Remember in 2008 to around 2011 when the Friday night tradition was to go to Blockbuster and rent movies for the weekend? Now, it’s easier than ever to watch movies from home, thanks to streaming services like Netflix, but what really made renting become so obsolete? The Last Blockbuster, directed by Taylor Morden, explores the lifespan of the video store monster, from how it started to what it’s becoming.
The timeline starts with why video rental became popular in the 1980s. As the VCR was invented, studios decided they wanted to start selling movies. At the time, it cost about US$100 to buy a tape, so people would buy their copy, and charge others to watch it. Eventually, lawsuits began to arise and put an end to that. Blockbuster was different from other movie stores, though, because they brought up “revshare” with the studios, where they would buy lots of copies of a movie for a lower price, and they would share the revenue with the studios. Eventually, other mom and pop video stores couldn’t compete with this practice and that’s how Blockbuster took over.
They were bought by Viacom in 1994 for US$8.4 billion and by 2004, they had around 9000 locations. It was interesting that at the beginning of the documentary, interviewees (including Doug Benson, Kevin Smith, Ione Skye, and Brian Posehn) assumed that the fall of Blockbuster was because of Netflix, and I thought the same thing. I thought it was ironic that this documentary is on Netflix, so when I heard that Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix in 2000, that really turned the tables. The documentary went on to explain that that was basically the starting point of Blockbuster’s downhill spiral. They didn’t buy Netflix, and they got rid of late fees, so people would just keep the movies and their revenue was cut down to a third. Blockbuster and Netflix were pretty much at the same level, but because of bad management and a financial crisis in 2005, Netflix came out on top.
There were lots of little details in this documentary that stood out to me, and it made it engaging, nostalgic, and at some points, emotional. One of which being that the creators made a replica of a Blockbuster tape, with the yellow and blue sign on the cover with movie details on the spine, with the title of the documentary, complete with the peeling plastic and clicking case that caused interviewees to be thrown back to their childhood at the noise. Another cute touch was found at the very end of the credits, little yellow letters that read ‘be kind, rewind’.
It was a very casual movie, and I think they did a really good job of making it all about the nostalgia, and only hinting at the present time towards the end. Throughout the film, the soundtrack kept with 80s and early 2000s music, and included clips from Blockbuster’s hayday, such as the Blockbuster Awards, and Blockbuster Entertainment. Finding people who were a part of those things back in the day also helped drive those fun facts, such as Jamie Kennedy, whose part in the Blockbuster Entertainment Team kick started his career.
The whole movie was well balanced, with the nostalgia mixed in with humour, and I thought that was really effective in making the viewer become attached to Blockbuster, and the idea of physical, tangible movies. I felt myself becoming invested in the fate of the very last Blockbuster store, actually located in Bend, Oregon, to a point that when Sandi Harding, the manager, received a call about the branch’s contract, I was holding my breath. I thought it was going to be canceled and I felt myself tear up a bit, but when they announced it was renewed, it was a moment of triumph for them and me.
Through the emotion and nostalgia, there was a lot of information thrown at the viewer, and I thought they did it in such a way that it was more thought-provoking than overwhelming. When I finished watching, I found myself wondering that since Blockbuster and renting movies has become a symbol of a past era, will they have a resurgence like vinyls have? Throughout the movie, it was clear that people who lived through Blockbuster’s time have a different appreciation for the physical movies. They found them to be more precious and iconic, right down to the plastic covers that were never seen completely intact. Ione Skye talked about the vulnerability of picking a movie in front of other people, but the whole experience was something to be missed.
The last Blockbuster in Oregon is still currently open, and plans to survive COVID-19 by doing curbside pick up and encouraging customers to call ahead. There was an air of uncertainty with Sandi in the movie, as she seemed to think about the branch closing, it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’, it was a matter of ‘when’. However, I find myself rooting for them. If they’ve survived all this time, who’s to say they won’t last until the relevance swings back again?