Thursday, September 23, 2010

Curtains for Blockbuster

Blockbuster store
Copyright © Google

Dallas-based video rental chain pioneer Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy Thursday. Blockbuster had been shrinking for years. There's an empty storefront in a strip shopping center at the corner of Plano and Arapaho Roads in Richardson that locals know only as the place where Blockbuster used to be for what seems like forever.

After the jump, remembering Blockbuster.

My own memories of the place go back a ways, to when the store was filled with VHS tapes. There was a seemingly infinite supply of movies to rent each time our family visited. Still, often none of the choices excited everyone. That's when we learned how big a difference there is between "seemingly" infinite and infinite.

Finding a movie everyone could agree on was more challenging because our sons refused to consider watching any movie made before they were born with the exception of the Star Wars trilogy. Once, I felt I accomplished a minor coup by getting the family to agree to watch Bananas, a 1971 Woody Allen film from the days when he was still funny and not yet creepy. As we watched the movie I kept one eye on my sons to see their reaction. They watched. They seemed to be enjoying the movie. They laughed in all the right places. During one scene, my younger son laughed so hard he literally fell out of his chair onto the floor. I was victorious. Afterward, I asked them how they liked it. My younger son said it was alright. I asked incredulously, "Just alright? You fell out of your chair laughing!". He answered, "Just once." Kids are tough critics to please.

I remember when one rack of shelves over in the corner of the Blockbuster store was taken over by DVDs. Those movies were like forbidden fruit. Who had a DVD player anyway? By the time the DVD beachhead had spread to half the store, we all had DVD players and the original half of the store with the old, scratchy VHS tapes began to look more and more sad and neglected. Still, even though VHS gave way to DVD, the limited choice still caused our family to leave the store more often than not with a rental no one vetoed rather than a rental everyone was eager to see.

At some point along the way, our kids grew up and we discovered Netflix. Now, there was a company that knew what "infinite" really meant. More and more we found ourselves watching quirky indie films or foreign films or documentaries that would never get shelf space at Blockbuster, but are always available at Netflix, thanks to their early mastery of the niche strategy of long tail retailing. And Netflix let us define a queue, eliminating the need to wander the aisles for each rental. And, best of all, they brought the movies to us. We always had a DVD sitting on top of the player, ready to insert. How could Blockbuster compete with that business model? Blockbuster tried offering rentals by mail, but by then Netflix was entrenched. Kiosks? Who needs 'em when we always have our next DVD already sitting and waiting for us at home? And when Netflix added "Instant Watch" online viewing with over 10,000 titles available for no extra charge, we were guaranteed never to be caught with nothing to watch, even on three-day holiday weekends when Netflix mail delivery is postponed.

So, when the neighborhood Blockbuster store finally closed a year or so ago, our family didn't miss it. And the news that Blockbuster had gone bankrupt was surprising only in the sense that we had forgotten that they were even still in business. Long live the long tail of Netflix. Still, we'll always remember with fondness that night when we plopped that VHS tape from Blockbuster into the VCR and laughed all the way through Bananas.

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