Sean P. Means: Blockbuster goes bye-bye, but leaves a legacy

Published November 15, 2013 8:41 am

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Being a connoisseur of irony, the news that the last video rental at the last Blockbuster store to close forever — at a location in Hawaii — was the apocalyptic comedy "This Is the End" was a good example of the art form.

Not the best in the past 12 months, but good. (The best remains the fact that Mitt Romney, after getting caught on tape disparaging 47 percent of the population as lazy, in the end received 47 percent of the vote. Karma is a comedian, that's for sure.)

This month marks the last step in Blockbuster's long death march, as the chain's last remaining stores closed to rentals last weekend — and reopened at the end of this week for liquidation sales. (A handful of franchisees and independent stores that license the Blockbuster name will remain open.)

Blockbuster and, indeed, video stores in general were the products of a surge in new technology — and were ultimately destroyed by another surge of new technology that followed.

But the rise and fall of the video store left a cultural legacy that changed the way we watch and think about movies.

To consider that legacy, let's first fire up the Delorean and travel back to 1985 — when the first Blockbuster Video store opened in Dallas.

Cable TV was still a fairly new phenomenon in American homes, so it was still a strange idea that people could watch a movie — any movie — when they wanted to, and not when a network or TV station programmer decided they should see it.

Home video made it possible to watch a movie over and over again, to watch several movies by the same filmmaker in order, or to interrupt viewing (say, to take a phone call or make dinner) and pick it up again where it stopped. These are no-brainers today, but radical innovations at the time.

And as video stores grew, and Hollywood stopped looking at home video as a menace and started looking at it as a secondary market for its product, the availability of titles skyrocketed. Soon, a single video store might carry tapes — and they were all tapes at the beginning, before DVDs took command — of 10,000 movies or more.

Who could keep track of so many movies? Turns out, the guys who worked there. Video stores in many places became havens for film geeks, who watched tape after tape in their off-hours so they could expand their encyclopedic knowledge of the medium.

In one instance, working at a video store created a film geek so overloaded with movie lore — especially of genre films — that he started making his own movies. That's how Quentin Tarantino got his start and hatched a generation of imitators.

The rise of new delivery systems — mail-based services like Netflix, Redbox rental kiosks and online streaming from the likes of Hulu and Netflix — meant that mainstream video stores, like Blockbuster, had to adapt or die.

First Blockbuster tried to stem the tide by establishing monopolies on content. The company signed exclusive deals with some film distributors, giving Blockbuster a 30-day window to rent out certain titles before Redbox and Netflix could get a hold of them. But that was a short-term fix, and doomed as Hollywood studios soon realized Blockbuster was a fading horse.

Blockbuster also tried to establish its own mail-based and Internet-based stores, but they were too little and too late. Dish Network, which bought Blockbuster after bankruptcy in 2010, announced that Blockbuster's DVD-by-mail service, intended to compete with Netflix, would also cease by the end of the year.

There is one area in which the brick-and-mortar video store soldiers on, and that's the independent specialty market. Even with the supposedly unlimited selection that the Internet can provide, rare and foreign titles are still sometimes hard to find on web-based services. But an arthouse video renter — and Salt Lake City's example is in the lobby of the Tower Theatre at 876 E. 900 South — still maintains an archive of those obscure gems.

And habits that people think are new really aren't. The notion of binge-watching — whether it's whole seasons of favorite TV shows or the collected works of a beloved filmmaker — may have blossomed thanks to the Internet's instant access, but it started in the VHS era.

I'm just old enough to remember the talk when home video first blew up, when Hollywood experts wailed that movies were dead because nobody would go out to a theater when they could stay home and watch stuff there. So the idea that Blockbuster is going away, while movie theaters continue to thrive, may be the most fascinating irony of all.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.



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