Thursday, August 20, 2020

When the Vultures Came


Nostalgia for the past in this pit we call the present has more or less reached a ridiculous place that it should never have reached. It's gotten to such cartoonish levels our ancestors could never have predicted. We will pine for anything. One glance at the above image should tell you exactly what I'm referring to. We spout our undying love for institutions that helped destroy the things we love, seemingly oblivious to the truth of it.

Anyone with any fond memories of pre-90s pop culture knows that Blockbuster deserves no sympathy or love, never mind nostalgic remembrance. However, everything created before 2001 is given extensive attention due to the role (no matter how small) they had in better days than the ones we are currently living in. It is understandable, even if it has become a crutch for many.

However, there are things that don't quite deserve your pleasant memories or warm feelings, or at least the product or establishment itself doesn't. Nostalgia for events around those things will always be genuine, but that doesn't change the fact that the source of all those pleasant memories might be corrupt. In the case of Blockbuster, it was a tool used by Hollywood to more or less destroy an industry of competition and created the climate we live in.

Blockbuster was supported by the major movie studios to forcibly wrestle the home video format from the hands of mom and pop stores and make sure that only their product was left on the shelves. Essentially, Blockbuster killed independent filmmaking as a career aspiration by leaving filmmakers with no distribution while at the same time only offering customers a bland, corporate, safe McDonalds image of the rental industry to wash away the fact that they were made to control your tastes and funnel your interests. It's a lot like OldPub, AAA gaming, and the dead modern music industry. And just like their eventual deaths, Blockbuster's death a decade ago was a good thing--too bad it was just to put Netflix in its place and deal critical blows to physical media and customer ownership rights. Make no mistake--this is where they wanted the industry to go.

Blockbuster might be dead but Netflix is the new weapon for Hollywood to corral tastes into one place, even though it is nowhere near as prominent as it once was, and after it dies something else will come up. That's just the nature of the beast. None of that means Blockbuster wasn't complicit in an industry's destruction, however.

However, even now if you look up the history of video stores online you will find endless articles and videos talking solely about Blockbuster, the soothing memories surrounding it, and how it ruled the roost, but nothing about what it was like before they came around. Perhaps you are too young to remember, but there was a whole better world around before they charged in to wreck the house and burn it down. The rental industry was a much different beast before Blockbuster, and it was much more interesting on top of it.

The fact is that the video rental store wasn't around for very long in the grand scheme of things, but the brief window when it was allowed to live was quite the time. This is why it is a shame that is being wallpapered over with corporate-endorsed nostalgia instead.

I recently watched a documentary named VHS Massacre which aimed to talk about the death of physical media in relation to the death of video stores. The documentary makers interviewed a bunch of people involved in the independent scene from the time, as well as newer creators today (or at the time of the documentary) to discuss the changes. They talk about the bigger studios and what exactly changed in the industry since the 1980s when VHS and the possibility of owning physical copies of movies became a reality for the first time ever.

There were already a few similar documentaries about that era, but none that really tried to focus on the stores themselves or their impact on independents and the big studios, never mind on physical media and ownership. Most were more interested on quirky personalities and niches, and not so much the bigger picture. This documentary has a few faults of its own, but the more ambitious scope tends to make it more interesting than the others, and less self-involved.

As long as a version of home video products existed there have been rental shops to stock them, but they only began to pop up the late 1970s in North America. Even then they weren't that affordable. Studios would license their films out in order to let stores rent them out to patrons, and the industry ballooned out from there. Considering the cost of tapes in that time period (they only really became affordable to outright buy in the 1990s), rental stores were the best ways to watch movies in the comfort of your own home and not have to break the bank.

Because cable was still not a factor in the television landscape, and wouldn't be for years (Now that I think about it: cable's influence didn't last very long either, did it?) movies were the go-to form of disposable entertainment of the 1980s. It's hard to deny it when you see just what the b-movie landscape was at the time even compared to big budget movies. If you wanted cheap and quick entertainment the best place to be was a rental store. Friday nights at the video store was just as busy as the cinema. Soon enough, with the emergence of Nintendo and Sega into the video game console market, video games followed by the late '80s to give the stores even more product to rent out. These companies made deals with the mom and pop stores in order to supply the shelves, and with all the content, there were no shortage of options.

However, this also meant that since every store was its own entity that meant they could also carry their own library of products. Every single rental store had its own lineup of moves and games based on whatever the owner chose to stock. This meant that if you had more than one rental store in your town (and by the mid-90s, even before Blockbuster's explosion over the entire world, everyone had more than one) you could theoretically find vastly different products by going to the different stores around town. Some kids even made a game of it by riding their bikes all over town and looking for that copy of Mortal Kombat on the Genesis that hadn't been rented out yet. Limited copies also meant that grabbing the last copy left and inviting the guys over was a common occurrence.

In other words, the rental shop was a community thing. The above documentary taps into this aspect a bit, though not as much as it should. When it comes to most video store or VHS aficionados, the focus always tends to be more on the nostalgia and certain obscure cliques--not so much on how it affected the local populace and their community.

The Documentary's Cover

This is my biggest issue with most Gen Y nostalgia pieces. They tend to focus more on how it affected them personally as opposed to how much of an impact it had on the wider world and their community. It's always shallow self-love. Life is about more than you, and it's nice to be reminded of that.

As an example, I'm reminded of a documentary on the life of John Hughes made over a decade ago. This was made before he died. This documentary focused more on how the four young filmmakers were influenced by The Breakfast Club and teen movies. The main "plot" centered on them driving around trying to find John Hughes and . . . offer him a slice of pizza. There was nothing in this picture about his friendship with John Candy, any interviews with people close to him, his un-produced screenplays, or the influences that led him to both come into filmmaking and what caused him to retire from the industry when he did. Instead, it was mostly about how the hosts related to the movies and how it shaped who they were.

There is a reason I have forgotten its title and why no one ever speaks of it.

Thankfully, VHS Massacre doesn't really do that (As mentioned earlier, it was the reason I chose to watch this one over several other similar documentaries), though it does touch more on the format of VHS itself other others. This isn't a bad thing. The VHS format played a much bigger part in pop culture than you might think. More than just creating a form to be nostalgic for, the cheap medium allowed quicker distribution, more content on the tape, and bigger and striking boxart, to deliver a product for the widest variety of customers possible. In essence, this is why VHS outlasted both Beta and Laserdisc despite both formats offering more on a quality level. It seized control of the format wars by offering more with less.

We've already discussed through The Pulp Mindset and the growth of digital distribution that the garden variety customer cares more about the art itself than they care about the delivery mechanism or bells and whistles surrounding it. They just want the art for the best available price. DVDs eventually replaced VHS because the form trumped the old one in every way AND offered a cheap price. In music, Cassettes to CDs was the same sort of transition. It's also why it has taken Blu-Ray so long to catch up to DVD and overtake. There just isn't that much of a jump a there was from VHS, and customers don't see much of a reason to make the leap. They aren't wrong, either.

A big subject of the documentary is the supposed death of physical media and the rise of digital. Since this was filmed around 2012-14 there are a few things that have aged poorly in the subject (physical sales of DVD and Blu-Rays are still about the same, streaming is king despite Netflix's downward spiral from the top of the mountain, and customers have been proven to buy when the product is worth the cost and pirate when they do not) however the bigger point is that there will always be some way for the customer to receive the art they want, even when conglomerates tied to big Hollywood studios interfere to devalue the product and experience for everyone else. Art finds a way, in other words.

The bonus to having local rental stores run and stocked by those in the community was that they could carry anything they wanted and interact with those around them. When Blockbuster came in, they were boosted by Hollywood and didn't have to pay as much for their supply, which meant they could order more than the locals at no additional cost. However, this meant they only carried what the studios wanted them to carry. This quarantined smaller studios and independent filmmakers to the shelves of local shops, and when they were run out of business so to did their shelf space vanish. Blockbuster essentially usurped an entire industry and pushed out the little guys for Hollywood's sake. No longer was renting a community experience both for patrons and local artists, it was now the equivalent of walking into McDonalds instead of the local burger joint. You're basically paying money to corporations to lose local industry for lesser product.

This is why I get puzzled at the nostalgia Blockbuster gives certain folks. Everything they offered was a sterile, corporate imitation of what your local shops were offering for years before they were killed off by this monster. They were never the good guys, and in fact harmed the very industry they worked in. There's nothing worthy of being nostalgic over.

If you think the constant comparison between Blockbuster and McDonalds is too much then you might want to see what drove Blockbuster's growth. 

From wikipedia:

"In 1987, the company won a court case against Nintendo, which paved the way for video game rental. Also that year, Waste Management co-founder Wayne Huizenga, who originally had reservations about entering the video rental industry, agreed to acquire several Blockbuster stores. At that point the number of stores counted 19, and attracted Huizenga's associate John Melk's attention due to its efficiency, family-friendly image and business model, and convinced Huizenga to have a look at it. Huizenga and Melk utilized techniques from their waste business and Ray Kroc's model of expansion to rapidly expand Blockbuster, and soon they were opening a new store every 24 hours. They took over many of the existing Blockbuster franchise stores as well, and Huizenga even spent much of the late 1980s acquiring several of Blockbuster's rivals, including Major Video.
"In 1990, Blockbuster bought mid-Atlantic rival Erol's which had more than 250 stores. In 1992, Blockbuster acquired the Sound Warehouse and Music Plus music retail chains and created Blockbuster Music. In October 1993, Blockbuster took a controlling interest in Spelling Entertainment Group, a media company run by television producer Aaron Spelling. Blockbuster purchased Super Club Retail Entertainment Corp. on November 22, 1993 from Philips Electronics, N.V. for 5.2 million shares of Blockbuster stock. This brought approximately 270 Record Bar, Tracks, Turtles and Rhythm and Views music stores and approximately 160 video retail superstores into the corporation. It also owned 35% of Republic Pictures; that company merged with Spelling in April 1994."

Very quickly Blockbuster destroyed the competition and became a monopoly, almost overnight. By the end of the 1990s they were the only game in town. Throughout the back half of the 1990s until its closure in 2010, for a bit over a decade, Blockbuster controlled the entire rental industry, and not because they offered the best service or product, but because they forced their way in and made sure no one else could compete with them.

As a result they ended up changing the makeup of the film industry, and shaping customer attitudes and expectations. It became about the Cult of the New over quality. Big budget blockbusters over solid filmmaking. Flash and sizzle over craft and content. Of course they would want this change--they wanted to make money off their partners' new films. You don't get as much off of classics or independents, do you?

In a way, Blockbuster contributed to the current pop culture obsession of novelty over quality. Constant supply of new blockbusters while shoveling the old ones out for pennies devalued their own medium. They certainly helped foster the Cult of the New that still exists today.

"Blockbuster stores followed a strategy of emphasizing access to the most popular new releases, obtaining early access and stocking many copies of the new-release titles, with a relatively smaller depth of selection than traditional independent video stores. Much of the shelf space in the stores was devoted to popular titles that were placed relatively sparsely on the shelves with the entire front cover visible, so customers could browse casually and quickly, rather than having a more diverse selection with fewer copies of each title. Blockbuster sometimes contracted with studios to obtain earlier access to new titles than other companies could achieve. Examples of such contracts were those in which Blockbuster became the exclusive rental chain for new releases from the World Wrestling Federation (now known as WWE), Paramount, DreamWorks, Universal Studios, The Weinstein Company, Miramax, Lionsgate, Disney, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Sony, Image Entertainment, Warner Bros., New Line Cinema and Allumination FilmWorks. As one commentator complained, "Blockbuster was once an unstoppable giant whose franchises swept across the country putting mom and pop video stores out of business left and right by offering a larger selection of new releases, pricing them at a lower point due to the volume they worked in... Gone were the fragmented, independently owned shops that were often unorganized treasure troves of VHS discoveries. In their place were walls of new releases: hundreds of copies of a small handful of films. Everyone watching the same thing, everyone developing the same limited set of expectations... They put focus entirely on what was new rather than on discovering film history ...""

And now they're dead, where they belong.

So you can tell why nostalgia for this company is strange and completely unwarranted. They damaged a much more healthy industry and medium so they could make a few more bucks. If anything, what they destroyed is what should be what we are talking about instead. Blockbuster deserved the fate that befell it, but what they demolished didn't.

A Whole Different Experience

Netflix coming in to wipe Blockbuster out was a good bit of karmic justice, but as the VHS Massacre documentary mentions through several of the interviewers, Netflix is the Blockbuster of streaming. Bigwigs with Hollywood ties pretending to be for the smaller guys, until they seize control and kick them out, run the whole show. Troma, for instance, only got on Netflix through alternate dealings around the executives at the company. Netflix itself didn't do much of anything to try and court them or get their movies out on the service, and why should they when they get deals from the giant studios? It's all for Hollywood, not the customer.

The one bright spot is that with the rise of alternate forms of streaming and video hosting sites that these smaller creators now have an outlet to entertain audiences again without being blocked. This more decentralized approach allows creators more reach than they ever had even in the mom and pop shops run by the locals. It might not solve the problem of loss of community, which is a bigger issue unto itself, but this is a better solution than allowing those who destroyed an industry get more credit and attention they do not deserve.

Especially now with Hollywood cratering extra hard due to the pandemic, there are less and less customers willing to give the bigger studios the time of day. The best time ever for the independent scene to strike is now while Hollywood is flailing. Without the big dogs to get in the way the field is wide open again and anyone can put out anything again. Times have changed yet again, only this time Hollywood is the one suffering, for once.

So why be nostalgic for things that existed to destroy that sort of experience you crave? It's counter-productive, and it's goofy.

There are many things I don't have nostalgia for that I understand the appeal of, such as VHS. I was there for the format. It was clunky, unreliable, and offered far less than DVD did, but they also contained great box art, had good ease of use, and were rather sturdy. They offer something different than what exists now, even if that something doesn't offer me anything personally. Nostalgia for that sort of thing makes sense.

But Blockbuster is not anything to be mourned. Just like when OldPub finally crashes and burns, it was an institution that harmed the very industry it operated in. You might have good memories attached to those locations or to the packaging used, but the chain itself does not deserve your love or support. It is gone, it is not coming back, and that is a very good thing for everyone involved. (On the other hand, if you want some nostalgia for the more exciting and socially good local mom and pop stores you can find some over here.)

Better things are coming in its place. Independents are still around, audiences are still around, and both still want exciting new stories. The medium might change, but the stories themselves won't. We still desire beauty and truth.

Vultures will always exist, but so will creativity and fresh ideas and approaches to art. Things change, but they also always stay the same.

In the end, I would recommend the VHS Massacre documentary for a watch. It isn't perfect and meanders a bit in its scope, but it does offer enough to give the subject its due and the interviews are all very interesting. This whole VHS era isn't an one that gets enough proper focus so it is good to see it when it happens. The movie is available to rent on youtube, if you are so inclined, which goes to show just where the industry is heading.

Netflix will not be around a decade from now, but movies will. Art goes on regardless of the changes we make to help or hinder it. The suits can't always stand in the way, though they may try.

The medium doesn't matter as much as the message, and the message is clearer than ever before. The audience wants good stories: so start making them! At the end of the day that's all we can really do, and it's enough for us to do what we can. Just don't let nostalgic memories of dead enemies get in the way of future success.

We've got more important things to do: we've got to create!


  1. I not only remember independent video rental stores, I remember when you actually had to rent the VCR from them too. Those were interesting times to say the least. So yeah Blockbuster got what it deserved, and so will the rather over leveraged Netflix.

    1. It used to be a joke on TV shows that you needed an ID, your will, and your mortgage papers, in order to even rent a single tape.

      Not so sure people will understand how different it was back then compared to now.

  2. Any thoughts on rhe shift from 'priced to rent' to 'priced to sell' VHS? There was a time when even B-movies out of Hollywood (the one that is stuck in my mind is a Cannon film, Masters of the Universe) were sometimes sold at outrageous prices at first. I think that more or less died around the early 90s ... perhaps around the same time as Disney decided to stop treating VHS releases as rarities and doing quick turnarounds for their big new releases.

    Oh, out on some areas, local video stores did hold on through the early 2000s. I remember moving to Fargo in 2000 and finding a few, including one store with an incredible library of NES games.

    1. I remember overpriced anime VHS tapes lasting until near the end of the '90s when DVD started coming. It was ridiculous for awhile, but that was why renting kept being a regular thing in my area until Blockbuster took over and began dumping old product for mere bucks.

      Cannon more or less relied on the rental market, though. Almost every movie they did, whether it was a success in theaters or not, made them bank with rentals. I'd have to think some companies preferred that model over outright purchases, but that was before VHS became so ubiquitous and cheap.

      It was really a different era.

    2. And I see that you did mention it. Sorry for not reading closely enough. :(

      Also, does anyone else remember the RCA Videodisc? It was apparently a proprietary form of laserdisc. We had one of those players for over a year before we got a VHS, and there were places renting those discs out as well.

    3. No worries.

      I do remember seeing the Videodisc around, but I never got to see it in action myself. Where I lived it mostly leapfrogged right from VHS into DVD.

    4. I think the Videodisc died around the same time as Betamax; one article I found said RCA went under in 1985. Standard laserdiscs appear to have held out until the DVD era.

    5. The history of VHS tape pricing is surprisingly complex and--from a business perspective--fascinating.

      The first home video releases in the late 70s were actually rather reasonably priced--around $30 in 1970s money. Not cheap, but well within a typical family's monthly entertainment budget.

      That changed pretty fast when video rental stores started taking off. Originally, a video store would buy a copy of a movie for around $100 each and get lifetime rental rights to the tape. The rental market took a big chunk out of the studios' video retail profits, so they jacked up their sale prices to make it up. Contrary to popular belief, video tape retail prices never reached true "priced to rent" levels, but you did see movies priced around 80 bucks.

      Ironically, it was Blockbuster who helped lower video retail prices by switching from a wholesale model to a royalty model. In the early 90s, Blockbuster cut a deal with Hollywood whereby they would get the tapes at greatly reduced prices or free and kick back a percentage of each rental fee to the studio. That also meant Blockbuster stores didn't own the lion's share of their tapes. If you remember, Blockbuster never really held used video sales like the mom & pops did. Instead, they'd ship their used tapes back to the distributor to be cleaned up and resold in retail outlet bargain bins.

      That's when the industry-wide trend toward lower prices started, but you'd see affordably priced VHS releases now and then from the early 80s on. The Wrath of Khan VHS gained notoriety as the first major release since the 70s to be priced at $40. Top Gun followed in 1986 at the attractive price of $24.95. The rule of thumb was, the bigger the movie, the lower the price. Wal-Mart had Tim Burton's Batman for 15 bucks in 1989.

      There were other factors, too. Some studios kept VHS retail prices down by front-loading the movie with a commercial. The aforementioned Batman tape started with a Diet Coke ad.

      Even in the case of a tape with a higher introductory price, you could almost always get it for around $30 if you just waited three months to buy it.

    6. Thanks for the explanation!

      "If you remember, Blockbuster never really held used video sales like the mom & pops did. Instead, they'd ship their used tapes back to the distributor to be cleaned up and resold in retail outlet bargain bins."

      I remember this even happening with Dreamcast games. The only different is that when they took them they never returned them to the store to be sold used like other systems. Probably redistributed them to the bigger stores instead.

    7. Thank YOU for this post!

      The video game rental market is a whole other intriguing can of worms. In Japan, Nintendo effectively lobbied to make video game rentals illegal. The case Blockbuster won against them, mentioned above, probably shut down the Big N's attempt to outlaw game rentals in the States.