On the demise of Blockbuster Video.
Earlier this week, the owners of Blockbuster Video announced that the once-mighty video-rental chain will be shutting down. Starting with a single store in Dallas in 1985, Blockbuster came to dominate the North American video rental market in the 1990s only to be face increasingly stiff competition in the 21st century from Neflix and other DVD-by-mail and online streaming video services; the number of Blockbuster stores declined steadily over time, falling from 9,000 in 2004 to 3,300 in 2010 to roughly 300 at the time of this week's announcement. While some Blockbuster stores are owned by independent franchisees and are not directly affected by the demise of the company, the broader decline of the video-rental business suggests that the Blockbuster name is still destined to disappear for good.
For more on what the demise of Blockbuster means, I suggest that you take a look at a eulogy for the video-rental chain penned by my friend Stephen Silver. Steve suggests that, in contrast with music and book retailers (which still show signs of life despite ongoing struggles) the video store was a flash in the pan, "a concept that emerged out of thin air at one point... enjoyed about a two-decade run as a ubiquitous part of American life, and then disappeared almost as suddenly as it arrived." Noting that "going to a video store was such a major part of the growing up experience for anyone around my age," Steve explains what this meant for him personally:
... So what did I like about going to video stores? Something, as a movie lover, got me excited about the endless possibilities of what was available. Also, video stores made it a lot easier to be a nerd in high school. Nothing to do on a Saturday night? Go rent a movie....Steve and I are in the same age bracket, and I think he's right about the important role that video stores played in the lives of many people who grew up in North America in the 1980s and '90s. When I was a kid my family would rent two or three VHS tapes every week, first from a mom-and-pop independent video store near our home and later from the local Blockbuster. I always liked movies - as I once noted here, I used to watch Siskel and Ebert and The Movies religiously - and weekly trips to Blockbuster helped to nurture my interest in foreign-language and independent cinema. Growing up in a small town, I appreciated the windows on the wider world that the video store and the local public library both provided. Since the Internet has dramatically changed the way in which we access information, I suspect that children growing up today will never be able to fully appreciate the role that video stores played in the lives of people of my generation. As Steve concludes, "My children will never set foot in a video store. They'll probably never use the phrase 'rent a movie,' or know what it means to rewind a VHS tape, much less do it fast enough that you can return it to the store in time to beat the late fee."
... And if you were a film nerd? Even better. The foundational myth of the indie film movement of the 1990s was that Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith worked in video stores, spent their nights giving themselves a film school-level education by watching every single movie they could get their hands on, and subsequently using that knowledge to launch successful careers as filmmakers and giving the world Pulp Fiction and Clerks. I myself did the work-in-a-video-store-and-watch-everything thing, two different summers in college. I never became a filmmaker, of course, but having done that certainly helped me hold my own in movie conversations with my friends - leading to my becoming a film writer.
Does the demise of Blockbuster Video herald the extinction of video stores in general? Though I'm tempted to say 'yes,' I'm also a bit hesitant about that conclusion. Not unlike independent bookstores, some independent video stores seem to be hanging on because they fill a particular niche and have cultivated a loyal clientele; Queen Video here in Toronto is one such store, and I'm aware of similar examples in other cities. Part of what enables places like Queen Video to keep going is that they tend to specialize in obscure and otherwise hard-to-find titles that aren't necessarily available from Netflix or other online providers. Whether this is enough to ensure the long-term survival of such stores remains to be seen, but at the very least the continued success of at least some independent video stores owes something to the inability of online streaming services to satisfy everyone. I can't exactly say that I'll miss Blockbuster Video - I think I last visited one about seven years ago - but I am grateful for the role that video stores played in my youth, and I suppose that's good for something. AMDG.