Area teachers and former video store clerks ponder what Family Video’s closing means for the culture of film viewing
By Elise Marlett, Editor in Chief
It’s the end of an era.
As of February 28, all Family Video locations across the country are permanently closed, including the location in West Bend. With Family Video being the only remaining video rental store in West Bend prior to closure, local movie lovers must accept a transition from discs to streaming. For many, the transition prompts deep feelings of nostalgia as the culture of film viewing has changed so drastically in the past decades.
High school teachers react to the closing of Family Video: ‘The current generation is missing out’
West Bend West High School English teacher Kristen Becker has fond memories of the local Family Video, saying that trips to the store acted as an activity to strengthen the relationship she had with her family in a way that streaming cannot.
“I was quite saddened to learn that Family Video was closing its doors,” Becker said. “My family is old-school, we still rented videos, especially because I cannot necessarily stream all of the movies I would like to see or watch as a family. I feel as though the act of going to the video store and making the selection is a bonding experience for our family, and it brings about more excitement than simply turning on the TV and firing up my Amazon Prime account.”
East English teacher Eric Pendowski reflects on his childhood, remembering how exciting a day it was when he could finally rent all of the Star Wars movies at once. Now he says that because of the everpresent influx of new content available by streaming, there are fewer pieces of media, or even life experiences, that every generation has been through together.
“I think that generationally now, minus COVID-19 that everybody has gone through, there are becoming less and less things that unify us,” Pendowski said. “I think that there is something that is going away, like a loss of innocence or loss of something. It goes to show you how much things have evolved in such a short amount of time.”
With the loss of this business, Becker says she is making an effort to preserve her childhood traditions by exposing her children to classic movies, as she says that the lack of DVDs in the lives of the current generation is a loss.
“I do think that the current generation is missing out on something without physical movies,” Becker said. “Now as a parent, my husband and I are trying to share some of the old movies we enjoyed in our youth with our own children. I love laughing along with them as I relive my own childhood experiences.”
Former video store employee Kyle Zwieg: ‘It seems like a whole different universe now’
Kyle Zwieg graduated from West Bend West High School in 2002 before receiving a liberal arts degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2006. After writing for the Daily News for almost four years, Zwieg has switched to a career in finance, working for U.S. Bank for 10 years. Zwieg was also on Tuesday’s local spring election ballot for the District 6 city alderman race.
Zwieg spent his high school and college years working at Video Plus, a then-rival of Family Video. Zwieg says that the loss of the last competitor in the film rental industry leaves him with odd feelings of nostalgia as he weighs the pros and cons of maintaining his DVD collection now that the hobby is less practical.
“It’s kind of been difficult for me to move on from that era,” Zwieg said. “I still collect movies. I like having a physical copy, I can watch it whenever I want to and I know if I want to watch it again it’s right there, I just need to put it in. We used to have shelves and shelves of them, but I do still have quite a few DVDs around.”
Now a father to a nine-year-old boy, Zwieg says that the streaming universe his son is growing up in feels surreal compared to the life he had as a child, where a trip to the Pick ‘n Save DVD section was required before watching a movie.
“If you would have told me when I was a kid that there would be a Disney service where I could pull up any Disney movie from 1920 to 2020 just by pressing a button I would have thought that was incredible, but kids his age are so used to it that I don’t think it even dawns on them just how much information and film history we have at our fingertips and how easy it is to get it,” Zwieg said.
Reflecting back on his childhood, Zwieg comments that the concept of repeat viewing, watching one movie several times and growing attached to it, seems to be less prevalent now.
“When I was a kid before DVD, if you had a movie on VHS and put that VHS back in when you were a teenager, it would be all blurry, all fuzzy, because you watched it so many times,” Zwieg said. “He (my son) doesn’t seem to have the relationship with these movies that I feel like we did when I was a kid.”
The surplus of content available via streaming feels overwhelming to Zwieg, as his watch list grows longer and available time becomes less and less. The process of choosing a movie to watch on a Friday night feels less special to Zwieg, who no longer needs to drive somewhere to find the night’s entertainment.
“Going from limited options and you having to make the effort to go find them (movies) to now, it’s the opposite and you have a million options,” Zwieg said. “It can be overwhelming just deciding what to watch on a given night.”
Award-winning filmmaker Graham Killeen: ‘It was a community’
While working toward his theater degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, WBHS graduate Graham Killeen spent his weekends working at Blockbuster in West Bend. Since earning the degree, Killeen has taught at the Milwaukee High School of Arts, written film reviews and conducted celebrity interviews with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for seven years, and directed plays through various theater groups including his very own, the Rogue Stage Theater Company.
Killeen won best Milwaukee filmmaker for his short film “Six Bullets” at the Shepherd Express Best of Milwaukee 2006 Awards. Being a filmmaker himself, Killeen’s movie viewing experience is anything but mindless, as he makes an effort to observe the intentions of other filmmakers through their work.
“When you see the amount of time and blood, sweat, and tears it takes to create a film, you respect it,” Killeen said. ”When I put on a movie I really try to focus on the film. I want it to be an experience when I watch a movie that isn’t over after two hours. I want to be thinking about it the next day and I want to be remembering it a year from now, I want to be able to reference it. To me, cinema is literature and I think to get the most out of it you have to take it seriously.”
Reflecting on his time at Blockbuster, Killeen says that the video store serves as a community for movie lovers to converse over their new favorites in a way that cannot be replicated online, as curiosity for this medium of storytelling seems to be declining. To him, the loss of video rentals comes with the loss of the discussion around film, though he thinks that individuals with a serious passion will be able to continue on.
“What I miss the most thinking back to Blockbuster is that it was a community,” Killeen said. “Movies are such an individual sort of event now. People would come into the store and they would stay for an hour and just talk about movies. A lot of people that were passionate about movies would come every single week and would be there for hours. I don’t think that their relationship with film, that passion, I don’t think that that ended with Blockbuster and I don’t think it will end with Family Video, either. I think people will find other ways to connect with the media.”
Unlike movie watching through streaming, where a movie choice tends to be predetermined before the TV is even on, video stores act as a way to find something you were never expecting, Killeen says.
“What you would discover at Family Video or Blockbuster was the thing you weren’t looking for,” Killeen said. “Somebody there would bring up a movie that you maybe had never thought about renting and you’d give it a shot. You’d take it home and discover a movie that you love even though it doesn’t necessarily fit into the category of things that you normally watch.”
The culture of film viewing faces drastic change with the loss of physical movie rentals and sales. Killeen recounts his three-month-long search for a copy of the 1954 movie “Seven Samurai,” saying that the effort made to find a movie prompts a certain focus and devotion to the movie that is not necessarily exhibited when the movie can be watched virtually.
“People would get annoyed when the movie they were looking for wasn’t in stock at a video store,” Killeen said. “It would force you to wait and force you to pursue the movie and remember the movie. When you put it on, you paid attention. You’re going to stop everything, you’re going to sit down and you’re going to focus on it because you put that much into it.”
Through working with high school students, Killeen has come to notice a change in how different generations value movies. He believes that access to video streaming decreases the value in film, comparing the matter to diamonds: the scarcity of a diamond is what gives it value.
“Because information is ever present on your phone there seems to be a lack of curiosity when it comes to things that are outside of the current mainstream,” Killeen said. “I think what makes me sad is that, having taught in a high school, I was just blown away by so many high schoolers today who have not seen movies that I consider classics that are only 20 years old or 30 years old. There doesn’t seem to be an interest in going back to find those movies. When everything is at your fingertips, looking at digital rentals and streaming, I do think that it loses some of its value.”
To combat the changing generations, Killeen says that movies have become shorter and faster paced. Immediate access to new movies and lack of interest in older ones seem to be the cause of this change, he says.
“I think the real change now with technology has become the pacing of modern movies,” Killeen said. “Regardless of the genre, movies move so fast and deliver so much information and so much chaos so quickly and older movies would make you wait for it, you would kind of have to work for it. As attention spans have shrunk I think it has become more difficult, as it has become more accessible it has become less valuable. I don’t know if this generation is as interested in pursuing those older or more challenging films.”
However, Killeen recognizes the advantages of streaming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The human desire to engage in media as a form of escapism is not unheard of and when combined with the surplus of content available via streaming, Killeen came to the realization that we as humans will never run out of media.
“It’s a year later and none of us have gotten through everything on Netflix yet,” Killeen said. “Between COVID and the economy people are also looking for the cheapest option and that was not movie theaters and that was not rental places, either.”
(Photos of Family Video by Elise Marlett, Editor in Chief. Other images are courtesy of Graham Killeen and Kyle Zwieg.)