Why We Miss Blockbuster

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A Blockbuster store near Broomfield, Colo., April 6, 2011. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)Streaming is convenient, but the brick-and-mortar video store had pleasures that we shouldn’t forget.

Like a forgotten soldier still fighting for the Japanese Empire on a remote Pacific island, the last Blockbuster on earth is still operating in Bend, Ore. Along with the memories of those of us lucky enough to remember walking into our own local Blockbuster, the small storefront is a kind of living fossil of the video-rental franchise.

For a brief, shining moment on Wednesday, however, a group of Reddit day-traders invested in the stock of what was left of Blockbuster, reviving the movie-rental behemoth put to sleep by the age of streaming. To be sure, Blockbuster’s death was more suicide than murder. The company had the opportunity to purchase a youthful Netflix and declined, only to be destroyed by Netflix once it reached its prime. But Blockbuster’s culpability doesn’t make its loss any less tragic. The Age of Blockbuster was a Golden Age of entertainment for Americans.

There are advantages to the streaming-centric world we now inhabit. It’s more convenient, more cost-efficient for most users (streaming services have replaced both Blockbuster and cable television for many), and in some ways provides a wider array of products than brick-and-mortar shops ever could. But those who accuse me of basing my Blockbuster apologism — this is perhaps the wrong word, it has nothing to apologize for except its own demise — on nostalgia alone would be wrong, though I’ll admit it plays a part. There were real benefits to the old ways of doing things; they’re worth remembering and celebrating.

The first is that Blockbuster brought a certain amount of stability and trustworthiness to the table. If you decided, for example, that you needed to watch The Shawshank Redemption tonight — a feeling I’m sure most are familiar with — you could be assured that Blockbuster carried several copies of the film. Not so for users of Netflix or Amazon Prime at the moment. Sometimes it’s on one of them, sometimes it’s not. You can hedge your bets by paying for both services (and potentially more, such as HBO, Hulu, and Disney+) and still be denied the satisfaction of going to bed after having watched Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman enjoy a well-earned “retirement.” While there’s no comparison between the volume of what Netflix provides and what Blockbuster used to, the latter was always sure to provide access to the classics. The former’s license-based model cannot do the same.

Another is that there is no “modern” equivalent of the video-game-rental aspect of Blockbuster’s business model — my main purpose for frequenting the franchise as a kid. Almost all major games made available on the market can be bought for $60 when they are first released. It normally takes quite a while for that price to fall, and when it does, it falls slowly. A childhood tradition of mine was to walk into Blockbuster on Friday afternoons with my grandfather and walk out with a rental, procured for only a few dollars, that I would work feverishly to beat over the course of the evening with him or a friend. Not only was this great fun, but it also made it easy to play interesting, niche games that few would be willing to pay full price for.

This brings to the forefront another missing aspect of Blockbuster that cannot be replicated by streaming services: the clarifying and pleasurable limitations imposed by physicality. Of course, it’s wonderful that at any given moment, I have access to the entire library of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Even as I write, I could easily flip on my television and watch any one of hundreds, probably thousands of films or shows — many of them quite good. But in a Blockbuster, with a fixed amount of product even as access to the classics was reliably assured, the essence of the experience changed. Streaming’s floor-level barrier of accessibility paradoxically makes finding something to watch harder, and lessens one’s commitment to what is being watched. Isn’t there something to be said for, instead, making an event of watching something? Of committing to one thing to watch and following through? Of making a plan and executing it? That’s the higher mode of viewing that Blockbuster provided.

Our lives, culture, and recreational habits have been shaped by the transition away from rental stores like Blockbuster. Whereas you used to devise a plan to watch something, perhaps a classic that you or your husband or wife or girlfriend or boyfriend had never seen before, now most movies are watched due to spur-of-the-moment impulses or as a fallback option when you can’t agree on what to do: “Well, I guess we could just stay in and watch Netflix.” Perhaps even worse is that streaming services, with their wealth of content — that clinical, sterile word is one for the streaming era, not the age of Blockbuster — oftentimes send us back to the same shows and movies over and over and over again. “Sure, this show looks interesting enough, but I don’t want to waste my time when I know that I’ll enjoy just watching an episode of The Office.” Ask someone between the ages of 15 and 30 how many times he has watched the entirety of the NBC sitcom. The answer may surprise (and disgust) you.

Finally, and this might be the most controversial word for Blockbuster, but it is nonetheless true: Its browsing experience was superior to the one we tolerate now. I know, I know. The old system required you to leave not just your couch, but also your home to make the trek to and from the store. The horror! But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the last ten months or so, isn’t it that the errands we used to run had more value than we gave them credit for? Something to do, something to look forward to, something to get dressed for? The way we choose what to watch now is purposeless and detached. The recommendations for us are hopelessly off-base, the categories poorly organized, and the curation seemingly both limitless and lacking. A car ride to a place where the offerings are clearly and physically laid out in front of you, the opportunity to develop a relationship with real store clerks, and picking up some popcorn and candy sounds lovely next to this dystopian nightmare.

Some would have you believe that we are living in a golden age of entertainment. All of the content you could ever want at your fingertips, for the low, low, price of six, seven, ten, or 15 dollars a month. We hear so very much about how fortunate we are to be living in it, and so little about the virtues of dinosaurs like Blockbuster. Their virtues may be less obvious than their successors’, but are no less important. Moreover, perhaps a casual and technologically limited relationship with the screen is preferable to one that can come to be so easily dominated by it. How many nights that might otherwise be spent out with friends have been surrendered to the siren call of Netflix? Too many, I’d venture to guess.

It is my hope that the Bend Blockbuster remains open forever, a monument to an unfortunate victim of technological change and our own shortsightedness. In a more just world, my fear over the plight of this singular location would be replaced by the joy of more opening up.

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