For movie lovers, today marks the end of an era for once facet of the film industry. Most would call this long overdue – in some cases, there may be shock that is hasn’t happened already – but Blockbuster video is due to shut down the remainder of its 300 or so brick and mortar stores by mid-January, as well as ending it’s DVD-by-mail business by the end of December. The announcement came from the CEO of DISH Network, the current owner of the long-struggling retail chain, which after various efforts to stave off the inevitable failed, has decided to throw in the towel and put Blockbuster out of its misery.
Having started in the early 80s taking advantage of the possibilities allowed by the rise of the VCR and home video, Blockbuster would come to dominate the video rental business in the 1990s through the early 2000s, both driving many of its independent competitors out of business and becoming a cultural fixture for many Americans for just over a decade, giving rise to countless ‘movie nights’ – and of course, the following rush to get the movie back before you got charged late fees.
Of course, it was when it was at its peak that the seeds of the chain’s downfall were planted – having turned down the chance to buy a little start-up company called Netflix in 2000, few would have seen the dramatic switch-around the two brands would have by the end of the decade. After peaking roughly around the middle of the 2000s, Blockbuster began to lose ground to Netflix and other digital movie streaming services, as well as rental kiosks like Redbox. Blockbuster soon went from a company that was awash in enough cash to spin-off from parent-company Viacom and to buy several smaller chains, to one whose profits were halved with every passing year. After going through a chain of CEOs and taking on nearly a billion in debt, Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010, and was purchased by DISH network in 2011, closing thousands of scores in the process. The company had been kept on life-support ever since.
It’s somewhat curious to see the collapse of a one-time industry giant treated with such indifference, the closure of the chain not even causing a blip on DISH network’s stocks. I’d write this up to the chain’s continued existence having turned into a running gag, to the point that even seeing a still-operating Blockbuster would spark some jests by anyone who eyed it as they drove past. Unlike the closures of some other chain stores, like Borders Books and Music, which similarly fell largely by failing to compete with web-based competitors it had previously written off, there has been shockingly little mourning and a not-so shockingly large bum rush to dance on the store’s grave.
Jokes aside, I can so why to some extent – Blockbuster had some long-standing issues the critics rightly point out, from how it’s devastating impact on independent video stores, abysmal customer service, being heavily weighted toward new releases, refusing to stock certain films it deemed ‘controversial’, and of course, the late fees. The diversity, selection and flexibility of its digital successors from Netflix to Hulu to Amazon Instant Video no doubt takes away much of the sting of its passing – chain video rental stores every ten blocks were a relic even five or six years ago, even more so now.
That said, in our rush for the sweet temptation of schadenfreude, I feel a lot of people are ignoring some of the better things that will be missed about Blockbuster. While their selection did largely favor major films, they also helped give much needed spotlight to some underrated or overlooked gems, perhaps most famously The Boondock Saints, which while bombing in theaters, made millions from rental fees. Blockbuster was also a critical incubator of both gaming and anime in the 1990s, with their rentals of these often expensive offerings allowing access to a greater audience, and playing a role in the growth of both from niche interests to billion dollar industries. Of course, there is always the pleasure of poking around the racks, or the experience of renting a film that, for one reason or another, whether it be the intriguing box art or picking something since the movie you wanted was out of stock, you grabbed off the rack and discovered a movie that you loved, which you only got the chance to see by circumstance.
For good or ill though, it’s the end of an era, with Blockbuster, last of the large video rental chains, closing its doors for good in a couple months. It’s another sign that times are changing for the movie industry – and in many ways, these changes are exciting. The same streaming services that drove the rental giants like Blockbuster to bankruptcy have sparked a golden age for movie lovers, with a vast variety of films, famed and obscure, just at your finger tips. Still, now’s the time to pay your respects to Blockbuster, before the stores shut their doors for good – if only to hit up the coming clearance sales.