Independent movie rental business folds after move

by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – The Iowa City area will soon be down to just one movie rental store.

That’s Rentertainment, 114 E. College St., plans to close at the end of July or when it has sold off the bulk of its remaining 12,000 movie titles.

The closure is one of many for the area and a growing national industry trend. Hollywood Video, Mr. Movies, Movie Gallery and others have one by one shut their doors locally. Blockbuster Video, 1705 Boyrum St., remains open.

Ross Meyer, owner of That’s Rentertainment, thought his business could survive the trend because of its unique selection, including a vast collection of adult movies. The store moved from 211 N. Linn St. at the start of the year to the downtown pedestrian mall

For nearly 20 years, That’s Rentertainment was owned by Benjamin Chait and located at 218 E. Washington St., which is now home to Chait Gallery. He moved the business in 2002 to the former Pearson’s Drug Store, 202 N. Linn St. Mr. Meyer bought the shop a few years later and moved it across the street.

The business, however, was not able to survive its most recent move.

“I’ve really noticed a generational shift during the past few years with incoming University of Iowa freshmen and sophomores, who grew up watching things on the Internet, where everything’s free, right?” he said. “It’s not just educating them about your new location, it’s educating them about the video industry.”

The move to the pedestrian mall’s Hall Mall, a retail business incubator of sorts, was not enough to keep the movie rental store sustainable. Mr. Meyer made the move to cut overhead to better pay off debts accumulated over the years. But it wasn’t enough.

“We were not profitable (at Linn Street) between rent and expenses, but we just couldn’t get out of the lease,” he said.

He was paying high rent at his Linn Street location, but was able to cut that significantly with a move to the Hall Mall, which charges about $250 a month in rent per retail unit.

“The first few months up here were also not terribly profitable, but I thought we had it turned around. I thought we could make it, but the slight profits we were seeing weren’t enough to make a dent in the debts,” he said. “There just weren’t any options left.”

The Hall Mall, however, has its disadvantages. The nearest parking is in city ramps and metered spaces around downtown. And the building’s interior has floor tiles missing, is a maze of shops that causes customers to ask for directions and a combination of cigarette smoke, incense and other odors emanating from the various stores is common.

In the move, That’s Rentertainment slowly earned new customers in the downtown area, but lost most of its casual and Northside neighborhood clients.

“It’s tough in Iowa City, because by the time you earn a loyal client (they graduate) and you have to start all over again,” he said.

The increasing number of DVD kiosks such as Redbox in area have hurt his business, he said. Although he is quick to point out that he charges $4 for two days for new releases and $3 for three days for other movies, Redbox charges $1 a day, with only a limited number of titles available.

Mr. Meyer, who is in his early 30s, plans to find a new job and sell off the last of his stock on the Internet. Selling titles online is not always profitable, though, between the fees Amazon and eBay charge and shipping expenses. Although his next job might not be as fun as working in a movie rental store, it will likely require significantly fewer hours than the 60 to 80 hours a week he works now. He said he might have time to watch more than one movie in one sitting with his new free time.

Because eBay and Amazon have restrictions on selling adult titles, Mr. Meyer will likely unload much of his pornography videos at flea markets and motorcycle rallies, he said.

For two weeks, That’s Rentertainment has been unloading videos at bargain prices, such as three for $20, with discounts becoming more significant as the closing date nears.