Here’s a story that encapsulates everything you need to know about Blockbuster Video: during a down moment in the initial, training shift for my part-time job at the Big Blue, I posed what seemed a fairly safe small-talk question to the store manager: So, what are your favorite movies? It was an icebreaker that had served me well in my three previous video store gigs; I’d been doing it since I was a teenager, mostly at rinky-dink mom-and-pop operations, but since the slick, well-funded Blockbuster franchise had driven them all out of town, I finally had to give in and go to work for the Evil Empire. But even my cynicism about my new employer didn’t prepare me for an answer I’d never heard from a fellow employee in all my years in the video store business. “Oh, I don’t really watch movies,” my manager cheerfully and matter-of-factly replied. “I mean, I’m around ‘em all day, so I don’t really wanna watch ‘em when I go home.” She wasn’t my manager for long; within a few months, Blockbuster had promoted her to district manager. And that was Blockbuster Video, in a nutshell.
Yesterday’s news that the company is shuttering its remaining rental locations was hardly a surprise — Blockbuster had dwindled to a scant 300 stores, a shadow of its former, dominant self. Too many years ago, the company had underestimated the drawing power of Netflix, jumping on the DVD-by-mail and streaming bandwagons far too late, its lumbering business model put under by a sleeker, cheaper variation — a bit of karmic irony not lost on the scores of indie video shops buried by the behemoth franchise. The bankrupt company was bought by DISH back in 2011; yesterday, DISH president Joseph P. Clayton confessed, “This is not an easy decision, yet consumer demand is clearly moving to digital distribution of video entertainment” (added The A.V. Club: “in a statement we were pretty sure was dated 2007, but nope, it says right there, ‘2013’”).
But it wasn’t just Netflix that put Blockbuster out of business. That’s the easy narrative (and one even your correspondent has occasionally clung to), but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: if home delivery — either postal or digital — were the sole advantage of Netflix, then how do you explain the rise of Redbox? People don’t mind leaving their houses to get movies. But movie renters reached a point where they didn’t want to go to Blockbuster to get movies.
Why? Because running a monopoly is one thing, and acting like you’re running a monopoly is another. Since they were, in many cases, literally the only game in town, Blockbuster charged exorbitant late fees, and its rental prices weren’t cheap either; by 2011, they were charging $5 for a three-day rental. Everyone has a horror story about some movie their brother checked out on their account and didn’t mention until that $75 late-fee phone call a month later; Netflix said “Eh, just send it back when you get done watching it,” and that was appealing.
So was their selection. Volume of tapes (and later discs) was initially Blockbuster’s ace in the hole; their bulk-buy and rental-share agreements with major studios allowed them to crush the smaller stores that had to buy movies in smaller quantities. But the buying strategy was frustratingly formulaic: too many copies of the giant titles, not enough of the buried treasures that made a trip to the video store such a treat. Corporate would order our store literally hundreds of copies of something giant but terrible like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, yet not siphon off enough for even one copy of a top-shelf indie. Not that most of our employees knew to direct anyone to those titles anyway — when people would come in and ask what was new and good, they were told what was giant and obvious and in stock.
When Netflix launched, the idea of being able to seek out older, foreign, and more obscure titles was its primary draw for movie buffs; even better, you could see films in their original versions. (Blockbuster refused to carry NC-17 titles, and thus forced filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky and Abel Ferrara to create bowdlerized R-rated versions of their pictures, even though the original films were frequently less graphic than the “unrated” discs the stores happily stocked.)
In the roughly 24 hours since Blockbuster’s closures were announced, I’ve seen scores of misty-eyed memories of Blockbuster’s heyday, and I don’t aim to dismiss those remembrances — your nostalgia is your own. But let’s not soft-soap the fact that this was a chain that ran roughshod over local businesses, gouged customers on a regular basis, employed scores of movie-ignorant dullards, refused to stock controversial titles, imposed a bullshit “family” morality that was hypocritical at best, and operated on a business model that was less about Film than it was about Product. Netflix has problems of its own, and its hints at a move away from physical media are downright troubling. There’s still value in the video store, as a place of discovery and a place of discussion. But Blockbuster isn’t that place, and it never was.