Yesterday the hatchet finally came down on Blockbuster. The Dallas-based video rental company, which has been struggling for years and was purchased out of bankruptcy in 2011 by DISH Network, will close its remaining 300 stories by early January 2014. The news is not surprising. The store’s fate had long been resigned to that of the record store chain and the big box bookstore.
As one might expect, there has been a certain measure of nostalgia accompanying the news. Blockbuster wasn’t your typical brand. Like Starbucks, it was not only a market dominator, it was a cultural touch point, a company whose name became synecdochic for the movie rental industry at large. And for millions of people growing up in the late-1980s through the early-2000s, it was a kind of magic place, a candy store of stocked cinema dreams. Its demise means that Blockbuster will become novelty of the past, a Jeopardy question, and familiarity with the store will date its customers in an era just as the 8-track writ a certain generation in the amber of the 1970s
I suffer no such nostalgia for the movie rental retailer. Growing up, Blockbuster was a bad word, cursed and scorned weekend-in and weekend-out. The chain arrived in my hometown on the South Shore of Long Island, NY town not long after my family, late adopters to home video, purchased our first VCR. At first Blockbuster was one option among many. It was the brighter, cleaner, more sprawling store, and I remember a certain thrill walking into it and seeing rows upon rows of new releases covering entire walls like some improvised Andy Warhol Campbell Soup imitation.
But that was all Blockbuster had. It didn’t take long to exhaust the store’s back catalogue of worthwhile films. Its collection of classic films were limited to The Godfather and Jaws. As I got older, entered high school, and began looking to quench an expanding thirst for cinema, Blockbuster’s meager foreign shelf proved paltry, and even classic American films, from the Maltese Falcon to A Woman Under the Influence, were not stocked. As video games moved, it got worse. To dismiss Blockbuster as all Die Hard 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog was only the slightest exaggeration.
The other rental stores, with their single copies of movies stacked high to the ceiling and their crowded little alleyway corridors, disappeared. We would continue to drive to other nearby towns looking for the remaining mom and pops, but after a while they were also gone. Elsewhere, Blockbuster’s selection wasn’t as bad as it was in my hometown. I’d visit friends on other parts of Long Island, and their Blockbusters felt like treasure troves even if they just carried something like The Deer Hunter. Typically, these Blockbuster stores with better selections were in wealthier areas. It was through Blockbuster that I learned a cynical truth about this kind of market dominance: demographic studies have a reciprocating power, reinforcing the perceived desires of the many by creating a kind of tyranny of the least common denominator.
My family became early adopters of a proto-Netflix service, a mail order rental company called something like Home Film Festival. You would flip through a thick catalogue, fill out a list of movies you’d like to see, send it in, and the VHS tapes would show up at the front door. It balked Blockbuster’s convenience and promise of what then felt like instant gratification. But thanks to the mail order service I was able to exhaust the oeuvres of Hitchcock and Scorsese and see films by John Sales, Pier Paulo Pasolini, Robert Altman, Ermanno Olmi, and Woody Allen. (Yes my local Blockbuster in New York carried just a handful of Woody Allen films.) Little did I know that this service was a harbinger of things to come.
Was Blockbuster a victim of technology or itself? The answer is probably both, but it was the chain’s own myopic confidence brought on by its industry dominance that, in the end, left it open to the encroachment of internet competition. What’s certain is that film buffs who had no interest in renting one of 100 copies of the latest Hollywood schlock didn’t put the corporation out of business. But I like to think that Home Film Festival represented one aspect of the so-called “Internet Revolution” that did.
In this day of instant access and broad-based connectivity, economies of scale can work both ways. Pools of individuals scattered around the country in sum total together create a large marketplace that can be served more easily. And efforts to dominate a marketplace by ignoring individual taste and catering to an invented, generalized version of an imagined consumer (micromanaging taste into demographic trends) is no longer a fool proof business model. Though I’m sensitive to the jobs that will be lost, the end of Blockbuster is a triumph of the best of what the age of the Internet has ushered in. Its demise should be celebrated.