Memory Lane: Film lover’s Delight

That’s Rentertainment was one part video store, one part culture hub

That’s Rentertainment was one part video store, one part culture hub

People perusing shelves of videos.

“My favorite thing about That’s Rentertainment was the people,” says former owner Geoff Merritt. “We had a number of long-term, amazing customers and the absolute best co-workers—30 years’ worth of students from the University.” (Image courtesy of Illini Media)

In our push-of-a-button, tap-it-and-stream-it world of today, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, a movie night meant getting off your couch, going to the local video rental store, and wandering the aisles until something struck your fancy.

Between 1985 and 2015, a college movie night for many Illini included a trip to That’s Rentertainment, the Campustown fixture that boasted 45,000 titles, with shelves devoted to directors and actors—such as Akira Kurosawa and Elvis—and an international section that seemed to feature movies from every country in the world.

It was “the best collection for a film buff,” says Mitch Abney, ’88 MEDIA, with an inventory that was not only huge, but also broad and deep.

To complement that collection, Rentertainment had a knowledgeable staff who shared its film recommendations with warmth and excitement, and started insightful conversations with customers about the movies they were renting, recalls Jason Peterson, ’12 LAS.

It was, in short, a cinematic wonderland—a social space where film lovers could learn about movies new and old and befriend those with similar interests.

But in the 2010s, as streaming and online communities began to play a larger role in people’s lives, rentals declined, and owner Geoff Merritt, ’84 LAS, eventually decided “to roll the end credits,” as he put it.

Exterior of That's Rentertainment video store.

(Image by Benjamin Stone)

Nearly a decade after its closure, Rentertainment’s loyal customers still remember how it felt to browse the shelves in search of that one film that might make for a perfect movie night.

“On Fridays, I would go in with friends, feeling excited about the evening ahead,” says Tad Boehmer, MS ’14 IS, MA ’16 LAS. “And we’d always find something weird and wonderful, like The Dark Side of the Rainbow—the Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz mashup.”

“I miss the sheer scale of the place,” he adds.

For some, that scale could sometimes prove overwhelming. Molly McLay, MSW ’11, remembers feeling like “it would be impossible to get through every title.” And she certainly wasn’t alone in that.

Still, for some patrons, the collection was more like a mountain they wanted to climb.

Many, like Mike Prosise, ’00 BUS, rented two or three movies a day, and the prepaid rental blocks—$50 for 50 rentals, $100 for 100, etc.—“made it affordable,” says Sarah Rhodes, ’03 LAS.

Adam Doskey, ’05 LAS, MS ’07 IS, recalls that, in addition to the rental blocks, Rentertainment had specials on certain genres on different days of the week. “I stretched my money that way,” he says, and saw lots of movies he might not have learned about otherwise.

Doskey and others benefitted from the comprehensive collection, which included “so many obscure titles that couldn’t be found anywhere else,” says Lisa Braddock, ’83 AHS, MS ’89 AHS, MS ’89 MEDIA.

That was especially true in the ’80s and ’90s, when B-movies, anime and cult films, like those directed by John Waters, were hard to track down.

But even as films became more widely available on home video in the aughts and 2010s, Rentertainment remained a valuable resource for movie lovers of all kinds, whether they were interested in Hollywood blockbusters or less accessible fare, such as the Yakuza films and Troma horror-comedies favored by Nate Wells, ’16 ACES, MBA ’19. “There was always something new to discover there!”

Chelsea Norton, ’09 BUS, agrees. “It was easier to browse and find new stuff there compared to streaming,” she says. “Rentertainment was a magical place.”

Not only that, “it was a community,” says Erik Chapman, ’09 LAS. “A type of culture that is difficult to find now.

“And I miss it very much.”

Close-up of colorful videos stacked on shelves

(Image by Benjamin Stone)