The last Blockbuster: what we really lose when video stores shut downAugust 29, 2018
Lasts are nearly always nostalgic. The last of its species. The last of its kind. That sense of impending loss is also nearly always poignant in a way that firsts rarely are because passing into memory is its own kind of death. As technology and society change and grow, cultural artifacts necessarily move through this transition. They go from ubiquitous to nearly gone and then, finally, extinct. Things that seemed immutable are eventually revealed to be as easily displaced as the shifting sands of a beach dune. Remember Borders? What about Saved by the Bell?
When I heard that there was only one Blockbuster Video store left in America, I knew I had to get there before it was too late. It’s not going to die anytime soon, I learned, but that’s a bittersweet victory: part of the reason it’ll stay open is because it is the last.
The store is in Bend, Oregon, a town of 91,000, which is more known for its outdoorsy activities than its film community. Still, it boasts three movie theaters — two of which are independent — and a film festival that’s been running for 15 years. Bend’s Blockbuster has been around a bit longer than that, having become a franchise in the year 2000.
Blockbuster wasn’t perfect, obviously. The company went from over 9,000 locations worldwide in 2004 to exactly one in America and five in Australia in 2018 after the rise of streaming services killed the home video rental market. Now, all that’s left is its name and iconic logo, both of which Dish Network bought the rights to in spring 2011. That was the end of the story — or so I thought, until I traveled to Bend to see exactly what we’d lost with the demise of home movie rentals.
In the streaming age, most people watch films through services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Last year, Variety reported that more than half of American households say they have Netflix; this week, the trade reported the number of worldwide Netflix subscribers is at 130 million as of June. And that’s just Netflix. What these streaming services all have in common is a reliance on algorithms to steer subscribers to the films the services think they should watch next. Netflix and its peers don’t actually care about a highly curated experience — or any curation, really — because that runs counter to and takes away from their goals of having the largest subscriber base and having the most video content on their services.
Blockbuster, for all its managerial faults, did what video stores do best: it relied on people and serendipity to create an atmosphere ripe for customer discovery. Employees had their own sections for staff picks, and shelves were lined with current movies in the same aisle as films that were more obscure. Just walking through the store and idly browsing through box art could bring you to unintended discoveries. When a computer suggests something you might like based on your past behavior, it’s constraining in certain ways. You can’t get the kind of studied randomness that’s inherently present in a video store. Blockbuster was ruled by popular taste (movies out now and classics), the taste of its customers (requests), and its employees (staff picks), which are three distinctly human layers that made it possible to discover new things in a curated setting.
That kind of human thought is impossible to scale, at least right now. Streaming services like Filmstruck mix a certain amount of algorithmic planning in with their curators; MUBI and Nicholas Winding Refn’s byNWR, meanwhile, have leaned fully into a hyper-curated experience, where each film featured is chosen by only a few people, and the selection is limited.
In Bend, I found that the Blockbuster had preserved the whole experience I remembered from when I was a kid growing up in Texas. It all came rushing back, and with it was a separate rush of nostalgia. But what truly struck me was that figuring out what to watch next seemed easy. The amount of filmed media to consume suddenly seemed manageable. And that’s what we lost with the end of the home movie rental era: a guide through the unrelenting tide of stuff in the world. Video rental stores, be they Blockbusters or independent outfits, were a lighthouse in a storm, a place that could show you a passage to safe harbor.
That bespoke touch is virtually impossible in an era that churns out more media than ever; this year, Netflix alone plans to spend $18 billion on content. You’ll never see most of it, and that’s fine. But what it marks is the beginning of an ending: for all intents and purposes, Blockbuster and video stores are dead, and they’re not coming back.