The Rise and Fall of Blockbuster Video
"Make It a Blockbuster Night"...Oh, Wait, Never Mind...
On January 10, 2014, the one-time video rental titan Blockbuster Video effectively ceased to exist. Its 300 remaining company-owned retail locations in the United States closed their doors for the last time on that date, and their Blockbuster By Mail rental service was taken offline.
Response from movie fans was immediate: "Wait a minute...Blockbuster was still a thing? Really?"
If you're old enough to remember the VCR, then you probably also remember when Blockbuster Video was the "go-to" store for movie buffs. Throughout the '80s and '90s, their bright blue-and-yellow awnings were visible in nearly every suburban strip mall and small town main street. Starting from humble beginnings in Dallas, Texas, in 1985, Blockbuster quickly became the Wal-Mart of the video rental business, experiencing rapid growth throughout the 1990s as they spread across America, then the world. At the chain's peak in the early 2000s, Blockbuster boasted a network of 9,000 retail locations around the globe—due mostly to their business model of gobbling up regional video store chains and putting small, local "mom and pop" video shops out of business in the process.
So how did Blockbuster fall so far and so quickly? In a word... progress. By the mid '00s, people's movie-viewing habits had changed drastically. Thanks to the Internet, it was no longer necessary to get in your car and go across town to rent a movie at a brick-and-mortar Blockbuster store anymore. Why go to all that trouble when you could just as easily order a film from your cable provider's On Demand offerings, or stream a flick instantly to your computer or TV via Netflix? Even the consumers who still preferred to rent actual discs had a cheaper alternative to Blockbuster: the bright red RedBox movie rental kiosks that were popping up like dandelions in front of every supermarket, 7-11, and corner drug store. In just a few short years, Blockbuster had lost its stranglehold on the video rental market, and their stores were no longer the only destination for people to get their Hollywood fix.
By all accounts, Blockbuster should've seen it coming. Like the music and publishing industries before it, however, Blockbuster treated that new-fangled "Internet" thing as a passing fad and chose to ignore it rather than deal with it head-on.
Believe it or not, Blockbuster actually had a chance to purchase Netflix back in 2000 when it was still just a small, web-based service that sent discs through the mail, but they balked at its $50 million asking price. If Blockbuster had pulled the trigger on that deal, it's likely that they might still be a dominant force in the home entertainment industry today... but in essence, they looked at Netflix, which had yet to turn a profit at the time, and said, "What, this Internet stuff? Pffft. It'll never catch on. We're not interested." Today, of course, Netflix is one of the leading providers of Hollywood content—it currently boasts more subscribers than many major pay-cable networks, including the once mighty HBO—and claims a net worth of nearly $1.5 billion. (All together now: "DUHHHHHHH!")
Once Blockbuster realized that they'd made a potentially fatal mistake by passing on Netflix, they belatedly tried to compete with it by starting their own Blockbuster By Mail program in 2004. As Blockbuster By Mail struggled to gain a foothold in the marketplace, Netflix sued them for trademark infringement, claiming that Blockbuster's mail-order rental service simply copied their business model. Blockbuster never admitted any wrongdoing, but they did eventually settle out of court with Netflix for an undisclosed sum.
"Wow! What a Difference!" (1988)
As a consumer, the most galling thing about Blockbuster for me was that their video selection was always so damned vanilla. Blockbuster's entire business model was centered around having the most copies of the newest, hottest major studio releases... which meant If your cinematic tastes went anywhere outside of the mainstream (i.e,. If you were looking for a classic black and white film, a foreign film, or anything even slightly "edgy") you were usually sh*t out of luck. (But hey, you could count on 'em to have a whole wall full of the newest Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, right? Ugh!)
When I first moved to my current hometown in 1999, we had a great mom-and-pop independent video store called United Video, which had an amazing selection of cult films, indies, sci-fi and horror "B" movies... in other words, pretty much everything I liked. Their employees were knowledgeable and friendly and knew most of their customers by name. Renting from them was always a pleasure... until around 2001, when they heard through the grapevine that Blockbuster was looking at opening up a location directly across the street from them. They knew that Blockbuster would kill them on new-release rentals alone... so rather than try to compete with BB, they got in bed with them instead. One sad winter day, United Video closed up shop and it re-opened a few weeks later as a brand spankin' new Blockbuster outlet. Unfortunately, in the interim, the back catalog stock had been cut back drastically, and all of the good gory, violent stuff I loved renting from them was long gone. I rarely, if ever, rented movies from them after the change, and when the family retired and closed up the store after a year or so, most of us weren't surprised at all. Currently, my hometown has no video stores at all... just a half dozen RedBox machines.
Remember "Carl and Ray?" They Were Awesome.
Circling the Drain...
When Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010, it still boasted nearly 3000 locations. The chain was eventually acquired at auction by the satellite TV provider Dish Network, who seemed more interested in using the brand name for promotional purposes than in keeping the stores—and their aging business model—afloat. A Dish Network on-demand movie channel was re-christened as the "Blockbuster Movie Pass," while more than 1000 Blockbuster stores closed their doors between 2011-2012. Many of them were replaced by RedBox style Blockbuster DVD rental kiosks—another example of Blockbuster being late to the party. When Dish announced in November 2013 that the remaining 300 Blockbuster stores would close, I'm sure that like me, many people were surprised to hear that there were any stores left.
I may never have been a particularly big fan of Blockbuster, but it was still kind of sad to see a brand that had once been nearly as ubiquitous as McDonald's bite the dust. Besides, I used to like prowling through their previously-used DVDs-for-sale bin every once in a while. I scored some decent stuff, super cheap! When the end finally came, I couldn't even take advantage of their final sell-off because all of the Blockbuster stores within a 20 mile radius of me had already been shuttered years prior.
Fare thee well, Blockbuster. You will live on in warm fuzzy memories of renting well-worn VHS tapes with washed out colors, with "BE KIND, REWIND" stickers affixed to the front of the cassette...and of your infamous late fees.
© 2013 Keith Abt