Bye, Bye Blockbuster: A Eulogy for the Three-Day Rental (Guest Column)

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The once-ubiquitous chain shuts its doors today -- and with it goes an important chapter in movies as a communal experience.

Twenty-eight years ago this October, a video store came into our lives and changed how we watched movies. Today, the same store forever changes things again, but this time by leaving us forever.

There's a pretty good chance you've rented movies at Blockbuster at some point in your life. And chances are, there was a Blockbuster store in your town, or at least not too far away. Blockbuster knew you, it knew your neighborhood, and it knew what most of you liked in your neighborhood. So the library of movie titles in your Blockbuster reflected your movie-watching interests and the interests of those around you.

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There were always plenty of independent movie rental stores, as well as bigger challengers who tried to go toe-to-toe with Blockbuster. But Blockbuster usually won, because they could offer better prices and a larger selection of big new releases, as well as some exclusives available only through their stores for a while. Smaller specialty rental stores continued to exist of course, but any real attempt to challenge them was pointless. Blockbuster was too big, they were everywhere, and they could do everything cheaper and faster and brighter and more colorfully.

There was something entertaining about just walking down the aisles browsing the movie selections, about seeing a title and being reminded of when you first or last watched it. It was fun to take your significant other or friends with you to pick out a movie, to talk and wonder and argue over what to watch. You could strike up a conversation with a stranger about the movie box in their hand, offer advice, or ask for a recommendation. And you really had to make an effort in those days -- to get off the couch and go to the store to search those aisles and pick out a movie.

We shopped in video rental stores not just for the movie experience, but for the experience of the search. There was a sort of sense of community to the act itself.  And in this way, there was really a connecting thread between the shared communal experience of seeing movies in a theater, and the era of the video rental store. Just as theaters remain our temples for experiencing first-run films together as spectacle, as shared events, the video store was our place of worship for a different kind of movie experience together. We stopped by, we searched, we discussed, we chose, and we had only a limited window to watch the movie before it was time to make the trip back to the store and worship again.

Nobody enhanced that communal movie-shopping experience like Blockbuster. People like to dismiss chain establishments for their sameness, but the truth is that simple sameness is the appeal. It replicates the sense of the communal feeling even when you're far from your own real community. This is important for our rituals, after all, and I suspect we appreciate the deception. Why resent Blockbuster for providing that sense of comforting familiarity to our movie ritual when it's a trick we want played on us because it enhances the ritual experience?

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In later years, Blockbuster tried to branch out to compete with streaming and mail-order content, but those attempts never felt like a good fit for a store that was so clearly defined by the rental shopping experience. But that was, I suppose, precisely their problem in the long run -- Blockbuster was rooted in a concept and model that wasn't prepared for changes in either the formatting of the product, or the means of consumption by the consumers. It was a perfect system for a very limited set of options, for a very specific and limited time.

Blockbuster's last years were sadly a tale of inability to evolve fast enough to stay alive in a hostile environment where everything you're good at is obsolete, and everything you can't do is a requirement.

We are entering an era where our consumption of film and other such content is radically changing. Streaming content, digital downloading, and portable multiple platform access to content provide an ease of access, a quality of product, and a level of interaction that is amazing and impressive on every level. This will become the reality for a whole new generation of filmgoers.

And I pity them. They will never know the ritual of the video store. Blockbuster died today, and the smaller churches where film lovers gather and talk and praise and explore are that much more diminished.

Mark Hughes is a freelance film writer and fan of comic book movies who lives in Los Angeles.