Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The End of Blockbuster, The Start of Less?

Posted By on Wed, Sep 16, 2009 at 2:44 PM

Smoldering Blockbuster Box
Earlier in the decade, when I was still working at a Blockbuster, I visited London. And while in a supermarket vestibule there, I came face to face with a video-rental vending machine. It was like an assembly-line worker confronting his robot replacement.

It took a few more years for those man-substituting gizmos to make their way to our shores, by which time I'd (sort of) moved on career-wise, but at this point Redbox machines, the most prominent of the vending companies, have grown so rapidly they are further eroding the market share of traditional video stores, already hit hard by the Netflix Revolution.

In fact, Netflix, Redbox and their competitors combined now occupy roughly an equal market share as traditional brick-and-mortar stores. And their business is growing, while the video store continues to shrink.

This week, a regulatory filing revealed that Blockbuster intends to close as many as one-fifth of its stores—about 1,000—by the end of next year: the stores that are no longer turning a profit. Many of its other stores can't be far behind. (While Blockbuster's sales still dwarf Netflix's, it's revenues were down nearly $600 million between 2005 and 2008 while the rentals-by-mail company's nearly doubled.)

There's obviously a bit of schadenfreude in this: Blockbuster destroyed most of the local video stores across the country, single-handedly doing far more damage to the country's film culture than any other person or thing; even in NYC, hardly any decent, independent video stores still exist. So it's nice to see the company get its comeuppance. (Especially after it treated me like shit for five years, and continues to treat its employees poorly, I'm sure!)

At the same time, it's sad to see the demise of the physical video store, even if it's those homogenized Blockbusters that are dying off. (Blockbuster as a company may survive, as it has made its own forays into Netflix's and Redbox's niches; remember, IBM used to sell typewriters!) In his recent memoir, A.V. Club staffer Nathan Rabin, also a former Blockbuster clerk, argues that video stores serve as "potent breeding grounds for future filmmakers and critics, as well as meeting places and makeshift community centers for cinephiles and movie buffs.”

This speaks to a broader trend in cultural isolation: while movies are rented through Netflix, albums are bought on iTunes, books on Amazon; socialization takes place on Facebook, etc. etc. New Internet technologies have their benefits, obviously, particularly in selection: Amazon sells a broader variety of books than even any Barnes and Noble megacenter; Netflix offers more titles than any independent video store or Blockbuster could ever really hope to offer, to say nothing of the websites that stream full films, including the rare and hard-to-find.

But it comes at the sacrifice of real community: Netflix offers recommendations, but its algorithms pale in comparison to the knowledge of a well-studied clerk; surely many of my generation's cinephiles can trace their early film educations to a knowledgeable employee of a local video store?

Redbox still offers a physical rental location, a water cooler to the old school video store's public swimming pool; but the kiosks offer only the slimmest selection of mainstream new releases. While the Blockbuster where I used to work seems these days to have scaled back on movies to sell more magazines, Vitamin Waters, game accessories and posters, it still offers the rare, serendipitous find among its increasingly disordered racks. That chance for exploration, for experimentation, is soon to be lost entirely.

Except on the Internet. Where there isn't anyone around to talk to.

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