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cg

The trademark search is expired.

Is there more history to this after the startup? Apparently it failed. An idea too ahead of its time, lack of investors...?

www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=772022782

Talk about an idea that's 10 years too early. Just goes to show how important/lucky timing is.

The internet and low-shipping cost of DVDs is what made this idea into a billion dollar business.

Ann_from_Brooklyn

Why oh why does this smell like a fake to me? I don't know what it is but there's something too perfect about this video like one of those fake masterpiece paintings that's been aged to look real, complete with certificates of authenticity no less. Nice touch mentioning the 1987 Hagler-Leonard fight too. ;) Hey, it could be the real deal but if this was available in New York, I would have been the first to sign up especially since I was into widescreen VHS back then and this company, if it existed, might have had a sizable collection.

Tom Wolper

I wouldn't think of it as a hoax. Netflix's market advantage is its inventory system and distribution centers. Video Mailbox would have needed a way for customers to send their queue information to the company and the company would have needed a way to keep an updated catalog in customers' hands. Maybe it could work on a very small scale, but it wouldn't compare to Netflix.

Jason

I never heard of this though I was quite young when it would have been in business. Their concept was sound, obviously since netflix is a success, however they were fighting an uphill battle. Postage would have been high ($1.88 per 2 pack according to flier). so I question if they really could offer as many as you want for $29 unless turn around was much longer than netflix.

The ad says you could be watching one every night. This implies they would ship you out at least as many as 15 two packs a month for a total cost in just shipping $28.20. Overhead and paying off initial investment would highly likely put the company cost per customer over the price charged per customer. Printed catalog of 10,000 movies details, storage of tapes, employees, etc. I'm only guessing but poor planning and outlook is probably what cause the failure. The price was probably too low. It also appears they send you their choice of the movies in your list so you had less control on what you got and so may have turned a lot of people off. So I will assume they had trouble attracting customers and like any business a lack of customers needed to cover costs the company will go under.

Ahead of their time probably not. I think if more thought was put into the company the resources available at the time could have been used to make the company better.

Dan

$29/month is about $55/month when adjusted for inflation. The business detailed seems to be roughly equivalent to the 4 out plans of today. That must have severely limited the market.

Sara

It's interesting to see how the system worked before the internet was used.

@Dan: $29/month was pricey, but so were video cassettes at the time. A VHS movie could easily set you back $50 (I have a copy of the original "E.T." VHS release from the late '80s, and it cost my parents $50 at the time). So the cost was probably a relative bargain.

banter

I think I remember this advertised in Sports Illistrated when I was a kid. That graphic looked familiar to me the second I saw it.

Jean H

I don't remember that at all, but I do remember driving 120 miles (round trip) to rent videos for my honkin' huge VCR with wired "remote" control.

Moviezzz

While I never heard of Video Mailbox, I do remember Home Film Festival.

They were around since the 80's (Roger Ebert used to talk about them, and Leonard Maltin listed them in his book). You would rent tapes for a fixed price each (it was around $10 with shipping a tape, with discounts if you got more). They came in cardboard boxes with stickers with postage to reseal them.

They dealt mainly in foreign and hard to find titles. Based in Pennsylvania, they closed down in the early days of DVD, when they were taken over by another video by mail company.

Seth

Yeah, there were videotape by mail companies.

The metrics never quite worked, but I believe there were some companies that had niches (foreign films, pornography) that existed for quite awhile...

vio

If this is a hoax, it's really well done.

banter

"If this is a hoax, it's really well done"

I don't see the joke if it is. Not really funny but I for sure remember something like this once upon a time.

Scott

Jason, yes, I'd expect turnaround time would have been much longer than netflix, since presumably they didn't have warehouses all over the country.

Peter A. Bobley

Dear Mike,

I'm Peter A. Bobley, the founder of Video Mailbox. Thanks for posting. Here's some more information to answer questions from your readers.

In the 80’s my company published The American Express (AE) Appointment Book and sold a variety of books and later VHS tapes though the mail to AE cardholders via “solo” mailings and “credit inserts.” The books and tapes were charged to the consumer’s Amex card. VHS tapes sold well via “credit inserts” (both new - and particularly the used ones which we purchased from video stores) so we soon published a catalog of new/used VHS tapes. By the late 80’s a number of elements of the video business started to change. Independent video stores found themselves in financial difficulty due to the rise of Blockbuster, and the price of used videos declined because the independents needed cash flow, and some went bankrupt, making it possible for people like me to buy up their libraries on the cheap. The retail price of VHS also declined to meet the demand of the rising audience of purchasers. Then the studios started altering their new video pricing or often introduced a video at $80 to take advantage of the rental window and then slashed the priced to $29.95 a few weeks later to cater to the sales market. A few months later these videos could be purchased in bulk, used, for $5-$10.

Then I went to Paris, walked into a bustling video rental store who was charging the dollar equivalent of $30 per month (when many US stores were charging as much as $7-$8 for a single rental) for all the videos one wished to see (one video at a time) and my Video Mailbox (VM) idea was born. In my head this French guy had $10 out the door and $20 in the door because I knew I could obtain VHS tapes for about $10 on average, and I also knew prices were falling. I felt certain that if I could launch the business and start building a membership that the cost to purchase the tapes would soon turn a so-so business, or a cash-flow minus business into a bonanza.

When I got back to New York I immediately met with Amex, who loved the idea and gave us permission, subject to making certain that we created a sound business plan, to include a four page VM offer inside the Amex VHS catalog.

Then the work began. I hired a team of software engineers (and remember that computers in those days looked like refrigerators) to write a basic program that would record what tapes were initially selected by the consumer for his queue, record a VHS title when it was returned to inventory, and instructed the warehouse what title to mail. I should point out that we were already operating a large warehouse operation for Amex to accommodate the Amex Appointment Book program which received a ton of returns because the books were sold on a negative option basis, and we also had a computer tape-to computer tape relationship with Amex.

To answer Ann from Brooklyn's’ question about obtaining the queue data, we including a blank “GET STATED FLIER” queue in the initial offering/mailing (along with a list of about 750 titles...just like book clubs were doing at the time) and then sent blank queue forms out with the initial videos, along with the catalog, which we called “FAVORITE FIFTY LIST.” The initial catalog contained, as I recall, 10,000 titles.

To answer Tom Wolper’s question about overcoming the postage cost, the postage was charged to the consumer’s Amex card.

To answer Sara’s post about seeing an ad in Sports Illustrated, sorry, but we never advertised in SI.

To answer Nate G. Tangs post suggesting VM did not exist, sorry again, Nate, but with a bit of research (start with American Express) you’ll find we did indeed exist. For some Peter A. Bobley credibility checkout the data on the last company that I owned, PhoneCharge, Inc., and the sale that took place three years ago to CheckFree. And what can I say about Hagler/Leonard other than it was an amazing fight.

For everyone who is wondering why we closed up shop, that too has a surprise answer because it had nothing whatsoever to do with how well we were doing (fantastically!) - or even our own ability to finance it (we were making big bucks from The American Express Appointment Book at the time) -- but simply a battle between partners. My equal partner could not emotionally handle the required absorption of losses (even though the VM profits and membership roll direction was sky-high up) and would not even entertain bringing in a money partner, which we could have found handily. We blew up at each other one day and I walked out and started producing Broadway plays for about ten years.

Then I started PhoneCharge. Now I’m working on uscanteen.com.

Peter

banter

Awesome thanks for sharingn Peter!

Do you look at netflix and shake your head at what could have been?

PLB

About that same time (1987) I moved into the Oakland hills where there was a local pickup service for VHS tapes. As I remember I put up a substantial deposit for which I got a lockable plastic box that I attached to an outside wall of my house. I had to go to the brick and mortar video store down the hill in Montclair Village but after watching the tape I just put it in the plastic box and someone would pick it up and return it.

I used this service this way exactly once. The store went bankrupt and I lost my initiation fee.

A few years later a video store oppened in nearby Berkeley that was dedicated to VOD (Video on Demand). Oracle was building a database system to handle VOD storage and streaming. VOD was hot. Unfortunately it didn't really work yet. The video store temporized by allowing the customers to order a movie from a terminal rather than search among the physical VHS tape boxes. The idea was that people would get used to renting a tape on a tube and soon (real soon now) they would be able to do that at home. That store also went bankrupt and became a standard video rental store.

There were I suspect a number of other variations on video rental in the late eighties and early nineties. NetFlix works because all of its parts work - US mail, service centers, Web pages, etc. Just as it has triumphed of course it is about to be made obsolete by VOD finally becoming practical after more than a decade of development.

NetFlix Watch Instantly is probably the best of the current VOD solutions but an older tech company like Microsoft or Oracle may step in and take charge, or a start up like Google may pop up from nowhere and sweep up all the VOD business.

TheLoneIguana

I remember the rental box concept. Our family toyed with the idea, since we lived out in the sticks and the nearest video store was tiny and 15 miles away. No cable or DirectTV back then either.
We didn't end up using the rent-by-mail service, due to the cost.

Ann_from _Brooklyn

Hmmmm...well whaddaya know, Video Mailbox was a real thing! Thanks for the extra info, Peter Bobley.

Perkins Cobb

Another longtime VHS rent-by-mail business, going back to the early 80s, was the legendary Los Angeles video store Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee (still there in North Hollywood). It was a simpler system of requesting titles by mail or phone and then paying the shipping both ways, aimed at serious cinephiles willing to pay a premium for movies they couldn't find locally.

Somehow I glommed onto their catalog as a teenager, and later when I lived in Los Angeles they still seemed to be doing a healthy mail-order rental business in the back room as late as 1999 or 2000.

Peter Bobley

Dear Banter,

Yes I do shake my head and think about what could have been. I once wrote a note to Reed Hastings and told him that I invented his business but of course he didn't respond.

Peter

Graham

I would like to see the catalog.

Eric Holst

Facets in Chicago started their rent by mail program back in 1883. Back then their program was called "Critics' Membership" and cost $100 a year. That got you 12 free video rentals by mail and each subsequent rental cost $10 each or you could buy another 12 for $100. Now their program is on-line facetsmovies.com and is the same costs as Netflix and they still rent VHS if it's not available on DVD. Crazy how time changes.

Rob Snyder

Peter,

Thanks for the memories. My parents were Card members and I remember getting boxes in the mail and I remembering it to be the neatest thing. Largely due to the fact that there was no local places near by your company supplied us with a constantly flow of movies we would usually go through 8 movies a month and that was still cheaper at 29.99 plus shipping then driving way out of the way to get to the closest blockbuster/videolibrary.

I had almost fogotten about you guys until i saw this post on hacking netflix. If it means anything to you thanks for the service it was great when it was around.

Jonny Nacho

Peter,

Thanks for the inside scoop. I grew up a couple miles from where you lived in Montclair and I remember some of the early video convenience services you mentioned. One was a delivery service from Presto video and you could also order a pizza with your movie. Our experience was that it always took a very long time for delivery, however. Presto might have been the one with the rental return box idea.

I don't think VOD is quite ready to take over the DVD delivery business, though. As a tech guy, I know there are still a lot of places outside of cities that have poor to awful broadband services. Maybe another five years or so before the DVD side of the house is truly marginalized.

LKJ

What is it with Americans that they can be presented with eight hundred facts and still not accept something? Could some of you really not tell the video and graphic/schematic of the process were real until the founder posted a comment? I bet some of you idjits are still sitting there thinking it's a hoax. Sheesh.

debbie jordan

I used to work for Bobley - Harmann which was some how affiliated with VM... It is real

c

i worked there. Peter A is a brilliant man and he sure showed the cousins who is a winner. I read about Phone Charge, Pete. Good for you and Victoria

the chicago defender

eric holst works for facets. cut out the spam, douchebag.

used computers from warehouse

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