When I heard that Blockbuster was closing 146 Canadian stores, I realized that for me, this is truly the end of an era. It seems technology, price and ease of access have brought another chapter in the ever-changing history of how we interact with movies to a close. For me at least, there is some sense of loss and sadness in this.
In the early ’80s I was invited to be a partner in what would quickly become one of the hottest new industries of the decade. One that was on the verge of exploding, in fact. My partners and I opened our first home video rental store in midtown Toronto, way ahead of anyone else. Even though I haven’t been involved for a very long time, I’m happy to say that the flagship store remains independent after going through many transformations over the years
Within the first few weeks, we knew we had launched something big. We were clearly in the right place, at the right time. People flocked from miles around to have access to what in those days, was an enormous selection of both VHS and Beta titles. People even paid us yearly membership fees to be part of our exclusive video rental club. It was an idyllic scenario for me. I’d personally always been a movie lover and remain one to this day. It was the ideal place for me to engage my social nature by interacting and getting to know all of our customers. And I was also able to recommend the perfect movie for each customer because of my sincere love and knowledge of movies.
My fascination with movies started when I was a young girl. I remember staying up late watching the Academy Awards, rooting with great anticipation for Gregory Peck. I cheered ecstatically when he won best actor, for his brilliant portrayal of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1962 film, To Kill a Mockingbird. His competition that year was most formidable: Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz; Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses; Marcello Mastroianni in Divorzio all’italiana and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia. All incredibly memorable performances by wonderful actors. Were those the good old days?
To Kill A Mockingbird, and many films since, have touched a chord in me. I believe that great movies have the ability to inform and transform, entertain and uplift, speaking to us the way all great art does. The Help, which I saw recently, had that same effect on me. Movies continue to play an important and integral part of my life.
Back in my home video days, it seemed that within the first month, several of our customers who were witnessing the boom in this burgeoning new industry approached us about buying a franchise. Without even taking a breath, although we literally knew nothing about franchising, we jumped in and within days it seemed we were in the video rental store franchise business as well. It took little time to build our chain to 30-plus stores. Everyone experienced huge growth and expansion. We were all learning as we went along. Those were the good old days.
So when I arrived at my not so local Blockbuster recently, excited to browse the racks looking for something I would know I wanted to see when it caught my eye, I was told all the stores were closing. That was it! No more rentals. I stood surprised, as I’d just rented a film a few days before.
When I came home, I did some research and found a recent poll that showed that 34.9 per cent of people still frequently rent movies from rental stores and 29.25 per cent occasionally rent. That’s a total of 64.15 per cent who still rent from “brick-and-mortar” stores. What are the majority of us consumers to do now? As one of this majority, I admit, I’m not quite ready to lose that choice.
Next, I went to my local library and checked out their selection. Yes, the movies are free, but often you must wait a long time for the newer titles. Even though I continue to practice patience, I still have a long way to go. Waiting for movies I want to see. Challenging.
As I looked at the movies and admired the depth of selection, I was reminded again of the early days of our video rental store. Our goal was to have an eclectic mix of titles. We were the “something for everyone” store. And our customers appreciated this, coming back again and again. Choosing a movie became a social interaction and often, customers recommended films to each other. Wonderful conversations developed. You simply cannot have this kind of personal experience online.
In the early days, the movie studios were trying to figure out how to work within this new industry. Sell-through pricing was an ongoing conversation. “Who would want to buy movies and what would they pay if they did?” Back then, you could expect to pay up to $99.99 to buy a movie. Yes, you read that correctly. Then, the studios tried to figure out if $19.99 would sell massive quantities of a title. Select popular movie titles were marketed at lower prices, sometimes with great success.
After I sold my part of the home video rental chain, I moved to the home video marketing department of a major studio. It was fun and exciting and those days, the launch of a new video title was a really big event. Releasing Back to the Future or Blood Simple, the first major Coen Brothers movie, were much anticipated happenings.
I even worked at the head office of Blockbuster’s Canadian partner before they came in and took over, lending their name to the chain. Some of my favourite writing experiences came from back then too. All these rich and lasting memories came flooding back, just because Blockbuster is closing.
Yes, I acknowledge that the times are continuing to change. Change is often good, but I for one will miss the opportunity and choice of visiting a rental store, picking out a movie and talking with real people in the process. In the same way I wrote about the future of books and book stores, I sincerely hope the home video industry can find a way to resurrect itself before we the majority, find and get used to another newer way. I don’t know. Maybe, it’s just too late.
So for now, goodbye Blockbuster. Thanks for the memories. I’d love to hear from you… what will you miss about the experience of video rental stores?