MovieBob - Intermission
MovieBob's Re-Tales: Blockbusted

Bob "MovieBob" Chipman | 8 Nov 2013 16:00
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And so it ends. The news came on Wednesday that Blockbuster Video was shuttering its remaining stores and ending its non-starter Netflix/Redbox wannabe ventures. It wasn't that long ago (2004, in fact) that Blockbuster was the most powerful name in home entertainment, but the effects of streaming, on-demand and Redbox were so instantly damning that today's news arrives with most folks being surprised that any of them were still open.

Blockbuster was my first paying job, in High School, back in 1998. I'd actually end up working for the company on two separate occasions, becoming an assistant manager the second time. It's an experience I recall with mixed emotions: The pay was lousy, the company was everything wrong with entertainment-retail and I labored under more than a few genuinely terrible bosses while there. On the other hand, several of my closest and dearest current friendships were made there, among fellow employees.

In any case, here are three stories (of the ones that I can tell - my "best" Blockbuster Stories won't be suitable for telling until either myself or certain other associated parties are in the grave) of my time there that leapt immediately to mind when the word came of Big Blue finally throwing in the towel.

The Fandom Menace

The release of Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace to VHS was to be the big home-video event of 2000, or so everyone in the video biz thought remembering the glory days of big launches. Instead, we were all just a few years out from DVD and Netflix, unaware that the world was already turning away from the mentality that you needed to line up at midnight for a pan-and-scan VHS of a big movie.

Also, let's face it, public opinion had turned around on TPM remarkably quickly, and by the time it was on video its badness was well established. So, despite all our "IT'S COMING!!!" signage, weeks of pitches for reservations and my volunteering to turn up in Darth Maul facepaint, we wound up facing a "midnight launch" line of... four people, only one of whom wanted to buy his copy instead of renting.

And then the computers failed to recognize the item SKU, which ultimately meant he got his copy for free to avoid a scene. All things considered, we should've taken this as an omen. (There was no attempt at a midnight launch for Attack Of The Clones.)

Wide Divide

Some of you are too you to remember this, but once upon a time TVs were square-shaped while movie screens were rectangles. This meant that movies released to video had two options for display, neither ideal: "full-screen" (aka pan-and-scan) which "filled" a TV screen by lopping the sides off a film image, or "widescreen" (aka letterbox) which presented the original film image with empty spaces on the TV's top and bottom. Every Blockbuster had at least one bitter, put-upon film geek whose job was explaining this - while trying not to be too snarky about the obvious superiority of widescreen.

For decades, the rule of thumb was the cheaper VHS tapes came in fullscreen while more expensive "collector's edition" tapes and digital formats like laserdisc went with wide, but in 1999 DVD was starting to eke its way out, digital tvs were arriving and you started to see studios question the economics of doing so many versions of a single release.

My most vivid memory of this coming to a head was when Michael Mann's The Insider came to VHS in widescreen only, at the request of its director and the behest of its newly cost-conscious studio. At my store, we spent all week fielding bewildered phone calls (and return requests) from folks who just couldn't concieve that something had not gone wrong with either the tape or their television.

"No, ma'am. Your TV is not cutting off Christopher Plummer's head - that's the way the shot was always composed, it was never there."

"Young man, you may think I'm stupid, but I've seen The Sound Of Music hundreds of times so I can assure you Christopher Plummer has a head!"

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