After months of speculation, Blockbuster Video has filed for bankruptcy. This isn't necessarily the end of the video rental chain, as it plans to shut down some stores and reorganize, but it is officially the end of an era.
Back in the early 1980s, when the VHS format first became popular, locally owned video rental stores popped up all over the nation. Selection in these locally owned stores varied depending on the owner's means and tastes, and consumers had to familiarize themselves with each rental store's unique selection, which might vary from mainstream Hollywood films to obscure B-movies to hardcore pornography.
At that time, it was standard business practice in the home video industry to price VHS titles at about $80 upon their initial release and then reduce the price to a figure more consumer friendly several months later. This gave rental stores a unique window in which they were the sole providers of the newest and most popular titles.
Into this environment came Blockbuster Video. Backed by oil money, Blockbuster aggressively built stores and bought out competitors. With deep financial resources, which got deeper after Blockbuster was purchased by Viacom (which owns Paramount) in the early 1990s, the chain was able to stock its stores with many copies of the most popular titles, despite the cost of new releases.
But Blockbuster didn't merely fill in the front half of the supply and demand paradigm. The company shaped what that supply looked like by refusing to stock porn, pictures rated NC-17 by the MPAA, or controversial titles like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. And as the local competitors fell by the wayside, the public's access to films was largely determined by what titles Blockbuster and Viacom were going to promote. As time went by, those titles were less likely to be independent or foreign pictures and more likely to be the latest Hollywood studio star vehicle.
Blockbuster also shaped its supply in another way. Video stores like Blockbuster were a new way of experiencing films and brought them to a new audience. This increased access to film helped to shape the next generation of filmmakers who would later reinvigorate American film in the mid-1990s. Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino were actually video store employees and their films and understanding of cinema was shaped by the home video experience.
When DVDs arrived in the late 1990s, the game changed. Following a similar aggressive business formula as Blockbuster, Wal-Mart had stamped local competitors out of business and built a string of Wal-Marts, Super Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs all over the nation. And when the decision was made to immediately price DVDs to own rather than to rent, these two retail giants found themselves in direct competition, with Wal-Mart taking an edge. Blockbuster no longer had its exclusive window on home video entertainment and Wal-Mart was able to offer huge discounts on DVDs prices.
Things got worse for Blockbuster through the 2000s. The internet changed commerce and online services like Netflix offered a wider selection of DVDs than any Blockbuster retail operation. Ironically, online operations allowed a return to the kind of obscure selection that many original video stores had offered. This, along with competition from Redbox and other financial and economic problems, spelled the end: the end of video stores in general and Blockbuster's dominance in particular.
There are reasons to cheer the end of Blockbuster. For the anti-corporatist, Blockbuster represented one of the most blatant examples of deliberate manufacturing of public taste and the corporate takeover of the cinematic art form. And as Blockbuster went on, the store became less and less about providing a wide selection than it was about a deep selection; that's to say, the store offered literally hundreds of copies of the newest Hollywood studio release but gradually pushed independents or other competitors out of the store and therefore out of the public's access.
But there are also reasons to shed a tear for Blockbuster's decline. The store provided a physical place where film geeks could gather and brought cinema to the masses in ways that theatrical distribution never could. It also allowed movie goers the chance to preruse the shelves in a given genre and discover titles they had never heard of before. That organic, community experience cannot be replicated by a streaming service or a kiosk.
But now we're at the end. Even if Blockbuster continues to operate retail stores, it will have to be in a limited way. For better or worse, the future of film distribution will be online. And the way we experience films will never the same.