by Emily Quijano
April 2017

Friday nights meant one thing to my family: A Blockbuster visit. My sisters and I would be shaking with excitement as my mom drove us to the one that used to be down the street from our house. Racing past the movie posters along the store-front windows, I would always be the first one to step foot in the store where I was immediately greeted by a cardboard cutout of Luke Skywalker and Jerry, the cashier who wore a blue uniform and awesome movie-themed ties. Anticipation would build within me as I scanned the kaleidoscopic array of aisles that held thousands of VHS movies waiting to be watched. We made sure to cover the whole store—more than once—to pick the movies we wanted to see. My sisters and I enjoyed creating our own storylines for films we passed that had strange names or humorous movie covers. According to us, The Breakfast Club was about a group of teenagers who were obsessed with IHOP. Our visits ended with a bag of four movies in blue cases, a carton of Milk Duds, and microwavable popcorn. I remember it was the best way to spend a Friday night.

The 1980s is most commonly referred to as the era of Blockbuster as cinema was an integral part of American popular culture (Bach 2). From Top Gun to The Princess Bride, iconic movies that we cherish now were just premiering in theaters and, understandably so, prompted a universal appreciation for motion pictures. Because of this wide-ranging appeal toward film, video stores monopolized the home entertainment market as people preferred to spend their free time watching their favorite movies with family or friends (Fairchild 2). Video stores were found on every corner, but Blockbuster was one video rental chain that quickly became a household name. However, in the 21st century, developing rivals threatened the prosperity of video stores, including Blockbuster’s decade-long success (Bailey 4). With the emergence of new digital business models, the video rental industry has become almost obsolete, generating a myriad of public reactions and erasing a piece of American culture that revolved around discovery and genuine connections to the realm of film.

Before video stores, movies were solely watched in theaters, leaving studios hesitant to embrace video technology and video stores because they feared for losses in revenues. The rise of Blockbuster and other video shops occurred in 1980 when studios learned that the afterlife of their films could extend to the developing home-viewing sphere (Bailey 5). At first, the market was growing slowly because video cassettes were not affordable; however, when the prices dropped in the mid-80s, the market thrived and revenue for home video superseded theatrical box office (Vascellaro 4). Soon enough, America became littered with video shops, both independent and chain stores. Blockbuster became the most successful of its kind as it “operated like a contemporaneous movie theater, with ‘New Releases’ dominating and ‘opening weekends’ driving customers into the store” (Bailey 5). Their vision for the store layout was to keep it simple: “A uniform store design, with wide aisles, bright colors, and clean shelves deep with new releases” (Bailey 5). Blockbuster was the place for Americans to get their favorite films, explore different genres, and meet people who share their same taste in films.

At the pinnacle of Blockbuster’s success, new digital business models were emerging. These new models became known as streaming services which redefined convenient entertainment and altered the home-watching norm (Bach 2). Among these digital rivals, Netflix became the David to Blockbuster’s Goliath (Bailey 6). Ironically, Netflix creator Reed Hastings was a Blockbuster customer who decided to start a mail-order DVD rental service after he owed forty dollars in late fees for his copy of Apollo 13 (Bailey 6). People became intrigued with the convenience of Netflix, the variety of titles it offered, and their subscription policy (Bailey 7). Blockbuster rejected the opportunity to buy Netflix, which led to the company’s decade-long effort to replicate Netflix’s success by starting their own mail order service and in-store subscription (Bach 5). Blockbuster tried to prevail; however, it became quite clear that people had shifted toward digital distribution of video entertainment (Stelter 4). Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2011, closing their doors along with other big video rental companies. The announcement “amounted to a surrender: a statement that Netflix, symbolized by its little red envelopes and more recently its streaming service, had prevailed over the little blue boxes that Blockbuster VHS tapes and DVDs came in” (Stelter 4). Home entertainment has evolved into digital streaming and movie-delivery methods which has led to the public perception that “brick-and-mortar” stores are inconvenient and troublesome (Vascellaro 5).

The public reactions to the collapse of video rental stores were sparse. Some people had a paradoxical response as they predicted the closing of Blockbuster, yet they were shocked when it actually happened (Gach 6). People assumed that although digital streaming seemed to be the future, there would still be space for the video industry. Many had an expectation that there would be dual sources—digital platforms and brick-and-mortar stores—to obtain film just like bookstores that still exist alongside Amazon and act as an alternate way to get books (Gach 6). Others are confused on why video stores have become obsolete as they believe digital services, specifically Netflix, have many limitations in their instant streaming as they fail to offer obscure and older films (Gach 7). The closing of mega-stores has left a small, but zealous clientele that believe the video industry still lives on through independent stores (Bailey 4). They believe that local video stores that exist today demonstrate how there is still room for physical media. Independent stores still struggle with the technological advancing world, so they attempt to adapt and modernize their strategies with the support of local people who loves movies. Some independent video shops have installed bars or screening rooms in order to attract customers (Bailey 41). The shock, confusion, and determination to keep the video rental industry alive signifies the importance of video stores in American lives as a source of entertainment.

Video stores carry cultural significance in America’s cinematic and societal history. Video stores were not “just a retail space; it was where people made discoveries, took risks, happened upon oddities, [and] realized what kind of moviegoer they were” (Bailey 41). Film viewing had regressed as people depend on Netflix’s streaming library which is not curated, programmed, or quality controlled (Bailey 46). Netflix shows carelessness toward film culture as it fails to have important, highly praised, or commercially successful films (Bailey 45). With more convenient and fast ways to obtain films through digital means, video stores have been publicly forgotten and neglected despite the fact that they fostered true appreciation for film culture, cinematic history, and filmmakers (Bhattarai 4). Video stores aimed to make high quality, quirky, foreign, and iconic films accessible to customers (Vascellaro 3). Video stores were shrines to film culture and became the social pubs in neighborhoods across America as they promoted a sense of community (Vascellaro 5). They treated films as artifacts that people could swap, study and recommend which inspired “a generation of movie buffs and cultural critics to collect and treat films the same way books and art are amassed” (Vascellaro 6). People “came to love their quirky “dude behind the counter” keen to help them sift through what was new, good, and suited to their tastes” (Vascellaro 5). Video stores fostered social interactions and open dialogue. Josh Greenberg, an owner of a local video shop in Washington, says that “there is something wonderful about walking into a video store and seeing all the titles lined up on a shelf. You don’t get that with an iTunes interface or a cable on-demand menu” (Vascellaro 6). To those who grew up with video stores, the sight has become a nostalgic thing.

Video stores are disappearing. People are now bewildered to see one at the end of their block. The younger generation of the 21st century will never experience stepping into a shop with an array of aisles holding VHS films. The video rental industry became the epitome of film culture as it nurtures open conversation and interaction. However, it is being replaced by digital business models that isolate the appreciation of cinema. Now the question is when will these new digital streaming models face the same position of possible extinction?

Works Cited

Bach, Ethan. “Video Rental Might Survive Streaming Even If Blockbuster Didn’t.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 7 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Bailey, Jason. “The Premature Death of the Video Store (And Why It’s Worth Saving).” Flavorwire. N.p., 04 Mar. 2016. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Bhattarai, Abha. “After 33 Years, Washington’s Last Video Store Closes Its Doors.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Fairchild, Caroline. “Blockbuster Didn’t Have To Die. This Video Rental Company Proves It.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost, 8 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Stelter, Brian. “Internet Kills the Video Store.” New York Times. New York Times, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Vascellaro, Jessica E. “Slow Fade-Out for Video Stores.” Wall Street Journal. 29 Sept. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

 

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