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Reminiscing on the Fourth

5 Jul, 2012 By: Thomas K. Arnold

I still feel a bit of residual stress every time July rolls around. That’s because for so many years of my life, each July meant a trip – generally, but not always, to Las Vegas – for the Video Software Dealers Association’s annual convention and trade show.

My first VSDA show was in 1989, back when the studios still poured heaps of money into the annual show in a bid to woo the thousands of independent video rental dealers who generated the lion’s share of revenue. Back then, the annual show drew upwards of 12,000 retailers to Las Vegas and was marked by lavish exhibits on the show floor and even more extravagant parties. My first VSDA party, in fact, was held on a football field and sponsored by Paramount; there were food booths, each with a different ethnic theme, and so much free liquor I don’t remember how I got back to my hotel room that night.

I had just begun freelancing for what was then Video Store Magazine, one of four trade publications in the market at the time. We had a huge staff whose sole purpose in life was to put out a monthly print magazine – and, of course, get in as much face time as we could with studio executives as well as retailers at the home video industry’s big annual event. We sponsored a dance party attended by thousands of retailers; we moderated panel discussions on such hot trends and topics of the day as lower pricing for ‘B’ titles, the rise of the erotic thriller and the battle between the two leading national chains, Erol’s and that aggressive little comer from Dallas, Blockbuster.

Over the years, as the business changed, the show changed with it. Consolidation among rental dealers, and the studios’ growing desire to deal directly only with the emerging national chains, began to cast a pall onto the show by the middle 1990s, heightened by a flattening of video rental spending by consumers to whom the novelty of renting movies was wearing off. The parties grew smaller and less elaborate; A-list stars like Michael Douglas and Steve Martin gave way to aging Hollywood “legends” and TV has-beens.

The launch of DVD breathed new life, new excitement, into the show, but attendance continued to decline as retail power was further consolidated into a handful of dominant sellthrough players, including Walmart, Best Buy, Costco and Target. The spacious Las Vegas Convention Center was abandoned in favor of the smaller Sands as the confab adapted a “suites” model that gave studios a pass from the expensive show floor booths of the past; the focus shifted from stars and parties to more business-like networking functions and expanded lineups of workshops and seminars.

But the magic was clearly gone, and everyone knew it. The show limped on until the plug was mercifully pulled after the 2008 affair, which by then had moved to an off-strip location where one of the highlights was a meet-and-greet with a quartet of aging TV Western stars.

Yes, I miss it. Sure, it was a big expense, and a rude interruption to my summer. But it was also a very useful event, the one chance each year I had to connect, on a personal level, with the key players on the supply, distribution and retail fronts, not to mention all sorts of journalists and analysts, all in one place, all at one time.

The convention historically took place a week or two after the Fourth of July holiday. This year, I think I’ll celebrate by going to my town’s one remaining video rental store and seeing if they have Ishtar.

Oh, those were the days….

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