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.)
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!”
It Wasn’t Me
One of the reasons it’s hard to feel too bad about Blockbuster finally going under is the way they behaved when they were at the top – and that’s momentarily overlooking the fact that their homogenization of the rental business destroyed countless good local video shops to begin with. People tend to think of bad behavior by corporations as strictly coming from the big bosses or those nebulous organizations of directors, but the truth is it often trickles down, nefarious CEOs at the home office creating petty tyrants lording over the local branches.
On the second occasion that I was employed at a Blockbuster, the store in question was housed in a strip mall adjacent to a Starbucks, a print-shop and a Newbury Comics, Newbury Comics being an east-coast chain of music/movie/clothing/knick-knack/um… what you’d call a “hipster haven” these days, I guess. We’d always had good relations with the folks who worked at Newbury, and it was nice to have a “cool” store right next door to BB’s corporate sterility.
So one day we’re (the employees, that is) minding our own business when our District Manager came storming in looking unhappy. He was expected by my boss, but not at this time and not in this mood. His issue? On his way in, he’d popped into Newbury and had seen that they were selling DVDs. Apparently, Blockbuster had a policy of arranging to be the only store that sold movies in a property on which they rented space, now our DM was to be making angry calls to the landlord. It ultimately shook out (to my understanding) that Newbury Comics was in the “wrong” legally – in as much as they’d been violating a lease term that neither they or our mutual landlord seemed aware had existed in the first place – and so they had to stop selling movies at that location.
Technicality or not, it all felt super unnecessary. Sell-thru DVD wasn’t much of BB’s business at that point (their selection was always crap, and the prices couldn’t compete with fellow crap-selection purveyor Walmart) and part of Newbury’s appeal was that they’d stock obscure or “obscene” movie product other retailers wouldn’t. Suffice it to say, the inter-store relationship soured after the DM’s douche move, and it really didn’t have to – we were never in competition.
The story had a happy ending, at least, for the other store. A year or two after I was no longer working there, Blockbuster started to collapse in on itself and that was one of the first in the region to get shuttered. The day after it did, that Newbury Comics (which is still around, albeit in a different location) re-stocked itself with DVDs and hung in it’s window a “sign” made out of a bedsheet a’la Clerks reading “I ASSURE YOU, WE HAVE DVDs!”
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.