Blockbuster nostalgia

'This nostalgia is kind of ironic. Because a lot of people at the time hated us.'

I’m Bill Murphy Jr. Welcome to Understandably (formerly “The Byliner”), my new regularly published email about the “story behind other stories.” Please consider subscribing!

About 20 years ago, before he became a journalist, Ben Unglesbee worked at a Blockbuster video store.

We learn this early on in his recent, comprehensive article for Retail Dive, ‘Who really killed Blockbuster?’ which suggests the common wisdom about the demise of his former employer might be wrong.

For Unglesbee, working at Blockbuster back then was a job, but it wasn’t just a job. He and his fellow employees had a passion for film. The stores became their social hub.

We were geeks. We followed directors and actors (I was particularly obsessed with Michael Mann’s movies), we argued with each other and customers about movies (we defended Ang Lee’s Hulk movie against the hordes of haters), we judged people based on movie taste (disliking “Fight Club” was a troubling character flaw).

Our stores, after the main rush of a Friday or Saturday, often had the feel of a neighborhood bar. … Customers lingered at the checkout counter longer to talk about movies, which usually turned into conversations about other things.

‘Boy, it just came from all sides’

I’d never heard of Unglesbee’s publication, Retail Dive before. It’s part of a larger network of trade publications. Two of his colleagues reached out to me as part of an effort to get more coverage of his story.

(This is a very smart strategy, by the way. I don’t know why more publications of its size don’t do this.)

I read all 7,000-plus words quickly, and arranged to talk with Unglesbee. His theory is that it’s too simple to say that “Netflix killed Blockbuster” (and that Blockbuster should have bought Netflix for $50 million when it had the chance). Instead, he points to other factors:

  • Bad finances and debt. Blockbuster lost money for 12 of 14 years from 1996 to 2010, including $4.4 billion loss between 2002 and 2006—when Netflix was still pretty small.

  • Retail sales. Blockbuster dominated VHS , but when DVDs took off, they were priced for sale much closer to traditional rental prices. (“They would retail them for $5,” an ex-franchisee said. “Go in a Blockbuster, and they’d want to rent it for $4.50.”)

  • Other competition. There were other big video chains, like Hollywood Video. But also, a former Blockbuster exec said: “It was Redbox. It was Netflix. It was pay-per-view, Direct TV. Boy, it just came from all sides.”

Plus: late fees. Oh, how people hated late fees.

There’s only one Blockbuster store left in the world (in Bend, Oregon). Its Twitter account is hilarious, by the way:

Beyond that, Dish Network acquired the intellectual property for Blockbuster. Go to www.blockbuster.com, and you’ll see.

‘A surge of Blockbuster nostalgia’

Unglesbee tracked down the last Blockbuster CEO, Jim Keyes, who was in charge when the company filed for bankruptcy.

He was “eager to talk,” Unglesbee said, apparently because he believes he’s been unfairly criticized. But, “there's not really a face of Blockbuster anymore, which is one reason why I felt comfortable writing about them,” given that he’d actually worked there himself.

“Kind of why we wrote the piece, there was this surge of Blockbuster nostalgia right around when the Bend, Oregon store became the last in the U.S.,” Unglesbee said. “I think maybe people just kind of took for granted that Blockbuster was already completely extinct. It's like when an older celebrity dies and you're like, wait a minute, they were still alive?”

That’s an interesting point. Maybe it’s my Gen-X biases, but my sense is Blockbuster still has a lot of brand potency. I sure rented a lot of movies (and paid a lot of late fees).

In fact, I think you could argue that Blockbuster is a better brand than Dish — meaning maybe Dish should rebrand as Blockbuster. But what do I know?

“This nostalgia is kind of ironic because a lot of people at the time hated us. I say that I worked in the store and we would just be the objects of people's rage when they would come in happy to rent a movie, and then we'd tell them they owed us $10 in late fees. They would get so angry. … I think this might just be how nostalgia kind of works.”

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