Almost eighty-five years after the cinématographe created a flurry of enthusiasm for cinema on the Grands Boulevards, Paris’s first video rental stores were met with no less excitement or skepticism by their first owners, clients, and industry critics. Despite early predictions of the video business’s certain failure that evoked Antoine Lumière’s apocryphal dismissal of cinema’s future, thirty years later French vidéo-clubs remain an important if increasingly marginalized form of media distribution in the nation’s capital. Compared with similar markets, the history of French video stores offers a familiar tale of initial enthusiasm and success, followed by periodic cycles of modest growth, rapid decline, and often-failing efforts to form a business model capable of adapting to technological changes and new consumption practices.
Using a combination of historiographic research and on-site analysis and interviews,[i] this essay examines historical and ongoing developments in video rental in France, with particular attention to current trends in Paris. Our historical and field research shows that the French context is at once particular—marked by French legal and economic strategies (l’exception culturelle française), consumers’ attitudes towards media technologies, and stereotypes of French cinephilia—and at the same time surprisingly continuous with the broader landscape of media change in places like the United States and Australia. Indeed, the case of French vidéo-clubs offers important evidence of how local and national actors both reproduce and reshape emerging global media practices in ways that nonetheless reflect historical traditions and cultural specificity.