If you’re older than 25, you probably have fond memories of visiting your local video rental store on a Friday night. Spending 45 minutes browsing the aisles to find the perfect movie to rent and then picking up a pizza to head home. Maybe it was a first date in high school. Maybe it was a father and his kids bonding while mom had to work late. Maybe you just got dumped and you were going to drown your sorrows in romantic comedies.
Going to a video store was a fond memory for many, many people.
And for most people, it was often a Blockbuster Video.
That’s because Blockbuster — once purchased for $9.5 billion by Viacom — was everywhere. It ran mom and pop video stores out of business by negotiating deals directly with movie studios that made it unable for the little guy to compete. It was said at one point that a new Blockbuster location opened every 17 hours.
And something that huge and everywhere is no more. The company went bankrupt when it was unable to compete with streaming companies (more on that in a minute) and stores closed nationwide.
But there’s still one location — just one — left in the United States in Bend, Oregon. You might have read about them in The New York Times or saw a profile on CNN or Fox News. It’s the kind of quirky news that media love to report on.
The new documentary “The Last Blockbuster” (ironically available by streaming) gives an up close look at the rise and fall of the video company, complete with talking head celebrities who once worked at Blockbuster locations themselves (like comedians Doug Benson and Ron Funches and actors Adam Brody and Jamie Kennedy). But the real heart of the documentary is the focus on the manager of the last location, a woman named Sandi Harding who isn’t a massive film buff but instead is a hard working, customer-service-oriented “mom” who won’t give up even when the writing is on the wall. She’s kind of an inspiration, in many ways.
Director Taylor Morden and writer Zeke Kamm do a great job of putting the human emotion into this story, following Sandi as she purchases DVDs at Target when a customer requests something, stocking up on boxes of Airhead candies at Sams Club and physically opening up the 1990s Blockbuster computer system (still loaded with floppy discs) to repair the check-in/check-out system. She grills burgers for her longtime patrons and has employed nearly every teenager in their small Pacific-Northwest town.
The documentary itself sometimes over-romanticizes the days of video rental and relies too much on talking heads. At 88 minutes, it feels overly long and there are inconsequential sequences that probably should have been cut but were likely left in to beef up the running time, including a long scene with comedian Doug Benson browsing the store and texting his fellow comedian friends.
The nostalgia well starts to run dry way before the credits start to roll. It’s a feel good movie but even movie lovers like myself will feel like it was spinning its wheels a bit much.
But there are two big things I took away from this movie (and a good documentary either teaches me something or makes me think about life in a different way).
First is a business lesson. Blockbuster didn’t just simply die because Netflix came around. If you remember, Blockbuster tried to launch its own service similar to Netflix, with movies available by mail and you could pick them up at kiosks or in stores too. They even had streaming available (through Cable companies not smartphone apps) before Netflix did. But the reason Blockbuster died is because they didn’t have any capital to expand their streaming options. They borrowed and borrowed and when the 2008 financial crisis hit, the traditional financial leaders weren’t interested in investing in a declining corporation saddled with debt. Netflix — which offered to sell to Blockbuster for $50 million early on but was turned down — was the darling of West Coast investors and had money to get them through several years in the red (the company wasn’t profitable for a long time since costs were so high). Now Netflix’s profits have tripled in the last three years and their margins look good, even as they continue to invest hundreds of millions in buying or creating new content. Blockbuster could have easily buried Netflix but they didn’t have the capital. They waited too long to adjust to the future.
Second thing I thought long and hard about after watching this documentary is how an abundance of options doesn’t make us any happier. We have every movie available at our fingertips. We don’t have to drive to a store and pay late fees. We can watch whatever we want. But we don’t appreciate movies as much as we used to. When we only were able to watch a movie every once and a while, it was a treat and even a bad movie was fun.
This is detailed by many psychological studies, most notably by Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz in his book “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More.” He notes that when given a million options, we take longer to decide and we end up less satisfied with the choice we eventually make, ultimately nit-picking and looking for negatives because we keep thinking about the other options that could have been available.
I would also add that the effort that it takes to go to a movie theater or a Blockbuster video make the joy of watching a movie feel like more of an event compared to streaming something on Netflix on your phone. You’re more likely to watch the movie all of the way through even if it’s not great because of the time and money you put into it.
Video stores aren’t the only things we might see become scarce or non-existent. Younger audiences go to movie theaters less and less and would prefer watching something at home, even though us old farts still say it’s better to watch it on a big screen surrounded by people (home TVs are pretty big now though). During the pandemic, more movies went immediately to streaming and that might be the future, with movie theaters becoming a niche thing for certain audiences. You might see restaurants decrease their dine-in space as more and more people choose DoorDash or GrubHub even when the pandemic ends. Keep in mind that these services didn’t really exist about a decade or more ago. Things change quickly. Will there always be a few fancy restaurants and neighborhood pubs to provide social gatherings? Absolutely. But you’ll find that restaurants will have smaller dine-in spaces and might even move to lower rent areas with less visibility if the bulk of their money is coming from delivery. And the physical DVD/Blu-Ray? I’m already mocked by younger consumers for still purchasing physical movies since everything is eventually available to stream. They will probably end up like CD’s and be on their way to extinction.
Do I want to cling to the past? Maybe a little but I understand these changes.
I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to ordering carryout or watching “Wonder Woman 1984” at time rather than a theater. It’s just easier. But easier isn’t always better and I guess my point is to remember those “event experiences” we used to have and try to seek them out in places where they still exist. Maybe it isn’t going to a movie theater or renting a movie in person, but live theater and live concerts should still be sought out. And even if you’re streaming a movie at home with carryout food, you can still make it feel special. You can set up your dining room table and put the cell phones in a drawer. I guess my point is instead of just consume, consume, consume, we need to take the time to stop and savor sometimes. That’s what this documentary made me reflect on.