Feature

Why I'm going to miss Blockbuster

The onetime video rental giant has announced plans to shutter the last of its 300 retail stores

Today, in an announcement that marked the symbolic end of the video rental store era, DISH president Joseph P. Clayton announced that Blockbuster — a chain that dominated the rental business from the early '90s to the mid '00s — will shutter the last of its 300 stores. "This is not an easy decision, yet consumer demand is clearly moving to digital distribution of video entertainment," said Clayton in a statement.

The announcement isn't exactly a surprise. Video stores have been supplanted by a dizzying array of video streaming options, from Netflix to Hulu to Amazon Instant Video. The last time I actually set foot in a Blockbuster was at least three years ago — and only because it was closing and I wanted to snag some used DVDs on the cheap.

It's telling that the prevailing reaction to the news seems to be split between "Wait, there were still Blockbuster stores?" and the jeers of film critics eager to dance on Blockbuster's grave. All of the long-standing complaints about Blockbuster are true: Its selection was heavily and irritatingly weighted toward recent and mainstream releases, and its success drove local video stores with deeper, more eclectic selections out of business. At the height of its dominance, it refused to stock controversial but important titles like The Last Temptation of Christ — which, at the time, effectively amounted to national censorship.

But my own history with Blockbuster is a little more complicated. It's easy to forget how much harder it was to track down any movies before the age of Blockbuster, and the chain provided an important stepping stone in my early days as a cinephile. I grew up in a Minnesota suburb without an independent movie theater, where I had to nurture my own interest in movies by hopping between local rental stores. And while Blockbuster didn't always have the deepest selection, it definitely had the biggest selection. Because of Blockbuster, I was able to see everything from Goodfellas to Dazed and Confused to Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. (Hey, I didn't say everything I rented was a winner.)

Incidentally, none of the movies I just listed are currently available to stream on Netflix Instant (though all three are available to rent on Amazon Instant Video). That randomness is part of what I'll miss about video stores like Blockbuster. One of the best and worst things about Netflix is its user-calibrated algorithms: If you like something, it will give you more of what you like. But that efficiency also makes it too easy to miss out on the weird alternatives made possible by video stores. And the effort it took to find and rent a video meant you were far more likely to stick with something out of your comfort zone than if you had the option of simply clicking to another movie. I didn't totally understand The Seventh Seal when I somehow ended up seeing it for the first time in sixth grade, but it certainly stuck with me.

Don't get me wrong. Thanks to streaming video, this is the best time in history to be a young cinephile. The internet has dramatically expanded the availability and affordability of hard-to-find films — particularly the films that were most marginalized by chains like Blockbuster, which generally opted not to use much of its limited shelf space on classics and foreign films. As a young film fan, I would have traded every movie store in the country for a service like Netflix.

But the introduction of new technology always comes with a tradeoff — and as someone who owes the earliest part of his film education to the Blockbuster shelves, it's hard not to be a little sad about its demise.

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