Wednesday, November 6, 2013

When Blockbuster Dies..Nobody Should Cry

Bloggers and journalists around the country had a wonderful opportunity today to reminisce and reflect when it was announced that Blockbuster Video would be closing all of it's remaining 350 stores by January 2014.  
One can only surmise that the glut of these two distinct parties writing about the demise of Blockbuster with such syrupy nostalgia were all born post 1990.  I say this, without any numbers to back up my claim, because after reading stories and blogs regarding the complete shut down one thing stood out.  None of these individuals have a full understanding of the history of video stores as I know them, or, as we once knew them.  If these guys and gals indeed understood the impact Blockbuster had none of them would be lamenting the last nail in Blockbuster's coffin.

The revolution in entertainment that home video brought also spawned the need for home video rental stores.  At the dawn of home video manufacturers suggested retail prices hovered around the $99 mark per title. Couple this with the price of VCR's, on the average in the $300 range or higher, it was a very expensive hobby to embark on in those early days.  Still, the appeal for film philes around the world was too great.  The possibility of watching your favorite films whenever you wanted.  To actually own a physical copy of these films overshadowed the prices of the films themselves and the equipment required to play them.
In 1980 the entire concept literally changed the landscape of American culture.  You may not have had the money to buy the films immediately but you certainly had a few dollars to rent them for two to three days.

The boom in home video took place almost side by side with the boom in video rental stores popping up in almost every neighborhood in America.  An opportunity for small business owners to take advantage of the new phenomenon while also providing themselves a modest income, video stores sprouted up everywhere.  More often than not they were owned and operated by people just like you- lovers of film.  There was a kinship felt between the renter, the store owner and their employees.  It was akin to what we used to hear our grandparents talk about back in "their" good old days.  The relationships they had with their mail man, milk man and so on.  First name basis and it felt more like a club than a patron/owner relationship.  In fact almost all of the thousands of video rental stores in the United States offered special club memberships to reward their most loyal customers.
As time went on their was opportunity to buy the older rental copies of these movies right there in your local video store.  You might pick up a favorite film for $25 from the video store versus buying it brand spanking new for three times that amount.  Home video libraries were growing and it wasn't limited to just film buffs.  If you had a television set and owned, or even rented, a VCR then it was likely you also had a library of tapes that kept expanding at every opportunity to add films that you enjoyed in the theater or saw sporadically on television and could now physically own and watch whenever you damn well felt like.

From 1980 to 1985 this was how the landscape was. Growing by massive leaps and bounds.  You were almost apt to know somebody or knew someone that knew someone that owned a video store or at the very least worked at one.  It was a business model that the average middle class American could embrace and it was embraced at a pace that was staggering.  During this five year span prices began to drop on not only the video tapes but the prices of VCR's themselves began to hit affordable levels allowing even what was once known as lower middle class people to begin their movie collections.  Even with prices dropping the video stores continued to boom and it was harder to find someone who wasn't a habitual "renter".  Then in October of 1985 the die was cast.  Although it began in just one store in Dallas, Texas it would unfold over the entire nation.  A sweeping plague of homogenizing the experience of renting videos.  Blockbuster Video was born.

Over the proceeding decade Blockbuster bought up every multi-store owned Mom and Pop chain that had a proven success rate.  It bought up other less successful chains of video stores, bought up or invested in film libraries, built huge distribution centers to facilitate their growing number of stores and systematically dictated at what price point videos would be rented and sold at.  The Mom and Pop who owned just one store, or maybe had even expanded to two or three locations, could not compete.  By 1990 it was estimated that Blockbuster was opening up a new store every 24 hours somewhere in the world.  If the boom in privately owned video stores was impressive in the early 80's the speed and power of Blockbuster was even more impressive in the early 90s.  Almost at once the habitual "renters" were forced to rent from Blockbuster as the local video store was dying out faster than the life span of Coke II.

Despite competition from others interested in dominating home video rental (Hollywood Video) in 2004 Blockbuster had reached it's peak with over 9,000 stores worldwide and employing over 60,000 people to work those stores.  Mismanagement aside (truth be told..when you have veterans from Waste Management attend to your business model it's hard not to pun with "Garbage in- Garbage out") Blockbuster was well equipped to wipe out the thousands of privately owned video stores in the late 80's and all during the 1990's but was blind to the changing landscape once the internet became just as ingrained in every home in America at an even faster rate than the VCR and video tape did.  It is almost appalling to realize that in just 9 years Blockbuster went from 9,000 stores to just 350 and then, today, to 0.

Blockbuster managed to wipe clean a booming business model for small-timers between 1980 and 1985, then went ahead and took the next 28 years to completely ignore what made the Mom and Pop video stores such a great experience for patrons.

Today's news that Blockbuster is finished shouldn't be a nostalgic trip as many online writers would like to convey.  Nostalgia, albeit, is in the mind of the writer but the blunt fact is Blockbuster Video was a gruff bully that dominated the market and could have evolved into something that could have continued on for decades to come.  Greed and an obviously flawed business plan (if there ever was a business plan at all) led to this day.  The Giant killed Jack back in 1985.  Now in 2013 a bigger Giant has taken care of Blockbuster.  That bigger giant is called progress propelled by technology.

There are, and continue to be, straggler's in the private owned video store business.  Holding on in small towns across America where Blockbuster never saw a market for opening a store.

In a small town called Coal City,Illinois.. just a six minute drive from where I am located, Mainline Video continues to operate and be profitable..on the very day that Blockbuster announces it's closing up shop in toto. God bless Mainline Video and the handful of others like it scattered across the country.
 I continue to rent from Mainline Video to this very day.  Regardless of a Redbox kiosk just a block away and also having subscriptions to Netflix as well as HuluPlus, I find something completely charming and warm about Mainline Video.  They know who I am.  Know the stuff I like and more importantly..address me by name.  The days may grow darker and dimmer for the stores still holding on like Mainline Video in Coal City, Illinois is but the fact that 33 years after the boom in privately owned video stores I am still able to walk into an actual store,  rent a tape in my local town, well, that provides my own little nostalgia in and of itself.

Lamenting the death of a huge over bloated chain of stores that were responsible for putting thousands of family owned businesses out of business decades ago just doesn't make much sense to me.  Blockbuster Video has finally received the same fate they unfolded upon thousands of small business owners almost thirty years ago.  It not only isn't a sad day for me but things almost seem just about right.  Evened out as it were.


To quote Conal Cochran from Halloween III: Season of the Witch
To us, it was a way of controlling our environment. It's not so different now... it's time again. In the end... we don't decide these things, you know... the planets do. They're in alignment, and it's time again. The world's going to change tonight, doctor, I'm glad you'll be able to watch it. 


Paul Mcvay has been the Program Director of "Drive-In of the Damned Radio" since 2002.  He is happily married with seven children (and an adorable Grandchild) and never misses an opportunity to quote dialog from Halloween III.