One of my prized possessions is a VHS of 1993’s Super Mario Bros: The Movie that comes from my local rental shop growing up. The tape, well intact, still has the yellow Video World sticker on its spine, inside a plastic case that’s weathered the years quite well, minus some grubby corners.
I keep it on my desk, a symbol of nostalgia for all the years I spent browsing the shelves in that tiny hole in the wall, a stone’s throw from where I went to school. My world was small, but in there it felt big. I knew the horror movies section top to bottom by the time it closed, such a regular some of the staff knew exactly what I was going to choose if casually partaking in their three-for-five-nights offer on cheaper films.
Video World was a small business, run by a small team, in a small town, the kind that’s indelible to the community and irreplaceable when it’s gone. Netflix series Blockbuster, about the last remaining outlet in the rental chain, would have you believe shops like what I frequented are being spiritually preserved by Blockbuster Video’s doors staying open. Don’t be fooled.
In the comedy series, Timmy, played by Randall Park, finds out the Blockbuster Video he’s managing has become the final one in existence. Already struggling, the staff feel threatened by impending layoffs, forcing Timmy to rally them and somehow keep turning a profit when people can find the best movies at the click of a button.
Cue romantic notions about these places being a gateway to cinema, keeping a passion for physical media alive, and more rose-tinted platitudes. There’s an actual Blockbuster Video not unlike the one on the show, in Oregon, where it’s become a tourist trap for people who miss looking over the same stacks of science fiction movies over and over, before just getting Event Horizon again (like me).
This all grand in principle: curated stores were pivotal to people exploring film and learning about the artform, and anything that makes Blu-rays easier to get is surely a good thing. But it’s disingenuous for Blockbuster of all things to make itself some kind of representative here, when it was part of the problem.
Video rental shops sprang up in the mid-’80s as a solution to then huge price tags on VHS and other formats for personal viewing. Instead of charging customers $70 or whatever in a one-off purchase, the store would absorb that cost, then lend the same copy to people for $5 a night instead, using that money to pay off the initial charge, then split profits. This became wildly popular in the late-’80s, and many little stores started springing up, among a few franchises.
Blockbuster Video, founded by David Cook, started as the former, before expanding into the latter. To cut a lot of business hoo-ha short, it eventually became a market leader consistently expanding across the US and internationally through-out the ’90s. But in order to compete, Blockbuster Video had some retrograde policies.
The selection skewed towards new and mainstream releases anyway, always pushing for stuff from major studios, but in 1991 Blockbuster decided to stop stocking NC-17 rated films altogether. This was an extension of an existing policy against adult films, making it difficult for independent productions to get distribution.
As one of the principle conduits for people checking out new movies, what Blockbuster would and wouldn’t carry affected film culture. It made it harder for smaller, weirder features to push through, and no doubt stifled what studios funded as they took into account how wide an audience something could reach.
We had a Blockbuster in my neighbouring town, and despite the bright lights and bigger floorspace, the library always seemed smaller. Dozens and dozens of copies of whatever the latest studio-driven thriller movie or awards-contender drama movie was, but not a lot of depth otherwise. The genre sections felt uncared for, just holding whatever was left over from selling the surplus on the new releases. It was a conveyor belt.
More locally, there was Xtra-Vision, an Irish equivalent that eventually sold to Blockbuster in the mid-’90s. Besides the videogame section, I count myself lucky we had something different. Not that Video World offered anything spectacularly different, the whole model was difficult if you were looking for something truly avante-garde, but at least it wasn’t part of a monolith.
I doubt everyone who worked behind the counter actually cared deeply about the proliferation of films, they just made sure my dad could get End of Days or Starship Troopers after our Friday swim, and that was good enough. But I know the manager did. During the closing down sale, the same period I got my Super Mario Bros, as well as copies of The Muppet Christmas Carol and Cube, we chatted about the unfortunate downturn of the business as everything became simultaneously cheaper and online.
He’d worked hard to keep Video World afloat, avoiding acquisition or closure right to the end. Blockbuster put many like it out of business, sucking the life out of movie rentals, full of staff that floated in and out, driven purely by targets and corporate culture. No personality, just the desire for anyone who walks in to get the latest Tom Cruise movie, and maybe some popcorn.
What’s depicted in the TV series Blockbuster, created by Vanessa Ramos, is an attempt to act like movies, and their fans, were always part of the Blockbuster Video ethos. Now that it’s been reduced to a small company that needs to feel integral to the local community, Blockbuster Video would have us believe it always flew the flag for home cinema.
The characters in Blockbuster treat the shop like a safe-haven, an extension of their film-obsessed personalities. A place where esoteric tastes and grand Hollywood dreams live in harmony. It’s revisionist nostalgia-bait for a corporation that wants you to really believe it mattered.
Ironically, Blockbuster Video turned down an opportunity to acquire Netflix. Streaming services offer many dangers, but this is one case where the endless line of entertainment is an advantage. 20 years ago, I’d have advised against renting Blockbuster, now I’ll just say keep scrolling. Some stuff never left the used bin for a reason.