Though it was long seen coming, it finally became official this last week. Blockbuster Video is no more. While this is a sign of how things have progressed in home entertainment for mostly the better, with on-demand and streaming video making it easier for the consumer to watch whatever they want, it does also bring an end to an institution that has been at the center of many cinephiles lives. Apart from some independent holdovers here and there, you rarely will find a video store in your local neighborhood today. But back in the day, finding a store devoted to video rentals was as easy as finding a McDonald’s. The decline of video stores over the years certainly has had to do with the advancements in streaming video, but the dominance of Blockbuster Video as a company also played a role as well. In a way, by working so hard to become the top dog of the video rental market, Blockbuster also facilitated it’s own downfall when the market changed once again. Though the end of Blockbuster was inevitable, and needed to happen, it does leave a gap for those of us who’ve built their love for film through renting from their local video store. The video rental experience, while not exactly life-changing, is something that most film lovers have been through at some point in their lives, and this week it has now become a thing of the past. In this article, I will look back on this era that Blockbuster Video defined, and what it’s end means for the future of home entertainment.
In the late 80’s, we saw the emergence of VHS, which gave studios and filmmakers the ability to make films available for purchase after their theatrical release for the very first time. Before, audiences had to wait for airings on television before they could see their favorite films again, and that also meant having to put up with commercial breaks as well. When VHS tapes started to be produced by the studios directly, it led to the creation of a niche market, with stores opening up across the country, directly geared toward filling that public appetite. Being able to own a movie as part of a collection is a commonplace thing nowadays, but when home video sales began, it was an exciting new frontier and it had an influence on the film industry almost instantly. Not only did the rise of home video affect the number of theatrical runs that a movie would have, but it also drove the movie studios towards film preservation and restoration as well, because of course, presentation matters for home viewing.
But, like with most new technology, VCR tape players were very expensive, and buying a movie to play in it was also not cheap at the time. Some retailers even had to pay prices as high as $100 per movie in order to have it available in their stores. So, in order to get more out of their product, and to let audiences have better access to the movies they wanted, video rental services came into being. Like checking a book out from a library, consumers would be able to rent a movie for a certain amount of days at a low price. This business model worked extremely well and led to boom in VCR sales. Video stores popped up all across the country, both locally owned and franchise operated, and home video sales very quickly became a major part of the film industry as a whole. But, it wasn’t just studio films that benefited from this new market. Independent producers saw an open opportunity in this new industry, and before long a whole Direct to Video market opened up, thanks to video stores allowing to indiscriminately sell and rent out a whole variety of films as a way to fill their shelves with more product. In these early days, it was very common to see a diverse collection of independent stores in your hometown, as it was in mine. There were stores that I grew up with in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon that went by such varied names as Silver Screen Video or Flix & Picks, and choosing a rental from these places certainly had an affect on my growing interest in movies at a young age.
But that changed in the mid 90’s when the video rental industry became more standardized. Out of this period of time came a chain of stores known as Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster was founded in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, and started off as just another local retailer like most other stores, before it began to expand rapidly. In the late 90’s, it was common to find at least one local Blockbuster in your area, and by the end of the decade, Blockbuster was unrivaled in the home video market. Their rise had the negative affect of forcing all of the other competition out of business, which benefited them for the time being, but it would come back to bite them in the years ahead. Blockbuster may have been ruthless to the competition, but to become the best in the industry, they did manage to do many beneficial things that did revolutionize the market. For one thing, they were the first national retailer to begin video game rentals. Their standardization of rental pick ups and drop offs also revolutionized the way we rent movies, making the drop off slots at your local store a life-saver late at night. Also, Blockbuster was also the first chain to begin working within the film industry to create exclusive promotions and deals on upcoming releases. Despite seeing a lack of choices in rental stores happen because of Blockbuster’s dominance, I don’t believe that consumers cared much about it as long as Blockbuster still operated efficiently.
Most film lovers will attest that they’ve probably spent a good amount of their time in a Blockbuster store. While many of us could find exactly what we wanted at any time, there was another side effect that also changed how we grew up watching movies after spending time in a Blockbuster, and that effect would be the impulse rental. I’m sure most of you out there have come out of a Blockbuster Video at one time with a movie you’ve never even heard of instead of the one you wanted, simply out of curiosity. Having a variety of choices seems normal now, but not until video rental came about did consumers have that level of control over what they were able to choose. Before, you would have been limited to the whatever was playing on TV or in your local cinema, but stores like Blockbuster made consumer choices as simple as a quick scan through their shelves. For cinephiles, I’m sure that part of their growing love for films started out of making a surprise choice in the local video store, and with stores as big and as well stocked as Blockbuster, those surprises could have come from even the most obscure of titles. Blockbuster was also handy for film students like me whenever we had to watch a film as part of an assignment. Whether it was a film we knew or not, at least we had the comfort of knowing that there was a place we could look for it in a hurry.
In the later years, however, the market began to change again. The internet revolutionized video streaming in the later part of the 2000’s, and our reliance on Video and DVD for home entertainment purposes soon became a thing of the past too. Even though Blockbuster cleared out all comparable competition, they were ill equipped to take on the likes of a Netflix. What Netflix did was to eliminate the middle man in video rentals, and have movies sent directly to the home through the mail, which made it unnecessary for anyone to go out to a store and rent a movie anymore. Blockbuster tried it’s own rent by mail service in response, but by then the damage had already been done. Netflix had surpassed Blockbuster as the number one rental service and the former giant had to begin downsizing in order to survive. Soon, Redbox emerged and took away even more business from Blockbuster, appearing as convenient vending machines in grocery stores for anyone looking for an impulse rental. Like most all other forms of retail, the trend has moved towards online shopping, and Blockbuster is one of the biggest to have fallen, mainly because their business model was one that couldn’t adapt in the digital age. All that’s left for Blockbuster is it’s still recognizable name, and even that is owned by someone else now (it was purchased by DirectTV in 2011 for the branding it’s on-demand service).
Because Blockbuster eliminated much of the competition beforehand, it has actually made the transition to on-demand video renting faster and less rocky. There was no large grouping of various retailers resisting the the changes in the market; only Blockbuster. And now that they are gone, the era of land-based video rental shops has ended with them. Sure there are independent stores in certain areas that still serve nostalgic purposes, but their clientele is limited. Now it is more commonplace to hear that people have a Netflix account rather than a Blockbuster card. But Blockbuster still left a legacy that will not be quickly forgotten, especially among longtime movie aficionados. Many of us can still remember moments when being close to a Blockbuster came in handy; whether it was for a late night impulse rental, or for a quick bit of research, or for merely wanting to see a movie that you missed the first time around. For many people, the first time they watched a particular movie, it was probably not in a movie theater but through a rental from big blue. I can certainly say that I credit my local Blockbuster for helping me experience so many different types of movies. One of my favorite films of all time (Seven Samurai) came to me out of an impulse rental from Blockbuster, and I will always be grateful for that.
So it’s a bittersweet end for the onetime giant. Their closure spells the end of an institution that has been a big part of all of our cinematic experiences, but it’s a closure that was necessary. Netflix and Redbox are just much better and convenient services, and Blockbuster was a relic that was standing in the way. But, as we move forward, will those two also fall prey to the same fate as Blockbuster. My guess is probably not. Blockbuster had the unfortunate circumstance of being the top force in a market that was destined to fall. Netflix and Redbox, however, have relished in the fact that they stand in direct competition with each other, and that has led to new and creative avenues for both companies. Unlike Blockbuster, Netflix has branched out and generated their own exclusive content, including comedy specials and original shows like House of Cards, which not only makes it a great rental service, but also a competitor to broadcast TV. And Redbox is able to make itself available in locations all across the world without having to set up the infrastructure of an entire store chain. And with Amazon and Walmart entering the market with their own video streaming services like AmazonPrime and VUDU, it’s showing that the rental market is one that is going to continue growing in this new direction. Blockbuster is certainly done as an independent company, but without it ever being there in the first place, the rental business would certainly never have gotten to where it is now, and that’s the legacy that it ultimately will leave behind.