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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

With Piracy, Licensed Videos Are Cheap to Rent

MTA Video Boom sales clerk on Monday returning videos to the shelves of the Chistye Prudy store, one of 51 locations in the chain.
When it comes to pirated English-language videos, Moscow has the dubious honor of being second to none.

But the triumph of purchasing a copy of "Zoolander" or "Lord of the Rings" just as they reach the big-screen back home, can be quickly dispelled by 30 minutes' exposure to the monotonous gray-green hues and poor sound quality that are the hallmarks of the ubiquitous ekranki.

Multi-million dollar special effects and computer graphics pale in comparison to the suspense that can be had observing the silhouettes of audience members, as they bob off to the toilet or for an extra helping of nachos.

At times like this, you may actually find yourself yearning for a decent video rental store, with fully licensed, rental-quality cassettes.

But you will soon find that many of the video rental stores with extensive English-language collections you remember no longer exist. They were hit hard by the crisis, with the exception of embassy collections. But predominately Russian-language video rental chains are a plentiful alternative and -- at an average of 50 rubles to join -- cheap.

They may not be as up-to-date as the pirate video kiosks when it comes to Hollywood films, and their selection certainly isn't as broad, but they do stock English-language movies in addition to excellent selections of films in Russian.

The big three rental chains in the capital are: Avalon Video, with 30 branches citywide; Video Lend, with 25 outlets plus 10 operating under franchise; and Video Boom, which was set up in 1996 by graduates of the MGU chemistry faculty. Today Video Boom has a network of 51 stores and its own colorful and easy-to-use web site (videoboom.ru).

Membership is cheap with chains both big and small, and the procedure is fairly standard.

At Avalon's Mendeleyevskaya metro branch for instance, it costs 30 rubles to join and you'll need your passport to fill out a dogovor prokata. Those unwilling to make the this kind of commitment should be prepared to put down 500 rubles collateral to take out a movie -- and sign a dogovor zaloga.

According to Avalon storekeeper Pasha Zatravkin, 19, a student in his third year at the Bauman Technical University, his outlet alone has more than 3,000 registered members, 1,500 of whom use the store frequently.

Avalon has plenty of choices. Prices range from 35 rubles to take home a copy of "Hannibal" in English, to 12 rubles for three days for the comedy "Top Secret," featuring a youthful Val Kilmer.

The outlets stock videos specially licensed for rental, which they purchase from local dealers such as West Video, Video Service and Most-Video. The cost for the licensed cassettes, according to Oleg Laborevich, network manager with Video Lend, varies from about 300 rubles to 350 rubles.

But times are tough on the local rental market, and supply far outstrips demand. Some outlets are forced to charge a mere 10 rubles per cassette. "Its a situation you can't call profitable," Laborevich said.

And the suggestion that the bigger companies might merge to cut operating expenses is clearly not viable: "There aren't the kind of profits that would make it worthwhile. Outlets just close down."

Natalya Oreshina, retail property consultant with Stiles & Ryabokobylko real estate agents, said she expects that smaller neighborhood retail centers, which have yet to properly take off in the capital, will offer an ideal niche for the chains.

If the prospect of trekking to the local video store is too much, a number of sites offer membership and a selection of videos that can be ordered online and delivered to your door.

The site www.kaokakao.com:8101 will deliver cassettes for 30 rubles for three days, as will Videoprokat at www.videoprokat.narod.ru. If you forget to rewind the tape, expect to pay an extra 10 rubles.

Laborevich said the golden age of English-language video stores has already passed. The rental business, he said, can't support the high lease payments of centrally located premises -- a must given the expat penchant for living within and around the Garden Ring.

Many remember the Video Express treasure-trove, formerly located in the Post International office. Its owners had assembled a collection of English and foreign language movies to rival the most eclectic video libraries in the West.

Unfortunately, after the store's relocation in early March 1997 to a basement off Malaya Dmitrovka, demand plummeted. At the time, paying $3 to $4 to rent made little sense, when pirate copies could be bought for less. Another factor was that too many clients thought the collateral a perfectly fair price to pay for their own copy of an obscure art-house classic. Not long after the 1998 crisis, which slashed their expat client base, they closed shop. Some of their fine selection was donated on their demise to the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund.

And a recent call to the American Video Store on Bolshoi Gnezdnikovsky Pereulok, now a solitary listing in the Expat web site's video rentals section, received the weary answer that they had moved on over a year ago. What once was a video rental library is today a private apartment.