The Place of Blockbuster

At this week’s SCMS, I presented a paper, “Redbox or Red Envelope: Closing the Window on the Bricks-and-Mortar Video Store,” exploring the implications of the rise of alternative forms of video distribution and the seemingly imminent demise of chain video stores.  Thus, it came as little surprise that Blockbuster announced, just as I was flying in to Los Angeles, that it might have to file for bankruptcy (although it did force me to tweak my paper slightly).  Although Vadim Rizov and others seem to suggest that Blockbuster’s collapse was inevitable, it’s easy to forget that ten years ago–maybe even five years ago–the big blue video chain seemed like an inevitable part of our media landscape, a dominant force in the video distribution biz, in much the same way that Coke and Pepsi 2-liters appear at your local supermarket.  And like Wal-Mart and other chain stores, they served as an easy target for people who are troubled by suburban sprawl and the homogenization of culture.  There are dozens of websites like this one demanding that we Boycott Blockbuster (many of which could–and should–continue to exist long after the last late fee is assessed.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a huge Blockbuster fan, but I also find myself a little puzzled by some of the responses to news that the rental chain will have to close as many as 1,300 stores in the next few months.  Aside from the obvious concern about lost jobs, these depictions of Blockbuster often obscure more complicated aspects of how individual stores might fit within a given community.  One example of this is Vadim Rizov’s post in which he speculates, based on the store’s homogeneous designs and emphasis on new releases, that few people will miss the video rental store: “Since being inside most Blockbusters was like being trapped in an airport waiting area, only with brighter lights and stacks of direct-to-video garbage everywhere, I believe few will mourn.”

I’ve been thinking about the particularity of retail spaces, in part, because I’ve been reading Ted Striphas’s smartly argued and eminently readable book, The Late Age of Print, in which he suggests that we should avoid looking at corporate superstores as “abstract concepts” (56).  As Striphas surmises, such accounts cause us to miss out on seeing what Meghan Morris has called the everyday “sense of place” associated with a given space.  Although it’s obvious that Blockbusters are sites of labor–the store’s employees are often targets of anti-BB screeds–they are also specific sites of labor, often integrated into communities in ways that may not be immediately visible.  Striphas’s case study–a Durham, North Carolina, Barnes and Noble that provided books and jobs to an underserved urban community–illustrates the ways in which individual stores may have very different political and social implications for a given community (and this leaves open the possibility that some of those effects may be harmful).

In a sense, Blockbuster has become a useful fiction, a symbol of all that is frustrating about video distribution, while fitting neatly into (often reductive) narratives about the competition between independent retailers and giant conglomerates–recall that Blockbuster was once owned by media giant Viacom. But even while it’s easy to treat Blockbuster as a quaint “tourist destination,” a relic of the media mergers-and-acquisitions era, when looking at the stores from the perspective of the film buff, it’s also worth thinking about how individual experiences of the former rental giant might disrupt that narrative ever so slightly.

2 Comments »

  1. Noel Kirkpatrick Said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

    Chuck,

    Having been an employee, albeit a lowly Customer Service Representative, at a Blockbuster store at two points in the company’s major transitional moments (the rise of the DVD and then the rise of on-line renting), I can vouch that they’re hesitant to adjust course, no matter how much they may need to.

    DVD was slow to be integrated and pushing on-line membership was resisted by stores because it was essentially putting the in-store employees out a job. Additionally, Blockbuster consistently attempted to expand its scope beyond rental by becoming a minor electronics store (see their botched attempt to buy out Circuit City), and later, a 7-11 that happened to rent movies (unsurprisingly given who took over the company…).

    As for this larger idea about what the store means for a community: I think it’s an important point, and one we shouldn’t overlook. I know that many of my co-workers, in both phases, would just as quickly recommend movies to customers that weren’t the big Hollywood titles, some foreign films and the like as they were to help a customer pick something they like. It was a way for communities, even in very selective ways, to see art house and foreign films. (And customers would come to trust opinions of the employees (I was told that 6 or 10 sets of customers stopped coming after I quit in ’08.)

    I think one other ramification to consider is what this means for direct-to-video distributors. It’s pretty easy to pick up some off-brand Transformers or Sherlock Holmes at Blockbuster because the covers stand out (and they rent VERY WELL). On Netflix or a Red Box, it’s a JPEG, and I would think harder to find room in their respective Web sites and menus, which means significantly less customers (for better for worse).

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

    Thanks for all of this context, Noel. It’s worthwhile to point out that the online aspects of Blockbuster would undercut the stores themselves (and would threaten the in-store labor). I’m also glad to get a somewhat better sense (and a specific example) of the communities that might exist at individual Blockbusters.

    In terms of off-brand films, that’s something I’ve been wondering about, especially after reading Wired’s article about Asylum Films, the filmmakers behind Snakes on a Train, among others. As one of them acknowledged, their success is highly-dependent on cover art, something a JPEG may not support.

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