Film and TV

The Video Rental Store That Wouldn't Die

Don't call it a throwback.
Don't call it a throwback. Courtesy of Superstar Video

Matt Mason stands behind the front counter of his store, answering a customer's questions over the phone and typing away on a computer that looks like it was unpacked and plugged in during the early years of Ronald Reagan's first term. The neon-green text against the black background shifts as he goes through the store's inventory, finally telling the customer the words that may as well be Superstar Video's official slogan:

"Yeah, we have it."

The old-school CRT monitor isn't some strategically placed detail meant to stir up feelings of '80s nostalgia. In fact, there isn't a single thing about Superstar Video that's done in the name of hipster irony. Superstar Video was founded by Mason's father, Dale, in 1980.

The store's 40th anniversary will be here before you know it, a few years before Matt Mason, now 36, will celebrate that same birthday milestone. After putting in work off and on since he was all of 15 years old, he officially took over the store in 2012.

So it's a family-owned business that came to be at the dawn of the video rental era. And here it is, still alive and kicking on West Olive Avenue in Glendale. In fact, it is one of the only, if not the only, video rental locations left in the metro Phoenix area. Possibly even the entire state. That begs the question: How?

And in the age of streaming services, it begs an even bigger question: Why?

It's obviously a question Mason has been asked at least a dozen times before, and he has his answers at the ready.

"There are so many independent movies here that just don't make it to streaming services," he says.

The only real significant change the store has undergone in its nearly four decades is shifting from VHS to DVD and Blu-ray. So on the off-chance that a cinema buff requests a film that actually never made the leap from cassette to disc, Mason will do his very best to make good on that request.

A number of studios offer a make-on-demand service for their forgotten flicks, allowing them to put out single copies of these movies. This allows the studios to avoid the financial hit they would take as a result of mass-producing boxes upon boxes of copies that would inevitably collect dust on store shelves. In the end, the customer is happy, and Superstar Video's average Yelp review goes up. 

"Plus, we're like a one-stop shop," he says.

It seems like an odd point to make, considering that streaming services' main advantage is that you actually don't have to stop anywhere at all. But Mason raises a point that streamers might not have considered, or even been made aware of: Studios are rolling out their own individual streaming services. Time will tell which studios succeed in this venture, but it's clear that the future of streaming will become more and more fragmented.

The shift will result in a thinner selection on services like Netflix and Amazon Prime; viewers who wish to have the same wide selection that we have today may have to add a few more monthly charges – $6.99 here and there might not sound like a lot, but it definitely adds up. And it could add up to a number that consumers wanted to avoid by cutting out cable and satellite services in the first place.

Believe it or not, Superstar Video isn't suffering in this current media landscape. Quite the opposite, in fact. Mason points to the rows of shelves and says that it wasn't all that long ago when those shelves were stacked only four rows high. As the store faced greater demand, the shelves eventually doubled to eight rows.

And what are their most popular rentals?

Well, there are the Marvel movies, most likely because people want to catch up before catching Endgame, but just like everything about Superstar Video, there are a few surprises. "Drop Dead Fred used to get asked for a lot," says Mason, adding that he's been having a tough time keeping enough copies of A Bronx Tale and Apocalypto on the shelf.

Seemingly right on cue, a customer who Mason seems to know on a first-name basis walks through the door and asks where he can find the 1989 Patrick Swayze action film Next of Kin.

After a few taps of the keyboard, Mason points to an aisle and less than a minute later, the satisfied customer has his copy and is at the counter. On his way out, he tells Mason that he has a stack of DVDs he's trying to get rid of.

As the the man lists them, Mason gets excited when the customer says he can have his copy of the 1979 made-for-TV horror film Salem's Lot. It's a sense of community that you won't find on Netflix. As Mason proudly points out,  the "if you like this, you'll also like this" algorithm that streaming platforms use is really no match for the recommendations that a friendly neighborhood video store owner can provide.

Is all this a sign that video stores might be resurrected? It's hard to say for sure. But if Superstar Video is any indication, some of us may have to make room in our wallets for a freshly laminated membership card. 
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