue section. It should’ve cost two bucks. He charged me four. When I complained, he told me the store would sort it out when I came back.
4 or 5 days later, after I screened the movie, I returned to the store and inarticulately explained what happened. I had rented a 5-day movie but that moronic clerk thought it was a new release and billed me as such. I can’t remember now if I paid 2 dollars (the right price) or 4 dollars (the wrong one) but the movie showed up on my record as being overdue (because new releases are 1-day rentals). The very nice female clerk (who I haven’t seen since) gave me two free new release rentals for my troubles (I must’ve paid 4 dollars, then, since she didn’t give me a refund) and I was most grateful. I don’t know if they’re still available or not because I haven’t used them. It’s been 2 and a half years since that happened. One day, I’ll remember to bring it up. I doubt I still have them.
I mentioned how I accidentally rented a full screen copy of The Scorpion King instead of a widescreen copy. After I phoned the store to complain, they told me to come down and they’d make the switch for me. Meanwhile, my father was about halfway through the movie. (So impatient, that one.) The screening was interrupted so I could take that copy back and get the right version from the store.
When I got there, the clerk was very nice but not very sophisticated. She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t satisfied with the full screen version. Even after explaining it to her, she still didn’t get it. Thankfully, it didn’t matter. I got the right copy, dad finished the movie and I watched the complete film upstairs with no problems whatsoever.
Without question, despite what I’ve said, I prefer dealing with Steel City employees. They don’t say “Hi!!” like trained robots every time you enter the store and “Bye!!” every time you leave, especially when you don’t rent anything. (So insincere and annoying. I hate it.) It also helps that a number of Delta grads have worked there over the years and so I end up in brief but pleasant conversations when I encounter them. Actually, I don’t think I ever met a single clerk there who was in a bad mood and that goes for that dope who overcharged me and who I haven’t seen since. (I wonder if they fired him.) During my most recent rental trip, the nice lady behind the counter actually asked for my ID and when I told her I was 31 (which was uttered after a stunned moment of silence), she laughed, completely embarrassed by her action. (For the record, when I’m completely shaved, I look very young.) She immediately apologized and said jokingly, “You should be flattered.” I was. Too bad she wasn’t hot.
Advantage: Steel City
After breaking it all down, Steel City Video is my preferred video store, despite its flaws. It’s closer than Blockbuster, the quality of the DVDs are better, the employees are personable, and there’s no beating their wonderfully affordable prices. Now, if only they could stick with widescreen.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 16, 2006