Why Blockbuster's Death Doesn't Matter
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Why Blockbuster's Death Doesn't Matter

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | November 8, 2013 | Comments ()


Blockbuster Video is closing for good. You probably heard. After years of stumbling in a culture that increasingly expressed a preference for streaming and on-demand content, then being bought out by Dish a few years ago after declaring bankruptcy, the chain of video rental stores is shuttering its remaining 300 stores and all of its distribution centers. The news was only moments old when people, quite a few of them critics, began offering paeans to the store and reflecting on what many, many outlets called the “end of an era”. The Dissolve published two pieces in two days about the demise of video stores in general and why brick-and-mortar rental shops are still valuable parts of film culture whose demise should be met with sadness and regret. Pieces like that are an important part of the conversation, but in those and others like them, people have also been quick to stress that Blockbuster had just as many cons as pros: it was a corporate, plastic environment that stressed new releases and mainstream titles while downplaying older, foreign, or more obscure releases. In other words, it aimed for the biggest possible chunk of the market, and it made quite a bit of money doing so.

Yet Blockbuster had been dying for years. Between 2008 and the company’s Chapter 11 filing in 2010, they closed about 1,000 locations, and they kept rolling back locations in an effort to shore up earnings. They died by a thousand cuts: Netflix, founded in 1997, went public in 2002, and Blockbuster tried to play catch-up with its own DVD-by-mail program. Redbox was founded in 2002 and now has more than 42,000 kiosks nationwide, and Blockbuster experimented with those, too, until they were folded into Redbox’s army. Netflix expanded its streaming selection, while Blockbuster tried to catch up (Blockbuster on Demand remains operational, at least for now). Blockbuster was also fighting to grow and survive in a field built on quick, drastic changes. The VHS boom was already slowing by the early 1990s, which meant the store had to start pivoting to DVDs, a market which started its own slowdown a decade later. Between the big swings and the increasing quantity and quality of streaming content, it was going to be an uphill fight at best for Blockbuster to stay in the game. That they managed to hang in for close to 30 years is impressive.

So why the tone of mourning? Why the nostalgia for a crusty chain store that’s been relegated to fodder for cheap nostalgia hits on BuzzFeed? Why act as if something is changing?

Because we mourn ideas as much as things, and because we like pretending to have options more than actually exercising them. I haven’t been to Blockbuster in years. I would be very surprised if you’ve been to one recently, either, unless it was to pillage the clearance rack of a store going out of business. That’s why it’s closing: nobody went. It’s one thing to look back fondly on earlier methods of rental and consumption, but it’s a little disingenuous to act as if some part of us has died. Nothing’s ending, or at any rate, it’s not ending now. It ended a while ago. Blockbuster was huge for a while because videocassette rental was, for years, the only way to see movies at home. But they long since stopped being the only game in town, or even the biggest game in town. We have all moved on to new methods of search and discovery and consumption, whether it’s Netflix (discs or streaming), Amazon Prime, Vudu, cable on-demand offerings, or even borrowing discs from the local library. Blockbuster wasn’t a part of our lives at all. The news of its shuttering struck a chord with so many not because it meant the company was dead, but because it was such a surprise to find out that it was still alive.

Blockbuster’s death isn’t the end of movie rentals, nor is it the end of film-loving communities. It’s the end of a chain store we all used to visit. Popular in its day, a recognizable brand name to millions of Americans, and, yes, a cultural touchstone for Millenials. But it hasn’t been a part of our lives for years, so it’s going away. I won’t miss it, and I doubt you will, either. It’s not being taken from us. We gave it up.

What people seem to be lamenting most is some imagined loss of the community aspect that made it possible to, say, browse for movies with fellow cinephiles or get a good recommendation from a friendly employee in a blue shirt. But just as the demise of Blockbuster doesn’t mean the end of all movie rentals and purchases, the loss of a chain doesn’t make it impossible to find those film-loving communities or explore new filmmakers. Indie video stores are still great places to have these experiences, but you know what? So’s Twitter. And Facebook. And Tumblr. And email, which is a thing people still do. It has never been easier to jump in and find fellow movie lovers, and to use those friendships to find new films, trade opinions, and even swap discs with people. I’m lucky enough to be socially connected to a number of smart critics and film buffs, and even though I have yet to meet them in real life, I’ve discovered some great movies through them. That’s what matters: the search. To the degree that a place like Blockbuster could enable that for a while, it was helpful. But there are other tools now, and so many ways to discover new stories or rewatch great ones. I can’t bring myself to shed a tear for a place that long since stopped being a part of that process.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Vern

    I think the vast majority of movie fans have no idea what we are giving up by letting physical media die. You're happy with the convenience of streaming online, but you're not considering the consequences. Netflix, or whatever other giant corporation eventually replaces it, cannot possibly maintain consistent rights to anywhere even remotely close to the number of movies that are sitting on the shelves of the large, struggling independent video stores that have stuck around for now. When they're gone we will be giving up the entire concept of archiving (where if a movie was released on video or disc at some point then we can see it) in favor of a model where corporations have to agree on the windows for what which movies are available for us to watch and when.

    As a buddy of mine says, it seems real nice right now, but just wait until you can't see The Godfather because they couldn't get a deal in place.

    I'm not a fan of Blockbuster either, but they don't seem as bad now that we're looking down the barrel of the death of video. For many years mom and pop stores still survived despite the reign of Blockbuster and Hollywood. There are no mom and pop streaming services. We've allowed them to build a system where the best thing for movie fans would be if one corporation owned all the movies in the world. That's not going to happen, so we'll just get used to subscribing to 10 different services and still just watching whatever crap is available when they don't have the rights to the ones we were looking for.

  • Some Guy

    I think Netflix/instant streaming lovers should heed your warning.

    Disney releases certain movies for sale once every seven years or so, if not longer. Once companies realize that they can minimize their losses due to pirating by forgoing the DVD format altogether, the sooner you have to pay to watch a movie every time, or pay for multiple programs in order to have access to all production companies libraries.

    VHS died and DVD is sure to follow. Once that happens goodbye owning your own solid copy of a movie you can watch as many times and as often as you want for a one time purchase price.

  • Archie Leach

    There is a video store in another neighborhood that is run by this guy. It's only about 2 blocks from this other video store that stocks EVERYTHING; you know the place where you go to find a movie you can't find anywhere else. I have no idea how the first video store is surviving given his rates are higher than the place that has everything. Next time I'm in that neighborhood, I'm gonna go into the first video store and see if it has a large porn collection as I've never inquired if they even have a porn section.

  • Ben

    What's weird is that blockbuster and all the similar chains (We had like 3 major video places in Australia) have all died here too. But we can't get Netflix either..

  • Gunnut2600

    Bit of a long story here...

    When I was in the navy, we had this kid in the division who had this crazy skill. No matter what porn it was, if you read some code on the back of it, he could tell you when it was filmed, what company did it, what the genre was, and who directed it. It was crazy...and the funny thing...the kid didn't watch porn.

    His parents owned a video rental store in Ohio (I think Ohio but I maybe wrong) which ended up doing mostly porn. So as a teenager, he was constantly doing the re-stocking shit. Well one day I guess, Blockbuster sends a representative to check out the store and makes an offer for the place due to the shear volume of rentals they do. Ohio has some real restrictive laws or something so they had an extensive stock of books, medical supplies, and regular films...but they did all their business in porn. The dad ends up agreeing to sell the store to blockbuster which did zero business as the customer base was not there to support it. The family basically took like five months off and then made an offer to take the store back, paying pennies to the dollar what Blockbuster paid.

    I met the family...had I not know they owned a porn store, I would have thought they were farmers or something. It was just like that Mr. Show skit.

  • Archie Leach

    In another town there's a video store that has been around for at least 3 decades. One time walking by it, I decided to duck in. I ended up talking to the guy who runs the shop (owner) and I asked him how has he stayed open and he said, "adult videos". I asked him with the internet overloaded with porn, why are persons still renting discs and his reply was "they keep coming back for it". The conversation didn't go past that but thinking about it later I should've ask the guy what the age of the persons who came in to rent porn movies as I expected that it was an older crowd.

  • Gunnut2600

    Yeah, I asked the kid about that. He said pretty much the store was some of those folks only social outlet. The old crankers would come in and just bullshit for hours.

  • Addicct

    Didn't Blockbuster edit the movies to be more family-friendly?

  • Jifaner

    I mourn it because now my options are Netflix or Redbox and half of what I want to see isn't on either for several months. Most of the old movies, like musicals, that I want to watch with my kids aren't there either. Brick and mortar stores might be "nostalgic" and outdated, but they sure as hell offered things that no one else is.

  • Walt Jr

    No more "Be Kind, Rewind"!

  • blacksred

    at least in my area Blockbuster killed Erol's and West Coast video.

  • Bea Pants

    I was never a big Blockbuster shopper. By the time I was old enough to rent my own videos, Blockbuster required renters to have a valid credit card (which my 18 year old self did not). A Hollywood Video opened minutes from my dorm and let me rent Kurasawa movies for 5 days for only $1 and that was all I needed.

  • jollies

    There is no way to exagerate the importance that my local Blockbuster had in my life when I was in college back in 1990. I was there at least three times a week. Also, I lost my wallet one time, and the guy who found it tracked me down through my Blockbuster card.

    Blockbuster was magic once.

  • junierizzle

    That is so true about Twitter. I never wanted to join because I thought it was just people posting about what they had for lunch. I only joined because of a video contest I entered allowed you to vote for yourself through Facebook and Twitter. I love Twitter now. I have received many recommendation from the online film community. Twitter is filled with Film centric people. I love it.

  • Stephen Nein

    There is a Blockbuster 3 blocks from where I live in suburbia in central Iowa. (yes, Iowa has suburbia - are you a moron?) My daughter, wife and I wandered in one day while walking home from a pedicure. The desperation of the workers and the shite in the boxes on the shelves could be tasted. I instantly hated it -- the crap that some office manager thinks will sell or occupy enough space to keep the store looking 'full' and busy - the wildly alternating apathy and paranoia of retail workers - the poorly cared for store. It was the saddest place on earth and it still made me want to find the last retail district manager I worked for 10 years ago and choke the fucker.

    (FWIW - I clocked a year as an Asst. Manager in a Suncoast Motion Picture Company, as well as a year in Border's Books)

  • Back in The Day, which I frankly do not remember fondly when comparing it to the present, it seemed there were as many Blockbuster stores around as there are (gah) Starbux today. I avoided them as much as possible because, as stated above, it was a nationwide corporation out for the biggest market value and as such did not carry the titles I was mostly interested in.
    I was lucky enough to live in a smallish college town with a store called East Coast Music & Video. How I loved that place. They had all manner of obscure stuff both old and new. In the days before Internet they could get you bootleg video if you whispered the right words into the right ears.

    It's been many years and I seriously doubt the place has survived. I relocated a long time ago but I still have my membership card because I could not bear to dispose of it.
    In conclusion: Fuck Blockbuster.

  • $78742978

    I miss Cambridge's old Video Oasis. It had the most amazing collection I've seen outside of that awesome place in Toronto whose name I forget and that place next to the NuArt in LA. They had basically bought all the stock leftover from mom and pop shops that Blockbuster drove out of business. It was huuuuge and covered in sawdust and there was a dog. There was a wall of kung fu. A big wall. There were like two long aisles of horror movies. There was a dedicated place for foreign horror. If you couldn't find an obscure movie they'd find it for you and burn you a disc. It was next to a place that advertised Live Poultry Killed Fresh. It was glorious, and for a short time, it was my second home.

  • axis2clusterB

    I don't miss brick and mortar video stores, for the most part. I miss the little indie ones that always had cool shit but the only thing that Blockbuster ever did for me was give me outrageous late fees, because I never get things like that back on time, because I am a heathen. I much prefer to be able to browse Amazon or Netflix online and purchase in that manner. Because I am a heathen.

  • Repo

    I'm more depressed at the loss of thousands more jobs in exchange for little automated machines sitting in front of supermarkets, but that's just me.

  • I'd be a good deal more upset by the loss of jobs, if they were jobs that paid enough for a person to actually live on.

  • Stephen Nein

    Yeah, I can see that . . but what I wish is that the automated machines weren't stocked to the gills with nothing but utter crap. Blockbuster's model was dying, but they would at least have the new releases and popular titles (Ok, my store did) - Redbox has a serious problem with the titles and numbers it gets.

  • Al Borland's Beard

    Yes. Every kiosk seems to have nothing, new releases, straight-to-DVD horror flicks, and movies with Danny Trejo. Sometimes, I just wanna watch RoboCop or Gremlins 2.

  • BWeaves

    I majored in marketing back in the last millennium. My college professor talked about livery stables, and how they went out of business not because the automobile obsoleted horses as a means of travel, but because the livery stables didn't know what sort of business they were in. They thought they were in the horse business, but they were really in the transportation business. Those that realized that and switched to cars and trucks made it. The ones that stubbornly stuck with horses, didn't.

    Seriously, that's what I studied in marketing class. (Grabs cane and stumbles back to my recliner.)

  • Uriah_Creep

    Grabs cane and stumbles back to my recliner.

    Watch you don't break a hip on the way.

  • Alex W

    The only reason I'm sad to see Blockbuster go is because the previously viewed movie purchases were by far the cheapest way to purchase newer releases on DVD and Blu-Ray.

  • I can't believe anyone is looking back fondly on Blockbuster. We went there because there was no choice after they killed off all the interesting independent stores. They were a utility, nothing more. I was ecstatic when Netflix arrived so I could get away from them once and for all. The only purpose Blockbuster served after that was being able to buy used movies for cheap.

  • This. Every word of this.

  • Some Guy

    I think your general belief that Blockbuster was only a chain store clouds your perception of the place.

    Humans will always be visceral people. Or some of us will. To walk down an isle, see the titles, hold the boxes.

    Blockbuster was more than you think. I worked there for a year and had accounts in no fewer than half a dozen different stores.

    I watched thousands of movies thanks to Blockbuster. I had the fortune of working at one of the largest stores in the country and the selection was staggering. It had easily a thousand foreign titles. It had everything. And when it didn't have everything, it had it's share of unique, hard to find titles.
    And despite the stereotype media presents, almost every employee I ever worked with at those stores loved movies and were extremely knowledgeable about them. Not all, but easily most.

    Blockbuster very much catered to its customers and its community, in the way that many mom and pop stores continue to do. Not every store was the same. Granted you could get the new and big titles, but the store I went to in a rural Missouri town was a whole lot different than the ones I ventured into in other states and cities.

    I dunno. Not lamenting the demise of something like Blockbuster to me is the same as not mourning the closing of a library or a large bookstore. Sure, there are advantages and disadvantages to both, but the selection is huge and you can't deny the visual aspect. Seeing hundreds of titles at once is different than one at a time. It alway will be. This applies to record stores and art galleries, too. Movies don't leap out at me when I get recommendations from Netflix. Not like they do when walking by hundreds of others, all at once, only to see that random diamond in the rough box that calls my name and piques my curiosity.

    The best I can think of it is that Netflix is like walking through a dimly lit maze with a computer algorithm holding your hand. "Try this" "This is good" "You will like this based on your preferences. Trust us." You catch glimpses here and there of different paths, but the choice is an illusion.

    Not blockbuster. Granted the maze was often smaller, but at least I took my own path to get to the end.

    That's all I've got to say about that.

  • junierizzle

    Well written, Sir. I was going to write something similar. I personally loved BlockBuster. It was awesome when I was able to get my own membership. I rented movies every week. They always had the big new releases, but people are bringing that up like it was a bad thing. And yes, they did have plenty of smaller movies too. I rented more indie stuff than mainstream stuff often. I loved walking down each and every isle. Sometimes I would come across a movie that I forgot I wanted to watch. Yes! I loved BlockBuster! But like everyone else I went to Netflix, not because I didn't love BlockBuster anymore but because I didn't have to return the movies right away. That was the biggest selling point, at least for me.

    I did try BlockBuster online for a while which was better than Netflix in my opinion. BB Online had the benefit of being able to trade-in your movies in the stores. Supremely quicker than Netflix in that regard. But unfortunately BB online sucked. They weren't as fast through the mail as Netflix as I think some of my choices are probably still labeled as "Very Long Wait"

    It's Netflix streaming and AmazonOnDemand for me now. If I want to rent something I go to Red Box but even at $1.50 a movie I hate the burden of having to return them on time.

  • It's nice that you have good memories of your time there. It was never my experience that a) the stores carried more than one copy of any movie that wasn't current and super-popular; or b) that the staff were helpful, or even knowledgeable. I guess you lived in a really nice town or something.

  • foolsage

    Fair enough. I do think though that libraries fill very different needs than video rental stores, and that libraries haven't been (and might not be for some time) replaced in any meaningful sense in our culture. Video stores though have been almost completely replaced by streaming and on-demand video services.

    I do understand and agree with the appeal of physically browsing entertainment, looking at the covers/packaging, and seeing what's most appealing among those offers. That still doesn't make me mourn the loss of Blockbuster though, personally. For me, the nostalgia is faint, and the convenience of modern online viewing more than offsets the loss of physical browsing.

  • narfna

    Good article.
    I do think video stores are a valuable piece of our culture, but I haven't been to a chain like Blockbuster in over ten years. There is a lovely local video store in Tucson called Casa Video that's managing to do well in the current climate, largely because what they provide is atmosphere, which is something chains like Blockbuster just can't do.

    Also, they give free popcorn out to everyone.

  • Maguita NYC

    I also have not set foot at Blockbuster in a few years and prefer my local video rental, which I visit religiously. Every Sunday. Yes, the guys working there are super cute, but they also KNOW their movies and encourage you to explore international films.

    Blockbuster's demise is no surprise. Mourning for it is the same as mourning for the VHS or Beta cassettes. meaningless.

    R.I.P Blockbuster.

  • John G.

    Best Tweet of this from the other day:

    All remaining #Blockbuster stores will close. "It's the end of an era" - Said the homeless man taking a dump in a video return slot.


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