Blockbuster’s End: What Its Closing Means to Movies

Blockbuster store closing

It won’t come as much of a shock to anyone in the Fredericksburg area since our last Blockbuster was closed years ago, but Blockbuster is now closing all remaining stores. The age of video rental as a for-profit business is officially over. It would seem to affect the library very little. After all, we still provide DVDs to our customers, don’t we?  And, yes, we will continue to add new DVDs, but the decline of Blockbuster and video rental as a business does have an impact because it changes the very nature of the product Hollywood puts out.

Before the rise of Blockbuster and what was first called “home video,” most Hollywood films were completely dependent on their theatrical run to make a profit. Successful films such as the classic Ghostbusters could easily play for a better part of the year in theaters to collect money in the early 80s. Going even further back in time, it was extremely common for studios to reissue older films in theatrical re-releases to make even more money. Films that received reissues included many of the Disney animated classics and Gone With the Wind. “Post-theatrical revenues” (other than money from TV rights) were virtually unheard of, and unpopular older releases could barely hope to get any exposure.

Video store customerThe advent of the video rental store changed this. Suddenly, old and obscure releases were dragged into the light of day and could generate plenty of revenue for their rights holders!  It was a dream-come-true for Hollywood executives who could now count on revenue from VHS and DVD releases to cushion the financial risk of any new project. Many films that had disappointing grosses in their theatrical runs, such as Tron and Blade Runner, would go on to become cult classics thanks to the age of video rental. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Blockbuster had massive financial success as it expanded aggressively, shutting down the many locally-owned video rental stores across the nation and becoming a major player in the Hollywood game.

Blockbuster’s success lasted well into the early 2000s, and it continued to drive the success of many film franchises and other studio output. “Back catalogs,” the rights to the older releases still held by studios, were so valuable that studios effectively bought a long extension on their rights through the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, allowing them to retain the rights to films that would have passed into the public domain decades ago so they could make even more money off of VHS and DVD releases of them. But even as the studios and Blockbuster gorged themselves on post-theatrical wealth, cracks began to form on the foundation of their business.

Horror stories about the dreaded “Blockbuster late fees” became commonplace, as did resentment over how Blockbuster always prioritized new mainstream Hollywood releases over other movies. It was not uncommon to walk into an early 2000s Blockbuster and find an entire wall of Tomb Raider. As this was going on, a small start-up business called Netflix promised relief from the Blockbuster business model with a long grace period before late fees, as well as a catalog of releases far more vast than any individual Blockbuster store. Netflix’s success and expansion were not instantaneous, but once the success story began, Netflix gathered momentum like a massive boulder rolling down a hill, becoming impossible for Blockbuster to stop.

Poster from the 1933 version of King KongWe now live in age of streaming video, a time of Netflix and Amazon Prime, when those who still prefer to rent a physical disk do so from Redbox, for a price only a fraction of what Blockbuster used to charge. The time of DVD rental stores as profitable businesses is over. And this is not entirely a bad thing. The studios, which had so aggressively argued for extending their copyrights in perpetuity in 1998, face back catalogs of diminished financial value and increasingly aggressive and committed opponents on the legal level such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Perhaps we will even see classics such as King Kong and Dracula become public domain in our lifetimes!

Though the post-Blockbuster age is a more democratic one in terms of the power of the people versus the studio system, it is also a thinner and poorer one in terms of studio output. Gone are the days in which studios would openly take a risk on daring films such as Pulp Fiction. Instead, studios march to beat of increasingly homogenized and “safe” output in hopes of getting a financial reward with the least amount of risk. The days of a quirky comedy such as Austin Powers becoming a major success because of VHS and DVD release are gone. Once more, a film’s financial success is increasingly restricted to its theatrical performance.

The Central Rappahannock Regional Library will collect as diverse and interesting an array of films for our customers as we possibly can. But because public libraries are only  small nonprofit entities, we cannot drive the financial success of films as a huge business such as Blockbuster could, and our collection may be the poorer for it. Like all public libraries, we are survivors after the end of a once-profitable system and will offer the best we can in the arid and sparse post-Blockbuster world, where older films and obscure releases no longer offer a profit to the studios and risk being forgotten once more.