Good-bye Blockbuster, Hello…What?

My local Blockbuster is closing down for good early next month.

The other day I went around to the store to pick over the remains. The young staff members, surprisingly upbeat considering they are about to lose their jobs, said the number one question they are being asked by patrons is, Now what do we do?

Where do you go to rent a video?

“Most of our customers just aren’t into downloading videos on their computers,” said the young woman behind the counter.

Count me among those customers. Fortunately, there is a Rogers Video outlet down the street and they are pretty good. So for the moment, I will continue to frequent the video store (nobody calls it the DVD store), wander around, see something that catches my eye, pay a fee at the cash, and then take it home and watch it.

A day or two later, I will return the disc, shoving it through a mail slot beside the outlet’s entrance–the same as I have been doing since the 1970s.

In those days, I rented VHS  tapes from mom and pop store operations. Then Blockbuster came along with their big box stores, wider selection at cheaper prices, and put smaller operators out of business.

Now, according to what I read, new technology has destroyed the Blockbuster behemoth.  Blockbuster has become the blacksmith shop of modern technology.

I find this turn of events hard to believe. If ever there was an instance of the fear of the coming technology outpacing its reality, this is it.

In the late 1990s, the war drums were already predicting that a new and still-distant force would someday destroy the Blockbuster empire even though it was a thriving  $6 billion a year business.

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

According to the Harvard Business Review, company politics and the infighting once investor Carl Icahn arrived on the scene had as much to do with the company’s demise as any perceived threats, including the one usually credited with Blockbuster’s end, an outfit called Netflix.

Netflix is an online movie service that appeared in 1997 just as the DVD boom was taking off. You choose the film you want, and Netflix mails it to you. I could never get my head around that idea.

To me it just seemed a lot simpler to  walk into a store and not have to wait days for the mail to arrive. What’s more, I could experience the delicious sensation of the movie impulse buy, something you can’t  do when you are ordering by mail.

In Canada, Netflix doesn’t have much of a foothold as far as I can see. Most people, I would argue, still rent DVDs in the traditional manner. Like me, they are vaguely aware of downloading movies onto your computer, but then it becomes a question of what do you do next? How do you get the movies from a computer to your television set?

And watching movies on a computer screen seems like a step backwards since many of us now have big screen TVs, and Blu-ray players and, in my case, an expensive Bose sound system.

One would think with the size of TV screens, you wouldn’t be much interested in watching, say, X-Men: First Class, on a cell phone. One would further think you would want the home movie experience to be as close to an in-theater experience as possible. Yet, unless I am missing something, we seem to be moving further away from that, not closer.

No matter what they tell you, no movie download, given the current bandwidth available to home computers, is as good as a Blu-ray disc. And downloading movies onto cell phones when there are big movie-type screens available seems faintly ridiculous.

What then has the industry that is supposed to be giving us a bigger and better film experience done to itself–and to us?

After all, when everyone is through gnashing their teeth about the future of DVD and the downturn in sales, it remains a $14 billion a year business in North America–larger than the annual income from theatrical movies. What’s wrong with that?

And if DVD sales are plummeting, maybe it’s because customers like myself can’t easily access the damned things. If you take out several thousand Blockbuster stores across North America, don’t sales fall off? No one is downloading that many movies.

Ray Bennett, senior editor of Cue Entertainment, Britain’s premier home entertainment trade publication, says there is confusion and uncertainty about everything from the future of how movies will be delivered to the consumer, to the length of the lead time between a film’s theatrical release and its appearance on DVD (the studios want to shorten that so-called “window”;  theatrical exhibitors are, of course, appalled).

Well, the industry can fight and argue all it wants, the plain fact of the matter is that at the moment when it should be easier for me, an avid home movie consumer, to rent a film, it is actually harder.

This past weekend my son Joel, the family technology guru, tried to assuage my fears by demonstrating the Apple TV device he recently hooked up to his sixty-inch LCD screen. With it, you can choose the movie you want to watch–I chose Thor— pay a $6.99 fee, and start viewing. You don’t have to drive anywhere, there is no discovering all the copies of your desired movie have been rented, and there are no late fees.

That all  sounded fine to me. Maybe I could adapt to the new digital world a lot easier than I anticipated.

But wait.

While Thor looks pretty good on Apple TV,  it is not Blu-ray quality (that pesky bandwidth again). So here you are with the latest big TV screen and the latest Blu-ray player, all designed to provide the best possible visual experience, and you are receiving a slightly inferior picture.

Still, Apple TV might serve as alternative on those nights when I don’t feel like driving to the Rogers outlet. My wife and I checked it out at Best Buy where you can purchase a device  for $119 plus taxes.

Except, my Panasonic forty-two inch TV is six years old. What yesterday (it seems) was state-of-the-art, envied by all my neighbors, is now so outdated it won’t support Apple TV. To enable that, I would need another box costing an additional $69 plus taxes.

All in,  Apple TV was going to cost about $200. In other words, I was going to have to spend money in order to spend money.

Isn’t that like having to pay to get into a store?

Slipping a disc into a Blu-ray player seems a whole lot cheaper and a lot less complicated.

That’s why, as soon as I finish this, I’m heading over to Blockbuster–whoops, sorry–Rogers.


Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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5 comments on “Good-bye Blockbuster, Hello…What?
  1. Wendy says:

    Ah modern technology We tried a boxee box which does the same as apple tv for about $200. Surf the web and find shows and movies or sporting events for free or nominal subscription fees. Hasn’t quite replaced our dish but over time it likely will.
    Farewell Blockbuster you have brightened up many a dreary weekend with a new release or old gem.

  2. If you are in Toronto, the Bell TIFF Lightbox has so many movies that you might just not have time to watch videos, or whatever they are called now. But if you must here are some suggestions:
    Small independent video stores are actually thriving right now because the can carry interesting flics that aren’t in mass production. My local is called Big Daddies on Dundas St. in the the Junction. One movie I loved was a small french flic called Public Benches.
    My next favorite stop are end-of-season garage sales. Ok, the new release list is a bit dated, but I’ve been really busy for the past 20 years and there are lots of great movies that I’ve missed. My last haul included the anniversary edition of Snow White, The Royal Tannenbaum’s and Ron, you’ll love this one John Cusack in HIgh Fidelity about a store that sells music on something called vinyl.
    Next up, the Annette Street Library, or Swansea if you prefer. Both are historical properties. Annette Street being one of the first in Toronto and a distinguished Carnagie gift as well. While the selection leans to educational, they are trying to attract the under 25’s I suspect because they’ll be in government some day. If you’ve missed anything on the history channel, they might have it.
    I’ve also heard some people download movies in things called torrents off the internet but I don’t think I’ll try that because my computer gets confused by the cookies on the Globe and Mail website and it is slow enough as it is. However, the National Film Board might be worth checking out!

    • ronbase says:

      Thanks for this, Emily. My (so far unanswered) prayer is that Blockbuster’s demise does bring back the smaller independent operator who years ago was driven out of the business.

  3. John Cosway says:

    Ron, some Blu-ray players can access Netflix, allowing for big screen movies at $8 a month. My Sony Blu-ray also has the new Sony Pictures movie service at $5 a movie. You need a connector that costs about $70, but the convenience of not having to watch movies on a computer screen is
    worth the investment. The drawback with Netflix and Sony is none of the extras found on DVDs. Netflix is coming on strong with newer releases and classic older TV series. Speaking of Blockbuster, during the final hours at the Cobourg outlet, all movies and games on the shelves were $1 each, with a minimum of 10 purchases. Took home 30 for the winter months. Movie and TV addicts have never had it so good.

    • ronbase says:

      There are alternatives, John, no doubt about that, but as you point out, they involve more mone and hooking up wires, and then you still don’t get the Blu-ray experience because of this band width thing. I know this undoubtedly will change and we will all adapt to the new Blockbuster-less world, but for the moment it’s more work and more money–and I’m still driving over to my local Rogers, which, incidentally, has never been so busy. Apparently, I’m not the only one who wants to rent an old-fashioned DVD.

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