It was the McDonald’s of video rental chains. The company that squashed countless local mom-and-pop video stores; its ubiquitous blue-and-yellow signs blanketing the country, cities and suburbs alike, with the promise of a largely efficient, largely impersonal, sometimes painless video rental experience.
By 2004, Blockbuster Video had 9,000 remarkably similar-looking locations. By every retail business standard, Blockbuster Video had won. Then, slowly, as The New York Times put it earlier today, “Internet killed the video store.” Blockbuster eventually adapted to changing technology and consumer habits, but not fast enough. There were struggles. Netflix. Policy changes. No late fees! Store closures. Late fees are back again! Ownership change. And in January, the chain will be gone, shuttering its remaining stores and DVD mail service.
Some are posting fond remembrances of Blockbuster. You can’t spend that many hours of your life somewhere, especially if it was during your youth, and not have some emotional attachment to the place. But let’s face it: Blockbuster was never cool. It was never really the good guy, or a company you cheered for.
So let’s tell it like it really was. Here’s 10 things we won’t miss about Blockbuster Video:
1. The wrong movie is in the box. These first few entries listed could be said about video stores in general. But once Blockbuster Video conquered the known video rental world, Blockbuster Video was “the video store.” The company became synonymous with what a video store is, and its downfall is largely because it kept being just a video store. So these are fair game. So: You get home from Blockbuster. You have your overpriced 2-liter soda and movie-theater-sized box of Skittles and your movie. You go to the DVD player and open the box. And then: “WHERE IS STARSHIP TROOPERS? THIS IS FLATLINERS!”
2. The scavenger hunt. The clerk’s computer says there’s one copy of Office Space in the store. But its not where it should be on the shelf. Maybe it’s behind another movie? Maybe its stacked in the wrong category? It couldn’t be under “Drama” could it? “Where is it? You said you had a copy in stock. Where is it!?” So you go on a scavenger hunt around the store with the clerk trying to find that missing copy of Office Space because you’re really in the mood for Office Space and your heart was set on watching it. The best part of this is when the poor schlub clerk gets on his hands and knees and goes through the return bin to see if it’s buried under copies of Titanic. Then he finally says maybe Office Space was stolen. STOLEN. You know, like your time.
3. The unkind. Now we’re going way back: Blockbuster was normally pretty decent about staying on top of this, but we can’t do a post on video store gripes without mentioning those VCR tapes that were not rewound. “Be Kind, Rewind.” Also: Scratched /unplayable rentals.
4. The New Releases mirage. Blockbuster-specific gripes now: You think you’re not too late to get a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring even though its Friday night and it just came out this week, because there’s a whole section of the New Releases wall filled with copies of the film. But remember: The movie artwork boxes are hollow. The boxes with the actual discs are in the Blockbuster boxes behind the artwork boxes. None of the false-front boxes have movies behind them. It’s a trick! The display wall is a total mirage. Blockbuster succeeded in looking fully stocked with the latest movies, even when there’s not one copy in the store. Fooled you! Now go see if a copy of Legend is in, loser!
5. Late fees. Of course. Late fees. Once you rented a Blockbuster video, the clock was ticking. You better watch it the first night, especially if it was a coveted New Release. Those dollar-a-day fees stack up quick. And there’s an unholy checking-account-crippling $60-80 full replacement fee lurking if you ever actually lost one of those boxes. For all their brightly lit stores, Blockbuster Video operated like the grim gang in Goodfellas: “Oh you forgot to return a DVD by midnight? F–k you, pay me! You returned it with the wrong disc? F–k you, pay me!”
6. Prudishness. You had to get your porn elsewhere. Okay. But even NC-17 films of some artistic/entertainment merit were banned by the chain in the 1990s, which was yet another blow against studios looking for a way to distribute NC-17 films. In other words: If you really wanted to appreciate Elizabeth Berkley causing a minor tsunami in a swimming pool in Showgirls, you couldn’t get it at Blockbuster.
7. Indie/foreign film? Ha! It’s called Blockbuster Video for a reason, film geek. You want an art film, or something with subtitles, you best go someplace else. But Blockbuster will have 71 copies of Enemy of the State.
8. Those uniforms. During its heyday, Blockbuster had Disney-style clean-cut rules for its employees, who also had to wear pretty dorky uniforms (rather than dress like, you know, normal people, like at indie video and record stores). A group of employees actually sued Blockbuster for a 1994 policy that banned male employees from having long hair. For more: Check out this Blockbuster employee training video below. A creepily omniscient training manager who calls himself a “professional opportunist” gets rather inappropriate with a teenage clerk and prods her to date a customer’s son while harassing her for the unspeakable sin of accepting Bon Jovi tickets. (If you find yourself obsessing about this video, which is totally understandable, you’ll find a breakdown of it from an ex-employee here).
9. Stagnation. When it comes to resisting change, Blockbuster critics point to the company being too slow to react to the rise of DVD-by-mail services and online streaming (Netflix was operating for six years before Blockbuster got in the movie-by-mail service game — which is astounding). But the company was slow to embrace other changes too that made even its core business pretty lousy. From shifting from VCR tapes to DVD. From pan-and-scan format videos to widescreen/letterbox. From DVD to Blu-ray. Being a Blockbuster customer who actually loved movies, and therefore loved improvements in the way movies were formatted or displayed, meant always being frustrated or disappointed because the company seemed reluctant to stock titles and formats until most of their customers were demanding the new versions. You never really got the feeling Blockbuster, as a company, loved, or even understood, movies. It’s like the way rental discs were given to customers in generic Blockbuster boxes stripped of their original packaging — you felt like you were renting a product unit, not a piece of commercial art.
10. Then everything fell apart. First standards were allowed to slip a little. Remember how Blockbuster went from having every video displayed with the box cover facing toward you? And then all of a sudden stores starting stacking DVDs like library books to pile more in? And there was also the surge of video games, which was understandable. But then, during the final recent years of Blockbuster, the stores began to stock all sort of random items, whether they had something to do with movies or games or not. Posters, stuffed animals, T-shirts, toys. The stores went from creepily anti-septic and strictly regimented environments to random flea markets peddling anything to survive.
Now here’s the really odd part. The twist ending. I walked through a Blockbuster about a year ago. I was shocked and saddened by how far the chain had drifted from its original concept … the videos and games stacked crazily everywhere, the dirty carpets, the random products all over the place, angry miserable employees who looked like they wandered in off the street. And I found myself … actually missing the old Blockbuster Video. Missing it a little, even with all these gripes still firmly recalled.
Nostalgia is funny like that. For years you go to a place. For years you don’t like it much. Then it’s gone. Then you miss it.