Let us now mourn the very Midwestern and very odd Family Video.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
My memories of browsing the aisles at any retail store are becoming foggy amidst the continuing pandemic. My memories of turning over plastic DVD cases to read punchy movie descriptions in the fluorescent tomb of a Family Video, though, have receded almost into the realm of legend.
In early January, the Family Video chain, owned by Highland Ventures Ltd., announced that it would close its remaining locations across the Midwest. Back in the September and late fall, around 200 locations were closed, including the Maple Grove Drive location in southwest Madison. The only remaining location was based in Sun Prairie, which has since closed.
When the Illinois-based company opened in 1978, competing with the three big movie rental companies (Blockbuster, Movie Gallery, Hollywood Video) meant taking a different piece of the market: small to mid-sized cities and towns, of which the Midwest has an ample supply.
By 2016, Family Video was the only remaining video rental chain in the country. It held on in part by diversifying its business model to include an increasingly odd supply of non-movie inventory. The company partnered with Marco’s Pizza in its retail locations and began to sell CBD products to keep afloat during the streaming boom.
Streaming wasn’t the final death blow, but the pandemic took the life out of this Midwest suburban strip-mall staple. I do not believe I ever stepped foot into the Madison or Sun Prairie locations, but when I was in high school in Southern Wisconsin, the Liberty Avenue Family Video in Beloit was a weekend staple. I spent hours stocking up on sour candy, renting a mid-tier video game to barely beat before its return date, browsing the shelves trying to find the perfect slasher to watch with friends, and in all honesty, darting the occasional glance behind the adults-only curtain. This specific location is now a combination Subway and Boost Mobile.
The other business strategy that kept Family Video on life support for so long was owning rather than renting its brick-and-mortar locations. In a 2015 report from The Indianapolis Star, CEO Keith Hoogland said that Family Video is “in the real estate business.” While the shelves are empty, the cash flow is not going anywhere: Legacy Commercial Property, a division of Highland Ventures, Ltd., owns approximately 700 retail properties across the Midwest and South, valued at more than $650 million, of which 38 are in Wisconsin.
When the news of Family Video’s final death rattle was announced, my wife was quick to mourn. She spent a lot of time in these locations growing up in rural Wisconsin, but said it was weird when the stores started selling CBD and other random things. I agree it diluted the chain’s branding and the need to stop in was nonexistent as we stream pretty much everything now. Still, after being deprived of outside options during the pandemic, it would be nice to physically browse stores and waste time digging through bargain bins with excess copies of Mr. Deeds or Dreamworks rip-offs like Chop Kick Panda.
I reached out to members of the Tone Madison film circle and Lewis Peterson, occasional contributor and owner of Madison’s Four Star Video Heaven, provided further insight into the final days of the video company.
“I’m fairly certain they didn’t really know we existed, so it was kind of a one-sided rivalry,” Peterson says. He acknowledges that real estate and CBD served Family Video well in its final days. Peterson could never bring himself to get Four Star into the CBD game, even before that market was oversaturated. Years ago, under different ownership, Four Star did have a brief and dubious double life as a houseplant shop called Sprout.
“The only time I actually set foot in a Family Video was the day before the Madison location closed. I was tipped off that they were selling off their remaining stock cheap, so I went to see if there was anything that was missing from the Four Star collection,” Peterson says.
Stocking up on $1 DVDs, Peterson also picked up candies that he couldn’t get elsewhere, such as candied Boston Baked Beans and a Yoo-hoo bar.
“I did tell the person working the counter that the stuff I was buying would still be rented by someone, even though I was their competitor,” Peterson said, “but they seemed a little disinterested and said something about how they were travelling around closing up stores in the region.”
Help us publish more stories like this one.