BR: Last Blockbuster, The (2020)

March 22, 2021 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Passion River

Region: A, B

Released: February 2, 2021

Genre: Documentary / Home Video / Video Rental

Synopsis: Amiable and nostalgic chronicle of the last location of the once massive video rental chain in Bend, Oregon.

Special Features: 5 Additional Interviews: Tony Natoli of “Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee” (4:25) + “More with Kevin Smith”(6:26) + “Talkin’ Movies with David McAbee” (2:16) + “JC from Scum & Villainy” (2:25) + “Our Chat with Coach Pete” (3:23) / 2 Music Videos: Andres “The Last Blockbuster” (2:50) + Worldburglar “Rental Patient” (4:03) / “Pick It Up! Ska in the ’90s” Making-of short / Trailer: “Ska-Punk Show at a Blockbuster” (4:21) / Trailer / DVD edition.




There’s a tall tale in how a video rental chain that peaked in 2004 with over 9,000 locations and 84,000 staffers globally now exists as one store in Bend, Oregon, run by a family and loyal staffers. Blockbuster Video’s shaped image was a slick, family-friendly company which catered to broad tastes, and each location honouring a holy guaranteed to renters that the latest films would never be out before the weekend had even begun – a common problem with indie stores who had to pay premium prices for new movies.

As a behemoth, BB managed to extract sweet revenue sharing agreements with certain major studios, and some franchisees also had discretion to curate their stock to their respective clientele, but as happens with over-confident monsters, they eventually get a little complacent by gambling on less than ideal maneuvers – no more late fees being a huge debacle – and then scramble to find new revenue when profits take a huge plunge.

As a bully, BB was effective in having their future store owners walk up to a successful indie, and give them an ultimatum – join us – or as happened in many cases when the indie was just a walk-in closet tucked into a strip mall, the behemoth would slowly kill them by opening close by, stocking tons of new titles, and when renters abandoned the soon-to-die mom & pop shop, jack up prices for the captive renters.

The formula was hugely successful in the U.S. and Canada, and ensured the chain was everywhere, frequently moving into locations with large square footage so tapes, DVDs, and video games could be faced on racks and wide aisles. (It’s a formula rival and smaller Canadian chains like Rogers Video and Jumbo Video adopted. Over time, however, at least at Rogers, surviving locations used video rentals as a teaser for cellphone sign-ups, ultimately reducing movies to the level as a chocolate bar or rechargeable battery.)

Graphically, BB’s logo was tied to the wide storefront banner featuring varsity-styled font, and the iconic blue and yellow ticket stub logo which hung at an angle by parking lot entrances and roadsides, and while the chain furthered the mainstreaming of movie renting in suburban centres and smaller locales, they didn’t recognize the changes in play, as Netflix circumvented in-person renting & returns with their mail-in services, the emergence streaming, and the obvious costs of maintaining both a large inventory of titles, and high rents & property taxes inherent to substantive retail footage.

That the company was mean-spirited isn’t doubted – Lloyd Kaufman’s short interview segment provides the simplest and most profane reaction to the corporation’s view of indie films and producers – but director Taylor Morden and writer Zeke Kamm aren’t out to chronicle the mendacity of a once innovative corporate behemoth, but the longevity of a particular form of nostalgia, and its viability as a business venture in an emerging streaming landscape.

For the Bend, Oregon location, the family run business is administered by Sandi Harding, a sharp, pragmatic, resourceful chief whose daily routine includes hitting big box stores for the snacks, drinks, and new video titles which used to come from other suppliers but must now be bought when they street on Tuesdays.

The Bend location is grounded by a classic person-to-person relationship between staff and clients, but there’s also peculiar splits among the renting clientele: there’s the regulars & longtime renters; families whose home entertainment needs still include a trip to the video store in a streaming world; and the nostalgia tourist, making a trip across states, international borders or oceans to get that fix of entering a functional, classic bricks & mortar shop with membership cards & perks, and getting that selfie and shooting that short ‘Look where I am!’ video.

Harding & Co. offer the classic big brand video store experience, and sell branded souvenirs & custom merchandise, knowing movie rentals alone can’t sustain a shop. Much of the doc interpolates the history of the BB concept and its hugely successful ascension in the rental market with Harding’s daily activities as the camera covers chores & tasks from morning to night.

Also of note – especially to any business relying on unique components – is Harding cannibalizing parts from old computers to keep the business functional. It’s a short segment, but it illustrates the need to retain an archive or stockroom of materials. (There’s a still in this Global News / Associated Press piece where Harding holds up a floppy disc, and more unique, a chunky data tape to back up daily sales – a data storage cartridge I used in my bookstore days, circa 1987-1994.)

Current and longtime clients are contrasted with former BB employees – Jamie Kennedy’s financial independence and career leaps (Scream, Enemy of the State, Bowfinger) are tied to a successful TV ad campaign for the chain – and the obligatory professors of pop culture, namely Kevin Smith, whose Clerks (1994) chronicles day to day antics of video store clerks.

The Kickstarter-financed doc features a pleasing balance of familiar faces and names, select corporate figures, and numerous montages, making The Last Blockbuster an amiable ride where the only palpable tension is near the finale: Will Harding be able to renew her license to use the BB name from the brand’s current owner, Dish Network, a satellite and tech provider.

Perhaps the most sobering thread within the doc that transcends both the steeped nostalgia and the sometimes dry corporate data is that of Alaskan Ken Tisher, who started his own mini-chain, Pacific Video, and as it became successful, was bullied into becoming a BB franchisee. The rebranded stores remained under Tisher’s stewardship, but there’s selling one’s business to a benevolent foster corp vs. sacrificing one’s own identity to a bully.

During its final years of operation, his stores enjoyed a final boost in business when comedian John Oliver presented him with several Russell Crowe costumes & memorabilia, thereby bringing to Alaska international press hungry for a stark tale of a scrappy, surviving video store, and media-savvy tourists. When the two franchises folded in 2018, the memorabilia was moved for display to Harding’s store, adding to its current status and notoriety as the world’s last surviving BB.

Tisher’s saga, from entrepreneur to successful indie and franchisee, provides grounding between the doc’s other narrative streams, and because Harding’s location was filmed on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, its fate, like many businesses, is still precarious, hence a finale that discretely eschews concerns for the future with a celebration of family, friends, customer loyalty, and shared nostalgia for what survives in a unique community.

Passion River’s Blu-ray includes tangential and expended interviews, such as the owner of the Los Angeles based Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, a former memorabilia shop which rents VHS tapes and loans out its library of rarer material; Kevin Smith returns with slightly expanded material of his first rental experience, and getting his first dream job as a video store clerk; filmmaker David McAbee on renting and the nostalgia of VHS; filmmaker / bar owner / former Blockbuster Assistant Manager J.C. recalls the tension of getting a new release on a classically packed night at the video store; and MTV’s Matt Pinfield waxes about the attraction to physical media in video and record stores.

A prior Editor’s Blog captures the disdain and sharp cynicism for the company when it announced closure in 2011 after making several grievous stumbles.

2011 also marked the debut of Video Store Day (originally International Independent Video Store Day), and this Blog from 2013 details some of the locations I frequented, and samples of rental catalogues from 1982.

For more contemporary reflections on the dying days of Blockbuster Canada, please read the current Editor’s Blog offers some additional context, and the rental shop landscape in Toronto in wake of BB’s closure.



© 2021 Mark R. Hasan





External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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