Video Stores: The End of the Beginning




On November 6, 2013, Blockbuster LLC announced that it will be closing its 300 remaining U.S. stores by January 2014. The company will be ending its DVD-by-mail service by mid-December. The move is expected to affect 2,800 employees, to say nothing of the countless bags of Clodhoppers that will now surely go uneaten.

Blockbuster’s announcement was not entirely unexpected, since the company has been languishing on its corporate deathbed for several years. At the company’s peak in 2004, there were approximately 9,000 Blockbuster stores in the U.S. The company’s market share was steadily eroded by the rise of video-on-demand services like Netflix, Redbox video vending machines, and the increasing prevalence of illegal downloading through torrent websites. While movie studios and theatre chains have dreamed up increasingly gimmicky mechanisms to enhance the value of the theatrical experience, the notion of driving to a brick-and-mortar store to rent a video remained hopelessly low-tech. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, and was acquired by Dish Network Corp. Dish steadily divested Blockbuster’s international assets, and slowly began to shut down the 1,700 stores that the company acquired. From a shareholder standpoint, news of Blockbuster’s demise was met not with a bang, but a whimper – Dish’s stock has increased 34% over the course of 2013, and the November 6 announcement barely made a dent in the price per share. In fact, the price per share has slightly increased since the announcement was made.

If the most ubiquitous video rental brand in history ceases to exist and nobody cares, how truly valuable was their service in the first place?

When considered in the context of the entire history of cinema, the life of Blockbuster Video, and video rental stores in general, was remarkably short. The first Blockbuster store opened in Dallas, Texas in October 1985. By 1986 there were over 20 Blockbuster stores operating in the U.S. In 1987, former Waste Management International executive Wayne Huizenga and two partners purchased a controlling interest in Blockbuster for $18.5 million. By 1990, a mere 5 years after the company’s founding, there were 1,300 Blockbuster stores across the U.S.

In 1997, two software entrepreneurs founded a DVD-by-mail service called Netflix. The idea was inspired by an incident where one of the founders had to pay $40 in late fees to return an overdue copy of Apollo 13. Like a disease that lies dormant before manifesting as something fatal, the seeds of the video store’s demise had been sewn.

The news that Blockbuster, and video stores more generally, had a lifecycle of only 30 years is likely jarring to anyone born between 1975 and 1990 or so. Of course, video stores aren’t going to become entirely extinct, just like record stores haven’t become entirely extinct. However, like records stores, video stores seem destined to become destinations for self-identified members of a cultural niche living in large urban centres. The days of the video store as a mainstream cultural institution are over.

As video stores transition from ubiquity into a boutique industry, it’s perhaps appropriate for cinephiles of a certain generation to let out a nostalgic lament for the romanticized past. After all, creating a romanticized collective memory is exactly what movies do. When I was a kid my dad used to take me to our local video store almost every Friday night. Week after week, I rented Disney’s Pinocchio. As I got older, my education in film happened in video stores. They were like museums where you could rent the artifacts, take them home and study them. If the box art looked good, that was enough to get me interested. What was Blade Runner? I didn’t know, and there was no Google to tell me, but Harrison Ford was in it and the poster looked cool. Lifetime love affairs with films began so ignominiously, just wandering up and down the aisle of a video store, waiting for the right image to speak to me.

While those were my own formative film experiences, they aren’t necessarily better than what future generations will experience when they watch films using Netflix, or similar services. Several recent examples have caused me to wonder whether we should mourn video stores at all.

Over the Labour Day weekend I was at a friend’s cottage in northern Ontario. While picking up groceries at Wal-Mart, we rented a movie from a Redbox vending machine. Three days later, I was able to return the DVD to a Redbox in downtown Toronto. The convenience was remarkable. Brick-and-mortar video stores require heat, electricity, staff to run the place, and customers to pay for it all. A small community in cottage country may not have the resources to sustain a video store year-round. That Redbox may be what introduces a kid in that community to a world of cinema that they would otherwise have limited access to.

More recently, I was at home on a rainy Sunday with some time on my hands. I saw that The Heat was playing on demand. It was one of the few major studio releases that I had missed over the summer – I wanted to see it, but not badly enough to go out of my way for it. Within seconds, I was watching the movie in my living room in glorious hi-definition for about the same price that it would have cost to rent it. I didn’t have to leave my house. There was no risk that the store would be out-of-stock. Think of the benefits of this to parents of young children, or to someone sick or disabled who has trouble leaving the house. On demand services provide more access to more films for more people; as film fans, we should be excited by the increased proliferation of something we love.

For years, films were something that could only be enjoyed in a theatre. The mere notion that a film can be watched in your own home is still relatively new. Video stores were only the very first manifestation of this concept. As studios experiment with new modes of delivering new releases directly into people’s homes, our ideas about how we consume film, and where we consume film, are likely to evolve with technology. The end of video stores is the beginning of something different, and arguably greater. No one is going to miss late fees, or pounding the tracking button on a VCR, or finding that the film you wanted is out-of-stock. Let’s celebrate video stores for the place that they occupy in our shared cinematic upbringing, then embrace the new frontier ahead.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel