poltergeist

Farewell, Blockbuster: Is there still a place for video stores?

Did you rent one last video from Blockbuster during the past weekend? Saturday, Nov. 9 was the final day customers could pick up a movie from the rental chain, which announced last week that it was closing all of its remaining stores (reported to be 300 locations).

In a development that you couldn't make up, yet is apparently true, the final movie rented from the chain overall was This is the End, the comedy starring Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco and that whole gang. Either it's a tremendous coincidence that Blockbuster's last rental was a story about the apocalypse or that customer has a wicked sense of humor.

What do you think people who went in for one last rental ended up taking home last weekend? Did they go for one of the newer releases, as did the gentleman who checked out This is the End? Perhaps some took home an old favorite, maybe even a classic film. I'd like to think that a few rented a guilty pleasure, like a bad sci-fi flick, cheesy horror film or lusty erotic thriller. 

All of this presumes that your local Blockbuster store hadn't already closed, of course. Chances are, it was long gone. 

The nearest Blockbuster to me in Asheville, N.C. shuttered up sometime in October. Maybe it was in September. The fact that I can't remember exactly when the store decided to close and hold a going-out-of-business sale probably speaks for itself. I did have a membership at that location, which I signed up for approximately three years ago — six months or so after moving here. 

Why did I even get a membership at Blockbuster when I'm a devoted Netflix and Amazon Instant Video customer? Sometimes, you need a copy of a movie and have to get it faster than the 1-2 days it takes to be delivered in the mail. In my case, I needed a DVD of Temple Grandin to show at my local YMCA for a group that doesn't even exist anymore. Blockbuster was the only place where I could pick up that movie without having to buy it. (And honestly, I don't even know if I could've found that movie on sale anywhere.) 

This is what Blockbuster had become for so many people. The fallback option to the fallback option. Maybe the last available option. The same could apply to a local independent video store, as well. But do any still exist in your area? It's very possible that such a place was put out of business once the Blockbuster juggernaut rolled into town. That's one of many reasons to resent the company. 

Personally, Blockbuster was dead to me a long time ago. A long time ago. Their practice of sending late fees to collection agencies took things too far. Look, I know I was guilty of letting some of those late charges go too long. Did I go to other video stores in the area to avoid paying those fees? Yes. So maybe Blockbuster had no recourse. But getting a notice in the mail and having less than $20 potentially affect my credit (which I realize is an extreme possibility) killed any interest I had in giving that company my future business. 

Two of my best friends in high school and college were managers at our local Blockbuster, but couldn't do anything about those late fees. Not that I would've asked them to do so. OK, I may have asked. Once or twice. Is it really that hard to return the movies on time? Just pay the late fees; it's much easier that way. We can do this the easy or the hard way? No way! That made me hate Blockbuster even more. It came between me and my friends!

But really, by that point in my life, I'd become far more interested in the sorts of movies that Blockbuster didn't typically carry. No, not porn. Independent films! Foreign films! Smaller movies with slice-of-life stories and brilliant dialogue that didn't take up an entire shelf in the New Releases section.

This was the heyday of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch. If I wanted to impress a woman by watching Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy, I probably wasn't going to find those French or Polish films at Blockbuster. Or they would always be rented out because only one copy was on hand. That often sent me to smaller video chains or independent local stores.

But this also made me an early adopter of Netflix and a service that was so simple it was amazing no one had thought of it before. Deliver DVDs to my house and let me keep them as long as I want, even if it means collecting dust and becoming a part of my TV stand? Yes, please. A catalog stocked with a wide variety of films, both popular and obscure, foreign, documentary or just plain terrible? Sign me up immediately. 

Then Netflix made it even easier by offering streaming content that we could watch on our computers. Later on, we could watch movies and TV shows on our phones, tablets and devices like Roku and PlayStation that put that stuff on our TVs. It's just too damn convenient — and the selection grows more each day. 

Most people composing eulogies for Blockbuster will likely point to that cultural shift in our viewing habits as being the main reason for the video chain's death. Many of us will lament the weekend evenings (and sometimes on weekdays) spent at the video store, looking for something to take home and watch. Maybe we knew what we wanted when we got to the store. But maybe we didn't and wanted to surprise ourselves with what was chosen. You could learn something about a date based on his or her taste in movies. Or perhaps the movie was your companion for the evening. 

Yet I wonder if our national appetite for binge watching may have been the knockout blow to Blockbuster. This is how so many of us watch TV now. It's how we catch up on the show everyone tells us we should be watching. Some of us until an entire season of a program is completed so it can be consumed at our own pace.

Netflix is ideally suited to binge watching. If you got the DVDs delivered in the mail, the next discs in the set might arrive as you sent the previous ones back. There wasn't that much waiting. With streaming, of course, there's now no waiting at all. Watch all 13 episodes (or more) over an entire weekend.

If you tried to watch a TV show in the same way while renting from a video store, the experience wasn't nearly as satisfying. Watch the first three episodes on disc one, go back to the store to pick up disc two and… it's checked out. Well, crap. What are you supposed to do? When's that next disc coming back? How long do you have to wait? What if someone beats you to it, making the wait even longer? 

Ultimately, however, it's just easier to have those movie or TV choices waiting at home. It sounds silly, but who has time to go to the video store anymore? More specifically, who wants to make the time — whether you have a family at home or want to spend that time with friends or checking stuff out on the internet? Call up tonight's entertainment on Netflix, Amazon or your cable provider's on-demand selection. It's just too easy. 

But it seems like there should be a place for the video store in our current culture. My friend Chris Cox recently lamented to me on his radio show that he wanted to rent a horror movie for Halloween, yet had nowhere he could do so. I know I'll be wishing for a local video store during the holidays when most places are closed and there's family to entertain. Of course, some people still just refuse to catch up when the culture has long since passed them and don't do streaming video. Should all of this just be left behind, cast to a bygone era? 

Maybe so. Maybe there's no going back. Or maybe communities will just have to develop and support independent video stores in the future, where more obscure and classic titles can be found and film aficionados can gather. It'll have to happen on the local level, in places where those sorts of businesses and producers can establish themselves. Obviously, a video store isn't the same as a farmers market, but perhaps that level of attention and devotion — and disdain for large corporate chains —will be necessary to keep something like that in business. 

Is that too much to hope for? Probably, though it obviously depends on what sort of community you live in. Things have a way of returning once nostalgia kicks in, though. Perhaps video stores will eventually benefit from that. 

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the managing editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

Quantcast