The signs were there for years really, the end was coming fast and was in the air even before the big financial crash of 2008. Blockbuster died in a manner that is still threatening HMV who somehow weathered the storm and barely made it out, the market has changed and the old guard represented by physical media is barely clinging to life. Technology and more importantly accessibility has become the new currency in the market and it’s simply easier to instantly call up whatever you want to watch at the press of a button than put your thermals on and head out to the local shops to get two or three DVD boxes for your weekend at a considerable cost compared to a one month rate of around six quid.
The more cynical and business minded side of my brain is baffled that Blockbuster didn’t read the market on this one and act accordingly. They did after all start a rental by post service in around 2002 when Lovefilm was just about to become a player in the market. What they should have been doing around the 2006 mark is putting all their profits into research of streaming and new technologies, had this happened then they wouldn’t be so dead right now and they could well have beaten Lovefilm or Netflix in the market place, I mean even Tesco’s saw the field and became a player with Blinkbox.
So now at the end of 2013 the video shop as we know it is officially dead, all the modern technology and convenience is lovely but what have we lost? Going to the video shop on a weekend or when you were off sick from school was a rite of passage for me and many film fanatics like me. Now it’s all so instant and disposable and surprisingly neither Netflix, Lovefilm or Now TV have any kind of online discussion forum where young film fans hip to the internet can discuss what gems they have found and recommend to others, which renders the whole experience considerably more isolating than the process of going somewhere with someone to find your entertainment. We are heading for the kind of future seen in WALL-E and this is not a good thing.
At the start of the 1980s, the VHS and Betamax war was the equivalent of today’s Netflix vs Lovefilm quandary and for a short time you could rent both formats in locally owned and charming video shops that popped up all over the country. Even walking past these stores as a child would fill me with wonder, the limited exposure I had to films at the time amounted to the original Star Wars trilogy and parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark. These stores often had posters in the windows for films I was way too young to even know about – what the hell was The Stuff? And why was there a film advertised with E.T’s poster that referenced him being massive and eating people (repurposed video nasty E.T x apparently).
Going into these shops was an overwhelming experience; the shop that I mainly remember which formed the bulk of my early impressionable years was a none more local shop called Middlesex Video. Middlesex Video smelled funny and used to be a butchers but it was within walking distance. We went there every Sunday without fail at a time when likely all 3 copies that they stocked of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom were gone for the weekend. It hardly mattered that they didn’t have the film we went there hoping to get and it would be at least a month before we actually did get it, because there was stuff to look at all the time. The human brain that is constructed to hunt, kill and reproduce couldn’t quite cope with all the wonder and sensation that was shoved in my face.
Middlesex Video had a section for comedy featuring a massive colourful box with popping out features for The Toxic Avenger, they also had specific sections for Mad Max rip offs, Bruce Lee, Ninja Films and a none more grimy horror section featuring all the video nasties so derided at the time. They also appeared to have films up beyond my reach which blatantly featured naked breasts on the cover. The experience of going to this shop was so overwhelming and so all-consuming that even now I see something on streaming or on TV and I am suddenly taken back to that time and remember the video box cover art and go ‘Ohhhh that’s what that is’. Back then there was no distinction for me between B-movie, straight to video or massive blockbuster, it was all film and it was wonderful!
This small video shop with the large woman who ran it and her massive dog, was the place where I fell in love with the work of Ivan Reitman, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Charles Band, Roger Corman and, of course, Steven Spielberg. It shaped me as a film fan and the fact that it never had what you wanted made it all the sweeter when you did actually see the film you were after. Along with booking Ghostbusters for Christmas eve about a year in advance, I also remember a rare occasion of going there on a Thursday and actually picking up a copy of Beetlejuice, the victory was so rare and so lucky a win that I nearly ran out without paying for it, convinced any minute another little nerd’s dad was going to fight me for it.
Of course the frustration at never being able to rent Howard the Duck when you wanted to (seriously) grew and grew and eventually we would branch out to other video rental establishments like Ritz Video and Azad Video which were further out and seemingly less popular than Middlesex and had at least five copies of Masters of the Universe which made it a safer bet and petrol was cheaper back then which justified the trip.
At around age 9 or 10, I would start going to the video shop by myself or with friends during weekends or school holidays and this is when I became aware of the sense of community that surrounded Middlesex Video. I was also allowed to start viewing some more extreme material, 15 certificate films with minimal swearing and the odd 18 here and there were now introduced and my mind was blown on a weekly basis. In a highly illegal and dubious move, my Mum or whoever was babysitting at the time would also phone ahead to Middlesex Video to inform them that a skinny 10-year-old was on his way and would rent Halloween 4 or Deep Star Six and this was okay, somehow this was allowed and I would pay my £1.50 and leave with an 18 certificate film.
Bonding experiences were the norm and you would get to know who your friends were by going with them to the store and studying what boxes they would pick up and try to get and compare them with what you were watching which by this point was the early work of Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal. I’m convinced I only have the best friend that I have now because when we were 9 he introduced me to the film Aliens without having seen Alien and also later the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels on trips to the local shop. Things shifted further in around 1990 as the shop became even more of a hang out by introducing an arcade machine and a fine selection of penny sweets. Arcade machines were a novelty previously reserved for trips to the seaside and kids from all over town would hang out around this machine desperate to chug ten pence into it and show their skills.
Of course whilst you were waiting your turn there was nothing else to do but look at the videos on display and ask your companion, ‘seen this?’ Or laugh at the rear cover of some of the smutty comedies, further cementing the bonding experience over film. Word would go round that so and so had completed Golden Axe and was going to do it again after school at Middlesex Video, and so plans were made, but then the crowd would be too big so a debate would begin dawdling around the shop about whether Robocop really was the most violent film of the times or if Class of 1999 had it trumped.
Around the same time as the arcade cabinet revolution at our beloved video shop, something major appeared on Ruislip High Street with gaudy blue and yellow décor and balloons. The first Blockbuster Video appeared and was somehow an even more overwhelming experience for a browser although considerably more clinical. What stood out about Blockbuster was that they had around 40 copies of Willow or Die Hard and you could even rent things that were previously believed to only be available on sell through VHS (then a fairly new concept) such as alien invasion TV show V or some anime horribly redubbed and packaged by Manga Video. The big choice was here and it was now easier than ever to get the film you wanted and the local community headed North accordingly, so Middlesex Video got another arcade cabinet and just down the road another local video store Video Box opened up and had a full on arcade around the back.
You could still go to either place and bond around your love of film and colourful and violent video games, but there was an air of change, something was different and changing about this whole process. There was now less need of having to plan and time when you would go and rent Total Recall because 15 copies were sitting on the shelf of blockbuster. Carefully timing your trip to the local when Blockbuster was a 20p bus ride away seemed like an obvious decision really. Then in the early 90s in a power move, Blockbuster started to rent out games for Nintendo, Sega Master System and Mega-Drive and that was that. Middlesex Video closed and for a time looked like the shell of Blockbuster I now see every day with a crumpled Nightbreed poster sagging in its window before becoming a cake shop which it remains to this day.
Blockbuster dominated the video market for the rest of the 90s and became the only choice. They bought out smaller chains like Ritz and Hollywood Nights and opened smaller satellite stores around the Ruislip behemoth store. Everybody followed suit and fell in line, dazzled by the choices on display. Locally owned stores became a rarity outside of a small selection at a newsagent or petrol station in the countryside. The problem was it was all so clinical, all so easy and Blockbuster didn’t even have film posters or display stands which indicated a serious lack of personality that had gone with the local shop. As I got older the experience of going to a Blockbuster with my friends at a sleep over or because we couldn’t get into the pub, became a hollow affair and eventually it became just as difficult to rent a hot new release as it was in the beginning. The sleep overs became the bonding experiences with the new-fangled home consoles forming the back drop to this and the video shop no longer a viable and welcoming meeting destination.
Perhaps I was just lucky to be born into this era at the time that I was because I’m pretty sure my Dad just saw the video shop as a means to an end to keep us quiet for an hour or so and not the world of discovery that I saw it as. Now that Blockbuster is done and the nearest venue to browse physical media is a good car ride away, a way of life and experience has gone forever. I’m sure that in twenty years or so, someone will feel like me about booting up the Lovefilm player for the first time and get all nostalgic never knowing how we had to work to get our film fix and how hard-earned those experiences that shaped who we became as film fans were.
Everything in media now is available at the wave of a remote or the press of a button, it’s also cold and electronic, and Netflix doesn’t have a charm or a smell that I am aware of. Netflix itself has a recommendation option based on previous viewing habits with a calculated lack of personality. More than anything this indicates that the organic and shared experience has gone. It’s more than likely that now, the young film fan is coming to their formative experiences alone and in isolation without ever walking into a shop and looking up with wonder at a massive dusty plastic case and talking about it with their friends. Are we really better off?