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COLUMN ONE

VHS era is winding down

The last big supplier of the tapes is ditching the format, ending the long fade-out of a product that ushered in the home theater.

December 22, 2008|Geoff Boucher

Pop culture is finally hitting the eject button on the VHS tape, the once ubiquitous home video format that will finish this month as a creaky ghost of Christmas past.

After three decades of steady if unspectacular service, the spinning wheels of the home entertainment stalwart are slowing to a halt at retail outlets. On a crisp Friday morning in October, the final truckload of VHS tapes rolled out of a Palm Harbor, Fla., warehouse run by Ryan J. Kugler, the last major supplier of the tapes.

"It's dead, this is it, this is the last Christmas, without a doubt," said Kugler, 34, a Burbank businessman. "I was the last one buying VHS and the last one selling it, and I'm done. Anything left in warehouse we'll just give away or throw away."

Dumped in a humid Florida landfill? It's an ignominious end for the innovative product that redefined film-watching in America and spawned an entire sector led by new household names like Blockbuster and West Coast Video. Those chains gave up on VHS a few years ago but not Kugler, who casually describes himself as "a bottom feeder" with a specialization in "distressed inventory."

Kugler is president and co-owner of Distribution Video Audio Inc., a company that pulls in annual revenue of $20 million with a proud nickel-and-dime approach to fading and faded pop culture. Whether it's unwanted "Speed Racer" ball caps, unsold Danielle Steel novels or unappreciated David Hasselhoff albums, Kugler's company pays pennies and sells for dimes. If the firm had a motto, it would be "Buy low, sell low."

"It's true, one man's trash is another man's gold," Kugler said. "But we are not the graveyard. I'm like a heart surgeon -- we keep things alive longer. Or maybe we're more like the convalescence home right before the graveyard."

The last major Hollywood movie to be released on VHS was "A History of Violence" in 2006. By that point major retailers such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart were already well on their way to evicting all the VHS tapes from their shelves so the valuable real estate could go to the sleeker and smaller DVDs and, in more recent seasons, the latest upstart, Blu-ray discs. Kugler ended up buying back as much VHS inventory as he could from retailers, distributors and studios; he then sold more than 4 million VHS videotapes over the last two years.

Those tapes went to bargain-basement chains such as Dollar Tree, Dollar General and Family Dollar, and Kugler's network of mom-and-pop clients and regional outlets, such as the Gabriel Bros. Stores in West Virginia or the Five Below chain in Pennsylvania. If you bought a Clint Eastwood movie at the Flying J Truck Stop in Saginaw, Mich., or a "Care Bears" tape at one of the H.E. Butts Grocery stores in Texas, Kugler's company probably put it there. He also sells to public libraries, military bases and cruise ships, although those clients now all pretty much want DVDs.

Kugler estimates that 2 million tapes are still sitting on shelves of his clients' stores across the country, but they are the last analog soldiers in the lost battle against the digital invasion. "I'm not sure a lot of people are going to miss VHS," he said, "but it's been good to us."

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If you rewind back to the 1980s, VHS represented a remarkable turning point for the American consumer. For the first time, Hollywood's classics and its recent hits could be rented and watched at home.

"It was a sea change," says Leonard Maltin, the film critic and author who has written stacks of books to meet the consumer need for video recommendations. "Hollywood thought it would hurt movie ticket sales, but it didn't deter people from going to movies; in fact, it only increased their appetite for entertainment. Hollywood also thought it would just be a rental market, but then when someone had the idea of lowering the prices, the people wanted to own movies. They wanted libraries at home, and suddenly VHS was a huge part of our lives."

The format was easy to use (although fast-forwarding and rewinding to any particular spot was the worst new-tech irritant since the telephone busy signal) and, of course, the videocassette recorder and blank VHS tapes made it possible to catch up on any missed must-see TV, whether it was "Days of Our Lives" or "Monday Night Football." Hollywood found that movies also enjoyed a second opening weekend, as viewers throughout the country made Friday night trips to the rental store for new releases.

"I think in some ways it even pulled families together, if that doesn't sound too corny, because renting movies became such a part of the weekend," says Jim Henderson, one of the owners of Amoeba Music, the 45,000-square-foot merchant in Hollywood that sells pop culture in just about every format imaginable, including VHS. "It was also a great thing for film fans. You could educate yourself and go back to the well again and again. We're used to choice now, but that was the first time fans could watch what they wanted when they wanted."

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