This June, Establishing Shot will feature a miniseries we’re calling Here’s Looking at You, 2002 as we take a look back at films celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Today, Laura Ivins makes us nostalgic as she reminisces about the rise of the DVD and the charms of the video store.
In 2002, the DVD format overtook VHS. DVDs had been introduced five years earlier and experienced rapid adoption among the home-viewing market. Outlets like Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and independent video stores were phasing out their VHS stock and shifting fully to DVDs. Even though about 60 million more U.S. homes had VCRs than DVD players at this point, DVD sales far outpaced VHS in all categories except children’s entertainment.
In 2002, my boyfriend and I lived in an apartment complex that was next door to a Blockbuster. This was Blockbuster’s peak, with over 5,000 stores in operation in the U.S. and Netflix streaming still five years away.
During the video store days, choosing a movie was a very different experience. Instead of an algorithm serving up titles it thinks you like but obscuring most of a platform’s catalog, the video store was delightfully browsable. New releases were displayed on the walls around the perimeter of the store, and genre fare sat on shelving in the center. We often started with the outer walls, pacing slowly around the edges of the room until a title caught our eye.
In November 2002, Eight Legged Freaks (Ellory Elkayem, 2002) was an eye-catching DVD. A giant tarantula hovers over David Arquette’s screaming head, and his co-star Kari Wuhrer cowers in the background. It was the sort of movie that you probably wouldn’t go to the movies to see, but it was a great rental. Audiences in 2002 felt the same.
With a budget of $30 million, Eight Legged Freaks grossed just over $17 million in domestic box office, categorically bombing. Reviews released during its theatrical run were tepid, with most critics agreeing that the premise was fun, but that the plot fell off during the second half of the film.
Its home video run fared better. I couldn’t find video sales numbers, but the DVD did make the Billboard Top DVD Sales and Rentals charts in November 2002, and reviews of the DVD were positive. A reviewer for my local college paper, the Oklahoma Daily (now the OU Daily), called the movie “a hoot,” writing, “This film is a must-rent after spending too much time studying for mid-terms.” Eight Legged Freaks was fun enough for a $3-4 rental, but fell short for the time and money commitment required for a full theatrical experience.
Enhancing the DVD’s appeal were its special features. The widescreen release contained director Elkayem’s short film, Larger Than Life (1997), that Eight Legged Freaks is based on. It also had a solid commentary track, deleted scenes, and a DVD-ROM video game you could play on your computer. (Seriously, DVD-ROM special features were a thing.)
It’s the sort of movie that makes me nostalgic for an era. Would I have ever watched a movie like Eight Legged Freaks if it were released today? Would I even know it existed? Or would the algorithm suppress it in favor of another TV vampire series? Would a film like this even get made?
I don’t miss Blockbuster’s infamous late fees, but I do miss the browsability of the video store. The selection was not so large as to be overwhelming, and the price point was low enough to give a random movie a chance. I don’t miss pan & scan or full-screen editions of widescreen films, but I do miss how creative producers might get with DVD special features. Filmmakers like Kevin Smith would hide Easter eggs inside obscured menus that you’d have to click around to find.
You can still find Eight Legged Freaks easily on DVD, and there was even a Blu-ray release last year. DVDs haven’t died and video stores still exist, but they no longer hold a central place in our culture’s day-to-day media habits. Twenty years after DVD’s rapid ascendance, the format now largely stands for GenX and Millennial nostalgia.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.