Losing It at the Video Store
It's easy to characterize the mistakes of a conglomerate as being victimized by modernity when they've also hijacked the means of telling a story, but you're not compelled to buy it.
Nostalgia being at a premium in a future that delivered on none of the promises of capitalism in the 1990s allows us unlimited latitude to accept the most universal form of a thing to relate to others in an extremely interconnected world; in our case, the proliferation of franchise chains like Blockbuster Video, which genuinely do evoke a sense of nostalgia for what it came to represent in the moment of its highest peaks, but not what it became in the narrative arc of its own demise, which is what we, perhaps ahistorically, mourn as if any force besides itself is why there is only one remaining Blockbuster location.
No one is more nostalgic for video stores than I am—I was an employee of one of the last to, defiantly, survive in South Florida while Blockbuster was beginning its own decline, without changing its tactics- and I don’t relish the position we find ourselves in culturally where the last remaining testament to this time and place in our cultural memory is a location of the chain store most responsible for the conditions of not just filmmaking today, but of the difficulty of competing as a local business in 2020.
They ruined everything— from the independent, and even niche, video store to the ability of Blockbuster to dictate what kind of movies even get made by refusing to carry them once released. This forced video stores like the one I worked with to find creative, bold, even questionable ways to remain competitive in our communities while a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video might have just opened near by as late as 2008— offering equipment rental, or obsolete format (one of our locations was 2/3 VHS, for example, and carried HD DVD well past its defeat— low income communities like the one this location was in had bought into a format and simply couldn’t afford to make the switch), lottery tickets, adult content, paraphenalia, and even at the extreme in the case of some independent shops, exploiting access to the same distributors as Blockbuster and renting films early before the official release date in a 1-day rental. All Blockbuster had to do was exist within a couple miles of an independent store, if that store didn’t have a committed base of customers; after all, who has loyalty to a video store when you have other material needs to consider?
Turns out these would become crucial parts of our communities that now we mourn Blockbuster, as the conqueror, for the things they, themselves, destroyed.
Let me give you an example of how this marketplace declined: It wasn’t because of the popularity of other formats, or the ubiquity of streaming, or anything else that might’ve dictated a change in their model; In No Logo, Naomi Klein calls Blockbuster a “pac man” style business— characterizing this style of business’ model as first eating up competitors in a flood of franchises in a local market, and then cannibalizing those franchises into a handful of profitible locations, and in some cases, becoming corporate locations. Blockbuster’s expansion would play out in a similar pattern.
This influence they amassed would result in more corporate synergy between themselves and the studios, which is its own apparent conflict of interest, but in monopolizing this space, who were the unfavored studios to complain?
In some instances, the assault on choice has moved beyond predatory retail and monopolistic synergy schemes and become what can only be described as straightforward censorship: the active elimination and suppression of material. Most of us would define censorship as a restriction of content imposed by governments or other state institutions, or instigated particularly in North American societies by pressure groups for political or religious reasons. It is rapidly becoming evident, however, that this definition is drastically outdated. Although there will always be a Jesse Helms and a Church Lady to ban a Marilyn Manson concert, these little dramas are fast becoming sideshows in the context of larger threats to free expression.
... media and retail companies have inflated to such bloated proportions that simple decisions about what items to stock in a store or what kind of cultural product to commission decisions quite properly left to the discretion of business owners and culture makers now have enormous consequences: those who make these choices have the power to reengineer the cultural landscape. When magazines are pulled from Wal-Mart's shelves by store managers, when cover art is changed on CDs to make them Kmart-friendly, or when movies are refused by Blockbuster Video because they don't conform to the chain's "family entertainment" image, these private decisions send waves through the culture industries, affecting not just what is readily available at the local big box but what gets produced in the first place...
Klein goes on to conclude:
To protect this formula, Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, Kmart and all the large supermarket chains have a policy of refusing to carry any material that could threaten their image as a retail destination for the whole family. The one-stop-shopping recipe is simply too lucrative to risk.
The implications for not only who can start a viable business in their own community is challenged, but who is going to be able to find an outlet for their creative expression if they will be asked not only to submit to the hegemony of conglomeration, but also certain obscurity if they refused.
Ironically, piracy, like it did for the music industry, opened this discourse in the mind of the public, and made self-releasing media, forgoing traditional distribution, recapturing the DIY ethic that drives people to start initiatives and create art in the first place, and exposing the mainstream to the idea that corporate culture isn’t a given, and isn’t the state of nature for our society. However, by then, the damage was done; that DIY creators are in a better position than ever today while Blockbuster languishes is actually the best indicator of why their demise was their own doing— when left with no other enemies, they couldn’t follow the RIAA off the same cliff, at least not without the fallout being even more humiliating.
There’s a reason we look at the failure of Tower Records as, just that, a failure, and why there’s been protracted mourning for Blockbuster Video.
I’d argue that rather than mourning the aged Goliath, one can honor the fallen David whose legacy has been hijacked; this could become a protest of what Blockbuster represents. There’s a thriving resale market of “blank” VHS tapes on the Internet that haven’t been taped over, there’s multiple efforts to recapture the style and formatting of broadcasts of straight-to-VHS content, there’s straight up piracy (for those who will disregard my advice) to object to this impact to the cultural landscape of our media making. To this day, you still see filmmakers hedge on making things that can’t be carried in a video store despite our largest streaming platforms supporting self-released content, alonside absolute tripe of acceptable content, and when you zoom out, even the success stories in independent cinema along the arc of this synergistic takeover and ultimate self-cannibalization by Blockbuster, the ability to create another Harmony Korine, for example, becomes extremely limited without someone like that backing you as part of the establishment, which might not happen now.
There’s a reason more and more supposed independent cinema is hailed as proof of this growth while we’re seeing these films reach unprecedented success, but under the hood, they’re crowdfunding success stories because the crowdfunder was an Academy Award winner, or because it was written and directed by the younger brother of a much more successful blockbuster mainstay, or because it was subject to any number of corporate entanglements that conceal the conflict between this commoditized DIY aesthetic and the reality of who really made it. This is Blockbuster’s legacy.
We’re at a sick point in our consumerist hellscape where, for example, one has to side with Wal-Mart when Neighborhood Markets are closed to discourage low-income workers in gentrified neighborhoods to attract businesses like Google and Amazon to open offices and Whole Foods locations to serve the residents, not the service economy required to build it. The class difference is proving to be the difference between the monarchists and the gentry in revolutionary France; which rich asshole is the harm reduction candidate to help you build a future? Even in our case, the extreme outcome, our own eventual Paris Commune, has been a persistent state of resistance by collectors, resellers, hobbyists, pirates, and our reminder that for as long as that one last Blockbuster remains open, this revisionism lives.
But there’s hope: traditional channels for release are no longer a given for cult success, just like with self-released music in the thriving Soundcloud and Bandcamp communities, self-release features on video sharing platforms, outside the fixed economy of which major platform will stream what content and when. Even the culture of film criticism, even more than with music, has become Extremely Online, sites like Letterboxd, and so called “film Twitter” are as vibrant and active as the chatter on industry-centric sites. Anecdotally, for the first time since I remember being online in 2001, I’m finding myself receiving recommendations and good discourse around tastes and recommendations in places like the #film channel in a Discord for a non-media podcast I’m a listener of.
Since I’ve moved to the midwest, I’ve seen a chain of Family Videos, almost of them paired with Marco’s Pizza locations:
I bring this up for a specific reason— it’s as if absent the cutthroat nature of marketing to the values of the owners of megacorporations being the key to financial success, there’s been a formula that centers making renting a movie in 2020 an experience, a destination, and almost feels worthwhile. You rent a movie, buy a pizza (maybe some CBD oil— that side-hustle mentality is here to stay for video store proprietors), and it’s a whole thing. There are no benevolent corporations, even the businesses who are a part of your community and may contribute positively, are not your friends, but true capitalism serves the small business, and not the corporation, and this comes through in dealing with businesses hyper-focused regionally on what function it serves in a market. Family Video likely has no more say these days in what movies get made as the consumers do, and it’s just a proprietor of what’s available, and maybe that’s the way it should be. However, this doesn’t repair the damage done to artists, but can maybe rehabilitate the video store as a concept along the way of this creators’ revolution. This is all to say that there’s, clearly, a culture willing to embrace the exact thing Blockbuster destroyed, and then mainstreamed its own counter-narrative to prevent, and for once, the corporation won’t be the decisive future of how culture develops from here.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: