RIP Blockbuster

Stuart Ian Burns takes a trip down memory lane, when renting a film meant endless waiting, bus trips and fines …

When it was announced that Blockbuster had entered administration, my first reaction was to try to remember the last time I rented a film from Blockbuster. It could have been as long ago as the late 90′s, when the Edge Lane outlet opened and, after getting a bus from town on an unfamiliar route, I popped along to see what was in stock. My memory has me finding something in the art house section on VHS and taking that home, then having to laboriously carry it into work and take it back the following evening.

That was the problem, one of geography. Living in Sefton Park, our nearest Blockbusters were there and on Allerton Road, which is where we originally registered, I now remember, so that we could rent Stargate. The process of visiting, catching a bus, then catching a bus back again the next day took much too long and now, ten years hence, seems entirely stupid. But even VHS tapes were expensive, so an overnight rental for a couple of pounds for a film (which wouldn’t be on television for years or even available in shops for six months) seemed ok.

For those reasons I don’t exactly mourn the passing of Blockbusters, apart from all the people who’ll be out of work (a loss of income at any time can be devastating, now more than most). But it’s interesting to note that there don’t seem to have been the same number of obituary posts as greeted HMV’s demise. Notably, Empire Magazine’s blog, which was quick to mourn the passing of browsing for films in this kind of environment, are yet to offer an update which includes Blockbuster.

“The process of visiting, catching a bus, then catching a bus back again the next day now seems entirely stupid”

Perhaps that’s because the focus is on the rental portion of the business, and unlike HMV who exist alone, that’s something which, thanks to other indies, still exists as a thing on the high street. One of the reasons we didn’t frequent Blockbuster back then was because we’d quickly been introduced to Gerrards on Aigburth Road, the newsagents which also stocked VHS for rent, and later DVDs, on shelves which took up most of the shop, and still will until it closes itself on the 26th January due to retirement.

It’s at Gerrards, as well as a shop on Lark Lane, and the Central Library in town, where I hired most of my pre-Lovefilm titles, since 1991, from VHS through to DVD. Back then Gerrards’s policy was that films rented one day had to be back by 2pm the following, which wasn’t always convenient, but since they were the only place in the area to stock the entire runs of Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine and Voyager, buying them in on a monthly basis, I was happy to attend, especially at just a pound each overnight. When both shows went exclusively to Sky for a year, this was my only (cheap) way of seeing them.

Perhaps it’s the loss of some of these indies, due to Blockbuster muscling into the area, which has led to a lack of sympathy now that other companies and other viewing options have done much the same. How many indies also went under during the 90s after Blockbuster moved in with its thousands of copies of new titles, impossible for a Video City or whoever, to have multi-hire deals and latterly rentable players and games consoles? Gerrards has survived somehow, perhaps because it’s also a newsagents.

“Perhaps it’s the loss of some indies, due to Blockbuster muscling into the area, which has led to a lack of sympathy”

I started to use Screen Select in 2004 and never looked back, just as over time many of us haven’t.  Blockbuster and the indies retained the element of being able to see a particular thing on a particular evening rather like a cinema, but in terms of price (including travel expenses) and choice, there’s no contest. How can a place with limited stock at its main venue (albeit augmented by its own DVD by post website) compete with somewhere that, barring the odd company refusing to offer their stock for financial reasons, offers pretty much everything available and even some deleted titles.

Last time I passed through Blockbuster to glance through their racks, I look at their art house section proved laughable, dated and relatively mainstream. Tonight, Lovefilm are sending me Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acacias and the whole of the second series of The Hour (because I somehow failed to PVR the fifth episode). I’d be interested to know if the local Blockbuster has any of those (and even if it did, it also appears to be snowing).

The other, even more selfish reason not to mourn Blockbuster’s passing is their ‘exclusives’, deals done with film companies so that certain titles don’t appear on other rental services for six months to a year (if ever). I didn’t even know The Whistleblower existed until I saw it on a shelf through a window as I was passing the St Helens shop. A glance at their own rental-by-post page reveals a few titles which can’t be got through Lovefilm yet on their ‘exclusives’ page – and one which can. Lay The Favourite. Tut, tut. Ooh, Rebecca Hall. Rent.

Grousing about such things is a bit mercenary of me considering an entire business is going under, but it was my third thought on hearing about Blockbuster’s demise. But of course the next bump is going to be the loss of physical copies. At a certain point, Lovefilm will decide that the by-post portion of the business is pointless, and that will stop. Hopefully by then unlimited internet will be cheap enough for it not to matter. Otherwise, ironically, I’ll be returning to somewhere on the high street for my fix.

Stuart Ian Burns

Image courtesy Getty Images

Posted on 22/01/2013 by thedoublenegative