Its demise was inevitable, its legacy and place in history still yet to be decided. If you haven’t heard, it was announced Wednesday afternoon that Blockbuster Video, the once dominant chain of video stores throughout the United States, would be closing the final 300 of its stores by early 2014. Serving as an additional blow, Dish Network, the current parent company, made the decision to end Blockbuster’s by-mail service, which was initially created to compete with Netflix.
Blockbuster’s era had passed long before it threw in the towel. In this day and age of digital downloads, online steaming, On Demand and more, the idea of driving to a store to rent a video (and driving back to return it) seems like a hassle not worth fighting for. Packaged media is sadly on its way out, while digital media, providing almost unlimited choices thanks to never-ending storage space within the confines of a digital “warehouse,” is establishing a larger presence on a daily basis. This applies not only to filmed content, but to music, books, and newspapers as well; The Onion announced this morning that they would cease all print editions of their newspaper, while this past December, Newsweek, a print institution for 80 years, decided it would be more cost efficient to go completely digital.
Blockbuster’s iconic logo, a blue and yellow ripped movie ticket, today represents equal part nostalgia and a corporate lack of personal character. As many have expressed online this week, a curatorial, human-to-human experience is still desired among cinephiles looking to search the shelves and speak with employees about recommendations and to talk shop; innocent browsing often leads to the discovery of something under the radar. Netflix provides recommendations based on what you’ve previously watched, but as to who you are as a viewer, it provides little help.
As we here at FilmLinc are finding ourselves a little nostalgic as well—and because this article is being written by a former video store employee (having spent three years at West Coast Video, a company you may remember from the Michel Gondry film Be Kind Rewind)—we thought now was the proper time to ask a few former and current video store employees and critics about their love for the business.
The following is an excerpt from an interview Aaron Hillis, the proprieter of Video Free Brooklyn, gave to WYNC on Thursday. It has been transcribed here with permission from Mr. Hillis: “A lot of my cinephelia comes from the discovery from video stores and I certainly never got that from Blockbuster. I had to know what I was looking for and typically it was really more for the big Hollywood fare because they would have a hundred copies of it… I was very excited this past week. Three teenage girls came into [Video Free Brooklyn] and they were renting some Zac Efron movies. We had a special where they were able to get one more movie and I could tell they were having trouble finding something and agreeing on something. I ended up giving them Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabolous Stains, which is about three teenaged girls who start a punk rock band, and I'd like to think it's going to change their lives forever… As soon as I told them that, they got really excited and I think they were about to give up on Zac Efron all together.”
When I was between undergrad and grad school, I worked at Video Library, the best video store in Athens, Georgia, where Michael Stipe once rented Shakes The Clown, which we dubbed “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.” We specialized in the mingling of art and trash: The core of the business was our behind-the-counter hardcore pornography selection, where stacks of tapes were rented out to regulars at $5 a pop. And with that money, we'd buy up every foreign film, cult film, and Hong Kong action film we could get our hands on. So if your tastes ranged from Sansho The Bailiff to the latest from Seymore Butts, we had you covered. Blockbuster we most certainly were not.
In high school, I worked at a video store called Sneak Reviews in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a repurposed house decked out in movie memorabilia, with a maze-like second floor that held about 30,000 DVDs organized by country and director. I have too many memories of the place to whittle them down to one: the store’s owner Mark loaning me free discs of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd when I first started coming in (I was 13); diving into the store’s tucked-away trove of Criterion booklets on slow workdays; bouncing ideas for staff picks off co-workers; finding the Fassbinder section, which was right under a window, always covered in cobwebs and stinkbugs; trying to make the one DVD case in the Lebanese section stand up on its own; struggling to talk one couple out of choosing Antichrist for their horror movie night, then looking on helplessly as they rented it alongside Fred Claus. Which one did they watch first?
My two primary video store memories come from opposite ends of my adolescence. The first, circa grade school, mostly involves evening trips to a local mom and pop store in Whittier, California (the name of which escapes me but which surely ceased to exist years ago) where I would scour the dusty racks for either Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell flicks or WWF home video titles. Later, while in high school, there was the Irvine, CA Blockbuster that stocked your typical new releases around the perimeter of the store while reserving the center shelves for older films. It was here that this budding cinephile first discovered 80s schlock horror and high-brow Kubrick masterpieces alike–not to mention a double VHS (!) edition of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, enticed by cover art alone.
Working at Kim's Video on St. Marks for three years was one of the most enriching and enlightening periods in my life. My co-workers turned me on to many films I otherwise never would have discovered, as they are not a part of the cannon that is taught in schools or revived as culturally significant. I truly believe the importance of educated video store employees who can guide and assist curious customers cannot be understated and a world without them may not be one worth living in.
I learned to love movies perusing through the stacks with a notebook full of movies I hoped to find at my local Blockbuster in suburban Massachusetts. At the time I didn't have a lot of options. It was where we all went to find movies. That didn't stop me from requesting all kinds of classics that they could never get (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was one I remember being resigned to never seeing).
Fifteen years later I work at Kim's and run Big Shot Movie Club, a website devoted to film writing. Come Back to the Five and Dime is still pretty hard to get ahold of. What I see every day both in my professional life and as somebody who is still devoted to that notebook full of titles, is that without the video store, a lot of us would be in trouble. The customers that come into Kim's every week rely on us to provide personalized customer service and the glimmer of hope that something out of print is available—if not used, then imported. People love movies enough to work a little harder than the big chains would have us believe.
With the announcement this week of Blockbuster's demise there has been an outpouring of alarmist nostalgia for the video store. I side with Devin Faraci of Badass Digest in that this is not a huge loss. Let us remember that with every new technological development, we do not need to bury the past. There is a place for the video store for those of us looking for so many movies not available on Netflix or Hulu. Let Video Free Brooklyn and Photoplay thrive. Let them fill the gaps that are left when the only movies on instant watch are new releases and the wait time to get Midnight Run on DVD from Netflix is more than a month. Let us remember that just because the heartless giant Blockbuster has toppled, it doesn't mean that people who love movies are going to give up. There will always be a need for the video store.
My first job was at a small Blockbuster Video location that shared the same parking lot with a huge Asian supermarket in Houston. I was 15 years old, got paid $4.25 an hour, worked diligently 40 hours a week and even begged my managers to stay longer when I worked past my hours because I didn't want to go home. It was my home away from home and I wanted to spend every minute at work because I loved movies so much. I am still close friends with my managers who fed me a daily diet of indie and foreign films.
I was lucky enough to work at a random location by my home with a staff that really prided themselves on stocking the shelves full of wonderful independent films that sat alongside – and was just as important – as the massive quantities of “blockbusters” the store carried. I remember my first couple of free rentals included Clueless, Strictly Ballroom, Howard's End, Farewell My Concubine. I remember arguing with a customer who told me that I must have crappy film taste because I recommended Fargo (my favorite film that year). I remember when Anna Nicole Smith's Skyscraper arrived and my managers played it with glee on all the TVs after hours in the store and we laughed at the terrible acting and gawked at the even more terrible sex scenes. I remember Closetland (a little know great dramatic thriller with Alan Rickman/Madeleine Stowe) sat on our “employees' favorite” wall for about a year and we pushed customers to rent it.
Working at Blockbuster really gave me my first exposure to films by Merchant & Ivory, Baz Luhrman, Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, John Waters and countless others. I was a young, shy insecure teenager who grew up in a random suburb in Houston, who had limited access to travel anywhere outside of my area. As cheesy as it sounds, my first job helped give me unlimited access to different worlds full of wonderful weirdos and possibilities.
I used to spend a week “down the shore” at my cousins' place, and due to their strict religious upbringing we couldn't really rent anything my teenage mind was interested in (read: Kevin Smith). Instead of stink palms and head for the dead we decided on Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks. It seems odd now that we'd rent the movie from the same guy who came up with the Orgasmatron, but I remember it as the first time I recognized an auteur and used my bare knowledge of him to sway popular opinion away from Clubhouse Detectives. That said, I refuse to be the first person in the world to claim that Small Time Crooks changed my life. The Shins it wasn't.
I grew up in Poland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which means that until 1989 (when communism fell) we didn't even know what a video store was. As soon as the Berlin wall crumbled, though, they became truly ubiquitous: the entire Eastern block started to gorge itself on Hollywood product it was denied for the past couple of decades. Piracy was rampant. Chuck Norris reigned supreme. Cobra was regarded as a masterpiece. Typos abounded. Wacky translations of titles were commonplace (Terminator became Electronic Killer, etc.).
When I think back to the era, I can see we were still mistaking relative scarcity for abundance. My local video store had around 300 tapes: I thought of it as sesame incarnate. I would go every other day and rent fare like Ghostbusters 2 (not 1, which I don't like), Problem Child, Parenthood (first movie I ever saw alluding to masturbation, and thus something of a threshold experience for the 10-year old me). My most distinctive memory is that of the video store clerk (a young, reddish girl whom I regarded as “old” then, and who was probably 25) repeatedly denying me the right to rent Lawnmower Man. The cover of that one, combined with the pimped Polish title (Lawnmower of Minds) really made me want to see it. Alas, that didn't happen until 2009, when I finally caught up with it and was heavily disappointed. Other memories include the illicit methods by which I obtained a copy of The Good Son (which my Mom forbade me to watch) and then seeing it with my best friend Alicja. We felt we were doing something truly bad, and it was great. Boy, what would I do to regain my capability to sin simply by means of playing a trashy movie on VHS…