Death by Consumption: The Rise and Fall of Blockbuster

Reflecting on the head-spinning speed of an entertainment titan’s tumble

Movies Features Blockbuster
Death by Consumption: The Rise and Fall of Blockbuster

I am not that old, okay? I’ll be 35 this year. Yet I feel twice my age, because every new announcement in the entertainment industry that is transparently conspiring to make me feel nostalgic just ends up making me feel ancient.

When Captain Marvel crashed to Earth in her latest trailer, her impact crater needed the proper era-appropriate sight gag to make me think, “Oh, it’s the ’90s!” and also “I know that thing! That’s a thing I know!”

I realized, with mounting terror, that it’s 2018, that the fetuses being carried to term by some of the rudest customers during my short-lived tenure working for Blockbuster as a teenager in 2001 are now human beings who are mailing in their Selective Service paperwork. As a lad of 17 (you needed to be old enough to see R-rated movies in order to rent them out, you see), I donned the blue-and-yellow polo. Legions of suburban parents brought the kids along to rent newfangled DVDs and the N64 cartridges they desperately hoped still had their GoldenEye progress. (They did not—you have to do the Facility all over again.) A Saturday night shift would see me behind that complicated register system checking out any number of my high school classmates and silently judging their pedestrian viewing choices. Promising your kids a trip there was like dangling a carrot on a stick in front of a horse, the bargaining chip that must have seen hours of chores to completion. It was less a store than a phenomenon.

Half a lifetime later, Blockbuster Video is a punchline. The very last of its line, situated in Bend, Oregon, has been the source of many paeans in the press and, as we recently reported, has apparently inspired its own beer. Sifting through the wreckage tells so much about the freakish speed with which the very act of consumption in our modern age is evolving.

Home Video Resurrected the Movie Star

Imagine, if you can, a time before reruns. I was born in 1983, and cannot. By the mid-1980s, VHS tapes had become a vast new medium for distributing movies and TV shows. Prior to its invention, your best bets for ever seeing a movie that wasn’t playing either on TV that very night or in your local cineplex were either prohibitively expensive 8 or 16mm reels of film run with a projector, or a revival at your local art house theater.

This has produced an extremely odd effect in our collective cultural knowledge of film, when you really think about it. It’s A Wonderful Life was not an overwhelmingly popular movie when it came out. It placed 26th in box office revenue in 1947 and garnered mixed reviews from critics at the time, though that did include a few glowing ones. It’s synonymous with the American holiday season because some genius at National Telefilm Associates, the copyright holders, failed to properly renew the rights in 1974, and every TV station in the country could air it. The Wizard of Oz, a movie whose quotes remain indelibly ingrained into the way we talk, debuted in 1939 and wouldn’t see a home VHS release until 1980.

For just shy of a century, cinema endured only in our mind’s eyes, unless we happened to be affluent enough to own some expensive equipment or catch a showing on TV in the wrong aspect ratio. The initial effect of wide home video releases as an affordable, accessible convenience enjoyed by the modern family was so terrifying to major studios that they produced silly ads like the one up there, so certain were they that releasing these movies to the wider public for rental time and time again would somehow leave money on the table.

They did this even with VHS tapes selling as high as $75, the greedy jerks. Here’s another, because I love tacky, stupid things and re-watch them as a child picks at a scab:

If they’d been more reasonable, maybe Blockbuster never would have existed in the first place. But people wanted a lower price point, and rental was the answer. The prospect of renting an entire art form back to the public one five-day period at a time was enough to make Blockbuster Video’s founder, Texas oilman David Cook, cash out of the black gold business in 1985 and go about shoving a blue-and-gold store into every strip mall on the North American continent.

Big Blue Killed the Ma and Pa Store
Man, did it work. By 2004, not even 20 years after its founding, it had 9,000 retail locations and was angling to try to take over lesser competitor Hollywood Video. It’s strange even remembering this time, even as somebody who used to work there. It was, in reality, the chief means of consuming movies.

And it basically killed the local ma and pa video store. At a smaller rental joint, a place with a little character and less vicious corporate oversight, you might stumble on a little-known gem. This was never the case at Blockbuster, which adopted a methodology of brute force. The outside walls of the store bombarded you with “New Releases.” Roughly 18,000 copies of Meet the Parents or There’s Something about Mary greeted you as you entered the store, rather than any of the staples you might come in to locate for a class project or to satisfy your curiosity about the German Expressionists.

There were the late fees, of course—the actual thing that killed the store long before Netflix or streaming did. I’ve worked in all sorts of jobs, and rarely met with the kind of antipathy I regularly did from a well-to-do customer arguing against a $4 charge for dropping a video off a day late. Those brutal fees unquestionably formed a firm bedrock of Blockbuster’s earnings, essentially ensuring that it wouldn’t lose a dime if somebody spaced on bringing back Enemy at the Gates, and might even earn more if the customer brought it back within the late period and then the store offloaded it to another renter that same day.

Big Red Killed Big Blue
It’s no surprise that the moment something else came along, people jumped ship with maximum scorn. Debuting in 1998, Netflix’s original DVD mailing program (yes, that used to be the entirety of their operation) quickly became the way to supplement the all-sugar diet of Blockbuster’s summer tent pole library with some essential film classics, just as the advent of DVD was making video distribution so cheap that rights-holders collectively decided it would be stupid not to reissue everything that had ever been put to celluloid.

One story here illuminates, I think, exactly what changed and when and how it did. As a young, exploited worker, I had insider access to Blockbuster’s library, including the ability to purchase videos that were somewhere in the company’s vast catalog even if an individual store didn’t have it. I was determined, obsessed, with seeing the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, which ca. 2001 you simply could not easily find on VHS. I went to the trouble of finding and ordering it, verifying with care the proper part number so it would not be the Director’s Cut. They shipped me the damn Director’s Cut anyway.

Fast forward to 2007, a mere six years later: I ordered the 25th Anniversary Final Cut of the movie, and Amazon shipped it to me. The completeness with which every single movie is archived and distributed now boggles the mind when you consider that 30 years prior, you wouldn’t have been able to find a lot of forgettable films that stumble their way through the box office now.

Blockbuster didn’t—couldn’t—keep up. It was a tangible place, built of bricks: The kind you bond together with mortar to make a building and the kind made of black plastic that you shove into a rewinder machine after you’ve watched to the end. Its failed attempt to swallow Hollywood Video in some ways signaled the beginning of the end of the company. Netflix ate its lunch year after year, exacerbated by the eventual rise of that company’s streaming service. By 2010, the company had filed for bankruptcy protection, and the years immediately following would see a number of desperate gambits: The elimination of late fees (so poorly communicated to customers that it got them slapped with a class action suit), its own inferior online service, numerous attempts to try to sell satellite TV subscriptions.

August 2018 saw the shuttering of all but the very last Blockbuster in Oregon.

Streaming Might Kill Us All
Streaming, meanwhile, has cannibalized Netflix’s roots to feed its future. The DVD mailing service still exists—you’re reading the words of one of the poor lonely souls who still subscribes to it, for however long it may last. The effect on human society itself is something we won’t understand until two or three format changes later, but consider this:

There was a man, an odd man, who would come into my Blockbuster every week or two. You could tell he didn’t get out much. He would religiously rent Gladiator. Without question he rented it enough times that he easily could have just bought himself a copy, had he taken the $3.99 and dumped it into a cookie jar every time the urge struck him. One day, he came in and in the tussle to liberate his membership card from his wallet, put his keys or one of the things he was otherwise holding into his mouth.

Drool ensued. Drool everywhere. And he put his keys (or whatever it was) onto the counter, just right there on my counter. I tactfully checked him out as quickly as I could and hustled him out the door, then panicked as a young mother prepared to put her diapered baby’s butt on the counter so she could have a hand free to check out. She interpreted my urgency as aversion to her kid’s rear end, but I quickly explained that no, she didn’t want this guy’s drool on her kid’s ass. She laughed full and hard. That was a thing that happened in her day.

There was a lady, and I feel terrible about this, who did not have a nose. She came in very frequently and I tried my best not to stare and not to look away. I’m sure that I knew her by name. One day I was straightening up the clearance section and looked over and saw a woman, smiling and animated, speaking to an assistant manager and realized it was her and that she’d undergone plastic surgery and she had a nose. Do you understand how elated, how joyful I was for her? Everybody at the store was happy for her despite none of us knowing her at all, really.

Brick-and-mortar retail is dying. Going to a physical place is slowly being supplanted by the algorithm, the web, the logistics center. My girlfriend’s kids will not meet these obsessive renters of Gladiator or feel a moment of joy for another human on the occasion of her new nose.

All these moments will be gone now, like tears in rain.

Kenneth Lowe wants more life. You can follow him on Twitter or read more at his blog.

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