When Star Wars Finally Became the Top-Rented Video of All Time

In 1997, Star Wars finally overtook E.T. to become the most-rented video ever in the US. The chart back then makes interesting reading.

I can’t tell you for certain if this is true, but it’s oft-reported that the last VHS release for a major movie in the US was for David Cronenberg’s terrific A History Of Violence. The 2005 movie seemingly got that release in early 2006, and the VHS era all but passed with it.

It completed the takeover by DVD as the top choice for watching movies at home, a brutal destruction and takeover of the VHS format that had served the world since the late 1970s. And as we’ve discussed in the past, the death of VHS took the rental window with it. For people who are far younger than me, that was the months-long gap where you could rent a film, or buy an ex-rental in a big box, before an official sell-through release (in a smaller box!) followed.

It’s sometimes hard to keep sight of just how pivotal the VHS rental window became, and how lucrative it turned out to be. And I got a reminded when I stumbled across a Variety magazine list from 1997, of the most lucrative VHS rental releases of all time, in the US alone. What’s important to bear in mind here too is that the numbers Variety quotes are for the cash returned to the studio. Whereas $300 million at the box office would see just half of that money at best go into a studio’s coffers, the lower distribution and marketing costs for a video release proved much more profitable. In fact, sequels to films such as Austin Powers and The Bourne Identity came about in large part down to huge success on a home, rather than cinema, release.

December 1997 was notable in the world of US VHS rentals, then, because it marked the point were Star Wars finally toppled E.T. The Extra Terrestrial from the top of the rankings. Spielberg’s 1982 alien tale was the top-grossing US video rental for 14 years before Star Wars finally toppled it. And the top 20 rentals of all time at this stage made for fascinating reading:

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1. Star Wars: A New Hope ($270.9m)2. E.T. ($228.2m)3. Jurassic Park ($212.9m)4. Return Of The Jedi ($191.6m)5. Independence Day ($177.2m)6. The Empire Strikes Back ($173.8m)7. The Lion King ($173.1m)8. Forrest Gump ($156m)9. Batman ($150.5m)10. Home Alone ($140.1m)

These numbers are for rental only, and don’t seem to include sell-through takings, else The Lion King for one would be far, far, far higher up the list. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the reason Star Wars got to the top was off the back of the Special Edition re-releases.

Digging further down into the top 25, and it’s interesting to remember just how much some films hung around. Beverly Hills Cop ($108m), all the Indiana Jones films, Grease ($96.3m), Ghostbusters ($132.7m), The Exorcist ($89m) and Superman ($82.8m) were amongst the titles that kept video rental shops happily ticking over. Don’t forget too that these are just US numbers: takings further afield would add a fair amount of extra change, as would the eventual sell-through release (although America was ahead of the UK in releasing popular titles to sell-through at the same time as rental, a model that Disney in particular scored huge success with).

For studios, the DVD era would prove to be even more lucrative though, with more and more of us willing to stump up to own a copy of a film, as sell-through trounced rental in the way that DVD was trouncing VHS. Ironically, there’s some degree of reverse gear being deployed, with video on demand – primarily via 48 hour rentals – proving to be the latest cash cow, and the one that Hollywood is banking on to stave off the decline in physical disc sales.

But I do wonder if the Amazon effect is at work. That in the modern era, the top 50 movies in the chart get noticed dramatically more than every other title. That it’s less a funnel shape if you were plotting all this on some posh graph, and more likely a T. Continue to drift down that Variety list, the top 100 includes, for instance, 1980’s 9 To 5, 1978’s Jaws 2, 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, and 1970’s Airport in a list of the most lucrative rentals of all time. What, pray, the chances of any such title getting noticed to such a degree in the modern era, where a film increasingly has to make its splash very quickly, or get out of the way?

The full list, if you’re so inclined, can be found here. It’s worth it for the weeping nostalgia, of an era long, long before a Netflix list.

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