Near the end of the recently released documentary The Last Blockbuster, comedian Doug Benson travels to Bend, Oregon to visit the film’s subject: the only Blockbuster video store left on this planet. “I didn’t miss Blockbuster until I was in this Blockbuster,” he tells the camera. “Now just seeing here, and being here, I love it. Who doesn’t love Blockbuster?”
At one point, it felt like we all did. The original Blockbuster opened in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, with an then-unheard-of inventory of 8,000 VHS tapes. Within a couple of years, under the ownership of garbage magnate Wayne Huizenga, a new Blockbuster store was opening somewhere every 24 hours. At its early noughties best, there were more than 9,000 Blockbusters worldwide, with 83,000-plus employees who all quietly judged us for renting From Justin to Kelly.
And although it’s only been seven years since Blockbuster officially packed it in, that’s apparently been enough time to make us miss it. Whether our nostalgia for those Blockbuster Nights or for the satisfying click of those ubiquitous plastic cases is genuine or ironic, it's real, as evidenced by the success of The Last Blockbuster doc—which was the fourth most watched program on Netflix earlier this spring—a proliferation of soft-focus social media posts about the stores, and the popularity of (or just the existence of) commemorative Blockbuster merch.
“It was a fun business,” Alan Payne, who spent more than 25 years as a Blockbuster franchisee, told VICE. “I think all of us that were in it felt fortunate to be there. It wasn’t particularly difficult to run, and it attracted good employees. I don’t think it was complicated at all: You just had to follow the customer.”
During his two decades with the company, Payne built a chain of 41 independently owned Blockbuster locations, including some of the last-to-close stores in Alaska. (Remember when John Oliver sent all of that Russell Crowe movie memorabilia to a Blockbuster in Alaska? He sent it to Payne's Anchorage store.) He’s also the author of Built to Fail: The Inside Story of Blockbuster's Inevitable Bust, which details the decisions by top executives that he says turned a $3.2 billion company into a cautionary tale.
Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010, and closed its last 300 corporate-owned stores by 2014. The 50 remaining franchise-owned locations held on for a few more years before they vacuumed their carpets and unplugged their popcorn machines for the last time, too. Now, the only remaining store—Blockbuster’s Highlander—is in an Oregon strip mall, near a take-and-bake pizza restaurant and a pediatric behavioral therapist. In addition to still renting DVDs and laminating membership cards, it’s become a must-see travel destination, a feel-good story, a once-corporate corkboard that we can all stick our coming-of-age memories to.
Despite his years of experience with the company, Payne didn’t see this wave of nostalgia for it coming. “I think I’ve been a little bit surprised by that,” he said. “Even as big as Blockbuster was, it was never more than 40 percent of the [movie rental] market. Over half the people who rented movies were doing it somewhere else, but I think the name is just so synonymous with the business, that when people think about renting a video, they just think about Blockbuster.”
That’s because Blockbuster was absolutely everywhere, and not just in shopping centers. In the early nineties, there was a Blockbuster Bowl college football game, now the equally dignified Cheez-It Bowl; a 130-foot long Blockbuster blimp; and a Blockbuster credit card. From 1995 through 2001, there was even an annual Blockbuster Entertainment Awards show. (Nicolas Cage was the most frequently awarded entertainer during its brief history).
On top of all of that, renting movies was just a huge deal, for a surprisingly long time. “If you go back and look at statistics, about half of American households were in a video store every week, and VCRs were in about 90 percent of homes,” Payne explained. “For a 20 year period, that was the predominant way that people entertained themselves on the weekend. It was that big, and people weren’t going there because they didn’t like it; they were going because they enjoyed the experience.”
That’s not to say that the Blockbuster experience was always flawless: There were annoyances ranging from out-of-stock new releases; to the quick turnaround for rentals, requiring what felt like an almost return trip to the store; to those universally reviled late fees, which could turn an overdue copy of Ace Ventura 2 into an expensive mistake. (A $40 late fee is allegedly what prompted software developer Reed Hastings to start Netflix in 1997.)
But those things can be forgiven as the years pass—or at least the problematic parts become less prominent in our memories. “‘Rosy retrospection,’ or focusing more heavily on the pleasant aspects of experiences, is not unusual,” said Dr. Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College who studies nostalgia. “The intensity of negative emotions associated with inconveniences and minor disappointments fades over time, as we remember the pleasant aspects we feel are missing in our present lives. When we miss something from our past, we wish we could experience it again, even though it wasn’t perfect. After all, nostalgia is often triggered by the sense that something in our present life isn’t perfect.”
Batcho says that it’s not uncommon to feel nostalgic for “a fairly recent loss” like, say, a giant corporation that fell apart less than a decade ago. Still, she suggests, we’re probably not actually missing Blockbuster: The Brand. More likely, we're missing the combined cultural and interpersonal experiences of going to a store, wandering around trying to find a movie that everyone could sort of agree on, and then taking it home to watch.
“People can be nostalgic for an old way of doing things,” she explained. “In a store, people encountered other customers, could strike up a conversation, [or] ask for experiences and recommendations. The nostalgia for trips to a video store is likely based, in part, on the enjoyment shared with others—[on the pastime of] selecting videos with family or friends after shopping or dining out. Renting videos was often a social experience.”
That tracks with what Payne saw in his own Blockbusters, too. “If you were to go into one of our stores in Alaska at the peak of the business, there could be a couple hundred people in the store, along with another 10 to 15 employees,” he said. “That was a shared thing, [where] you walk into a store and everybody’s there to do the same thing you are: to talk about what just came out, or what sleeper we should watch because we don’t like the new releases that week. Those discussions were going on in the stores all the time.”
Batcho says that the tangible aspects of a movie rental also reinforce those throwback feelings; even the thought of picking a video off a store shelf can send us straight back to our childhoods like VHS versions of Proust’s madeleines. “Concrete objects can help us feel comforted, as if we are still in touch with friends, loved ones, or favorite times in our lives,” she said. “As technology has increased our reliance on virtual resources, people are becoming more nostalgic for the concrete aspects of the past, when we had more opportunities for healthy, comforting tactile experiences.”
That longing for the tangible object, along with the memories we associate with it and the conversations it might spark, could explain why Blockbuster merch exists—and why it’s a solid seller. Streetwear company Dumbgood goes hard into the 90s kid aesthetic, with collections based on classic Seinfeld moments, god-tier Nickelodeon shows, and movies like Scream and Clueless. The only corporation they’ve commemorated (at least so far) is Blockbuster.
“It’s been one of our most successful collections, and we go back and add pieces here and there,” Dumbgood co-founder Justin Deanda told VICE in an email. “We did three pop-up shops where we recreated the store and that customer feedback was amazing. Everyone had a Blockbuster memory or story to share. It was really clear that the brand meant, and still means, a lot more than video rental for people.”
Deanda and Dumbgood’s other co-founder, Amelia Muqbel, both remember trips to Blockbuster as an essential part of their childhood. “We joke about the smell a lot, carpet and candy,” Muqbel added. “I think just the overall feeling of being overwhelmed in the best way ever is what we remember most. Streaming a movie is such a quick and easy process now, and we appreciate that convenient luxury, but going to Blockbuster was a weekend event.”
According to Payne, if Blockbuster’s executives had been willing to make some different business decisions—like maybe not passing on the opportunity to buy Netflix, or ignoring the possibilities of DVD rental kiosks—then maybe the company would still exist in some form. If things had turned out differently, he said, Blockbuster might even have some stores open today, so that people who don’t live in central Oregon could have the experience of picking a movie in person.
“Just because a business goes away doesn’t mean that was inevitable,” he explained. “Yes, challenges come up, but the really good companies figure out ways to adapt. RedBox is still out there renting DVDs, so why couldn’t Blockbuster have had a piece of that?”