Blockbuster is calling it quits. That probably doesn’t mean anything to the Millennial Generation, born in a world of streaming video, Netflix, and Redbox. For those us labeled as Generation X, however, Blockbuster represented a new birth of freedom. The home video market liberated teens from the despotism of the cinema – with its high ticket prices, age restrictions, and price gouging at the concession stand. Friday night was a night to grab a friend and head to the bright blue and yellow storefront to rent a few movies for the weekend. It wasn’t unusual to rent three or four, though now I don’t know why. I think it was just the novelty of being able to bring movies home. You always wanted backups so if one movie wasn’t any good, you could just pop in another (“pop in” means the movie actually went into the VHS player as a giant tape cassette; there was no downloading or streaming option).
The Friday night ritual was always the same, almost sacred in its execution. The trip was made with a friend. You headed right for the New Release section to scoop up something new, only to find most of the new movies already missing. In a world of video-on-demand, it strikes us as funny today that a movie could be “out,” but that was often the case. Some stores would allow you to get on a sign-up list when they were returned. For others it was first come, first serve. If you did find a new release but had limited funds, you could always hide it somewhere else in the store to retrieve it later in the weekend when you had more cash. Otherwise by the time you went home to get more money from mom and dad, that New Release would be gone! This was a particularly favorite strategy for us teens who struggled with limited money in our pockets. Debit cards and ATM’s did not yet exist.
In its first several years of operation, Blockbuster had this really frustrating “next-day” rental policy which meant that any movie rented had to be returned the next day by 10:00am. Most stores even had a little drop-slot for movies in the door, like a library book return. Late returns were assessed fees, which for cash strapped teens were a constant source of irritation as much as a fact of life. It wasn’t unusual to hear stories of friends who would rack up $20 or $30 fines before returning the movies. This was in an age when the minimum wage for those of us making pizza or selling movie popcorn was about $3.65 an hour. And no, it wasn’t a cheaper strategy to buy the videos. VHS movies often ran $50 or more, and that’s not adjusted for inflation. I remember when Star Wars first hit the VHS market it had a sticker price of $200!
Blockbuster was a business model that fit the pre-digital world but was destined to die when that world faded. My youth was in a world that moved a little slower and had a little more patience. It was a world of payphones, vinyl records, and restaurants that served pizza. The digital age has made us impatient for more speed. We live in a world now of pocket-sized global communication devices, endless libraries of streaming music in your office and car, and pizza that comes to your house after you order it on your phone. Blockbuster – built on the idea of browsing through shelves for something to watch – simply required too much of people.
I won’t be sorry to see Blockbuster go. I hadn’t been to one in several years. That last time I was in, it made me sad, like visiting a convalescent home for war heroes. My family’s moved on to Amazon Prime streamed by a Roku box on top of our 50″ LCD flatscreen. I don’t even have to leave the sofa to order pizza. All I can do now is tell my children tales of hardship from my youth – an age of glorious quests for new releases, of reading movie jackets to find a hidden gem, and arguing with the clerk over late fees.
A world long gone. An era gone with the rewind.