Overdue Return: the past and possible future of blockbuster video

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Matt Sully

Long-time movie fanatic, Matt has written several screenplays, produced / directed / edited short films, and has a written a historical fiction novel entitled Father's Creed. He's working on his second novel, a sci-fi thriller called Ghost City. Follow his chronicles as a new novelist: https://mattcsully.com

The Blockbuster video store in Bend, Oregon has become an attraction, a museum, the centerpiece of a Netflix sitcom, and briefly during the pandemic, an AirBnB. The former movie rental juggernaut was a key figure in the zeitgeist of the 90s and 2000s, a pillar of the cinephile’s mecca. After the dollar cinema, if you were brave enough to experience such bush-league environments, Blockbuster was the only ticket left to bring the movies you loved into your own home.

Sure, other rental groups popped up here and there: Hollywood, Hastings, Suncoast, Family Video, Movie Gallery, even those mom-and-pop stores that did their best to stay afloat, if only through profit brought in via the whispered-about, closed-curtained, back-room sections.

But Blockbuster was the king. It was the name everyone knew. The torn-ticket logo, the blue and yellow uniforms, the sheer volume of viewing and gaming options. Its name was meant to reflect the great cinema hits we were already celebrating, ironic considering the term blockbuster literally comes from bombs used in WWII meant to destroy entire blocks, a bomb being the very opposite term for a successful film. And Blockbuster as a company has hit on both fronts of those definitions, marking the height and veritable end of a once multi-billion-dollar industry, but is Blockbuster really gone?

Many might think they failed to heed the winds of change, (former CEO John Antioco was quoted as saying AT the meeting where he failed to purchase Netflix for $50 million that “the dot-com hysteria [was] completely overblown”), but Blockbuster was always seeking a foothold in the landscape of evolving media. Even before offering DVD-by-mail services, Blockbuster knew the Internet was the real future of at-home entertainment, partnering with Enron for a video-on-demand service.

After the Enron deal, and Enron itself, folded, Blockbuster purchased Movielink to continue with their vision of video-on-demand, but Movielink also went belly up a year later. Lawsuits from Netflix and 40 US states over false advertising, along with a change in CEO, set Blockbuster rolling toward eventual bankruptcy and purchase by the company, Dish Network. Despite Dish’s initial announcement to keep 90% of the stores open, well, you’ll need to head to Oregon now if you want to rent something, but the Blockbuster stream dream may not yet be over.

On March 23rd, Blockbuster.com was re-activated with nothing but their iconic logo and a simple message: “We are working on rewinding your movie,” or for its mobile version, “Be Kind While We Rewind.” In a time of 90s fashions, 80-based TV shows, escalating vinyl sales, and podcasts dedicated to cinema reboots, the thought of in-person movie rental houses making a comeback isn’t immediately absurd, though very unlikely.

With a seemingly cursed past for the platform, Blockbuster may be hesitant to try once again, but the onslaught of new streaming services goes unabated. It seems almost perfect they would re-emerge in the space, but that doesn’t feel right either.

A group called BlockbusterDAO tried to acquire Blockbuster’s IP in 2022 for what they described as “a decentralized streaming platform and a main stay of Web3 brands and products.” While that deal fell through, the concept may not have. Early last year Blockbuster filed a trademark with plans to issue a digital token and an NFT market place and Metaverse. Some are speculating a form of digital rental service, where a user can own a digital copy of a movie, then rent it to someone else for a fee, where the platform picks up a percentage.

While none of what Blockbuster intends is confirmed, it does make you think about what’s possible for the future of online content. Could streaming, like VHS and box store video rentals, become a thing of the past, and if so, what will it be and how freaking epic would it be for Blockbuster of all companies to bring it to us?

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