Popcorn Wars: Little guy wins video-rental battle

Three decades after the first chunky VHS and Beta videotapes - played by even fatter, $1,000 video machines - first came to Mr. Video in Valleyview, the industry looks remarkably like it did in 1982.

It was an exciting time 30 years ago for Denis Walsh, who loved movies and had an entrepreneurial spirit.

Walsh worked for the former B.C. Tel in Kamloops doing installations at the time. He saw Mr. Video open the first video store in North Kamloops in early 1982 and immediately saw the possibilities.

He originally wanted to partner with Mr. Video. When those efforts didn't pan out, he opened Magic Merlin's MovieMart at Fortune Shopping Centre.

"I was always an entrepreneur at heart," said Walsh.

"The real reason was I was in love with movies. I grew up in Cranbrook and we had one theatre and one movie would usually stay a month. I'd look at the Vancouver Sun and see all the movie listings."

Video rentals would change everything, allowing families to see nearly new films at home, whenever they wanted. The disruptive technology meant the end of many theatres in small towns as well as the disappearance of drive-in theatres.

Others saw the same business opportunity; mom and pop outlets spread across North American cities. In Kamloops, the list included Video Express, MegaMovies, Crazy Mikes, Superior Video, Brock Video, Video Village and Four Star Video.

Just as videotapes disrupted traditional movie theatres, television and drive-in theatres, Netflix and iTunes have emerged to disrupt today's DVD rentals.

As a result, corporate giants in Kamloops have closed up shop. Blockbuster Video and Movie Gallery are gone. The latest, and last of the corporations, was Rogers Video, which shut earlier this month.

What remains is a landscape that looks similar in Kamloops to the early days. Walsh, a one-term city councillor who did not seek re-election in November, has an outlet downtown as well as a new location in North Kamloops.

Serving other parts of the city is Derek Hicks, whose family has been involved in the business here for 20 years. Video Mart has stores in Brocklehurst and Valleyview.

"We had a record year in Valleyview after 20 years," said Hicks, who began working in the stores for his father, Bob, at 15 years of age.

"There's still demand."

Hicks and Walsh said the retailing giants were too big to adapt to change, serving the wishes of corporate CEOs and shareholders. The independents retain customer loyalty and say they understand what people who wander in are looking for.

"If I did the things they did, I wouldn't be in business," Hicks said.

Both city businessmen said online movie libraries have dated offerings compared to what's on their shelves. That's recently been made more striking through a decision by several movie studios to soon double the 28-day delay before Netflix is able to air movies.

While the corporations are pulling out, the independents are expanding. Walsh has opened and closed a number of locations over the years. This month he added a new store in half the old Blockbuster Video location of at Northills Mall.

With Hicks and Walsh covering North Kamloops, Brocklehurst, downtown and Valleyview, there is an obvious hole in Sahali-Aberdeen.

Hicks said while opportunity is there, rent is too high.

"It's five times what I pay in Valleyview and Brock. I can't justify it."

Hicks plans to double his space in Valleyview, however.

While independents are stable in an otherwise unstable business, the question remains: Will the big boys return? Hicks and Walsh said they doubt it, at least in the short term.

With a limited market, the investment and return demanded by shareholders may keep them out of town.

"We can still operate and offer a cheaper price," Hicks said.


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