Why I still miss Blockbuster

why i miss blockbuster still

Last weekend, while home visiting family, the holiday spirit moved me to rent Max Payne 3. My younger brother had just moved into his first apartment, and seeing the Xbox 360 plugged in and ready to go without a new(ish) game to go with it just seemed, well, wrong. We had both grown up playing Max Payne on the PC, so the choice was easy. A year ago the rest would have been relatively straight forward: Call around to the local Blockbusters, find one with the game, drive, checkout, come home, play. But a lot has happened in a year, and the last of the brick and mortar Blockbuster’s in our Connecticut suburb of just over 50,000 closed its doors last February. Now it’s a Men’s Warehouse.

The demise of the video-rental store has been imminent since Netflix first began mailing out DVDs by mail over a decade ago. Kiosks like Redbox and streaming services like Hulu drove the final nails in the coffin. But now that video-rental stores are all but gone, I realize something: I miss them. As fine as the high-tech substitutes are, they can’t totally replace everything the old brick-and-mortar store provided.

My quest to find Max Payne 3 without the help of Blockbuster only reinforced this fact. First stop: Redbox. I used the Redbox Mobile iOS app to locate the nearest Max Payne in seconds, sitting at a Redbox in a Walgreens parking lot. My brother and I jumped in the car. When we showed up around 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, a line stretched around the building. It was about 40 degrees, dark, and Walgreens was practically empty. Yet to my bewilderment, this Redbox had a line. So we waited, and cars continued to drive up. We waited, and moms and kids and everyone else took their places in line.

Half the people in line were actually returning games and movies, and it was taking even longer for them than it was for the folks trying to rent. You see, if you’ve never used one of these things before, each disc has its own plastic case, and the Redbox kiosk only has one single slot for all these little cases. So you have to insert each case individually, and each time, go through a process on the built-in touchscreen similar to a CIA entrance exam. Each time. Gone are they days of the drive-up drop-off box. Behold, The Future.

When we finally reached the front of the line, my hypothermic fingers could hardly navigate the clunky touchscreen, and yet — fortune! Max Payne was still in stock, and within moments that forsaken little plastic case popped out and we’re back in the car heading home, game in hand.

Max Payne 3 rules, for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of checking it out. But my woes don’t end there. Max Payne 3 for Xbox 360 is a really long game — long enough that it actually requires two discs. And here we are, my brother and I, playing late into the night, dedicated, when all of a sudden: “Please insert disc 2.”

Now, I’m admittedly not much of a gamer;  I’ve got a Wii, and mostly it just comes out for parties. But when I’ve invested untold hours into an interactive fictional narrative of superior quality, I want to, you know, be able to finish it. Well, it turns out Redbox doesn’t do two-disc rentals, not even if disc two happens to be half the game. Why do they have this asinine policy? Is it ignorance or sadism? And what do they do with all those second discs? Someone, somewhere, has quite a terrifying collection — like the Island of Misfit Toys, but shinier.

Death of the disc

How did we get to this strange state of affairs? A decade of disruption.

Netflix became the juggernaut it is today by starting out physical. You could rent practically any movie or television show in history with a couple of days notice, no late fees, no shipping, done deal. A direct-mail arrangement like that made Blockbuster’s overhead (physical locations require rent, heating, electricity, not to mention the cost of employees) seem absurd. Netflix, and a bevy of imitators in industries that stretched from book publishing to porn, thrived. Blockbuster itself even got in on the mail-order game, but its legacy infrastructure made this a losing battle. Then it tried to mimic Redbox’s success with Blockbuster Express Kiosks. How did that go over? Last February, NCR, the company that supplied and managed Blockbuster’s kiosks, sold itself for $100 million…to Redbox.

Redbox is a subsidiary of the same company that brought us the omnipresent Coinstar. It’s not hard to tell; they are practically the same machines, and they tend to show up in the same locales, like grocery stores and pharmacy parking lots. In 2007, Redbox surpassed Blockbuster in number of US locations, and exceeded 2 billion rentals earlier this year, all in direct defiance of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and Amazon Prime.

As broadband Internet became faster and more reliable, as DSL moved to high-speed cable and cable moved to fiber optic, streaming services could afford to push out higher quality HD content. As those services matured, major movie studios and networks signed on to multi-year content deals for fear of being shut out of the future of online distribution. For a little while, it seemed like a golden age of media consumption: For a low monthly fee, consumers had access to the new, the old, and the quirky, huge libraries of media streamed directly to computers or tablets or TVs.

Then studios started to push back. When its contract came up for renegotiation last year, Starz dropped off Netflix. Instead of signing on with a streaming partner, HBO decided to go it alone and create its own app, HBO GO. And in just the last few months, rumors have grown louder that many of the major movie studios, led by DreamWorks, will rally around their own forthcoming streaming service, called M-Go.

Halfway there

As I sat with half of Max Payne 3 finished and unable to start the second half, my own state mirrored that of the industry. In our shift from brick-and-mortar to streaming, we seem to have hit the awkward teenage years where one phase is behind us and the next hasn’t quite arrived.

Streaming content is far more convenient than traditional video stores ever were. For the most part, it’s cheaper than its old-school equivalent too, and has bred a whole galaxy of devices without need for massive internal storage or clunky optical drives. Soon, all our media will be served up this way, because if you can transfer something over the Internet in the same amount of time that it takes your device to read its own hard drive, why not?

But we are not there yet. There are still thousands of films, both indies and majors, that are unavailable on any streaming service. Because of the fragmented nature of the streaming industry, there isn’t one player that you can bank on to have it all, and here’s the really scary part: There probably never will be. The Internet has changed the nature of content delivery irrevocably. It’s unlikely that any single entity will ever have the power to lobby the content industry like Blockbuster had, because the ways content can be served up now are manifold — and that’s both good and bad. But it didn’t stop streaming services from decimating the physical rental industry without a cohesive model to replace what we as consumers lost.

The game industry is even worse. Gamefly fills the void that Netflix did years ago, but consoles are still generations behind in their ability to download and stream games wholesale, and forget renting. Redbox has arisen, a not-quite-phoenix from Blockbuster’s smoldering blue ashes, but it’s only a stopgap, and a poor one.

So here we stand at the crossroads of the future and the past, which, it turns out, looks a lot like a line snaking around a closed Walgreens on a cold Connecticut night. We can land a rover on Mars and watch the live stream on YouTube, but we can’t get a two-disc game from a hacked Coinstar machine. I miss Blockbuster.

Image source: Jared Presley

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Movies & TV

Disney Plus: Here’s what we know so far about the upcoming streaming service

Disney is bringing the full weight of its massive content library to its own streaming service in 2019. How will Disney Plus compare to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime? Here's what we know so far.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘Norsemen’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Home Theater

Netflix vs. Hulu vs. Amazon Prime: Battle of the on-demand streaming giants

Trying to figure out which subscription streaming service to use while sticking to a frugal entertainment budget? Check out our updated comparison of the big three: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu.
Home Theater

Everything to know about Sling TV: Channels, pricing, and more

Sling TV has grown a great deal since its launch. Now there are more channels and more packages to chose from, with prices to match, and more is being added all the time. Everything you need to know is right here.
Deals

Take a gander at the best deals on 4K TVs for February 2019

There's no doubt that a good 4K smart TV is the best way to take your home entertainment setup to the next level to enjoy all your favorite shows, movies, and games in glorious Ultra HD. We've got the best 4K TV deals right here.
Computing

Don't know what to do with all your old DVDs? Here's how to convert them to MP4

Given today's rapid technological advancements, physical discs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Check out our guide on how to convert a DVD to MP4, so you can ditch discs for digital files.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Movies & TV

Stay inside this winter with the best shows on Hulu, including 'Legion'

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.
Movies & TV

The best movies you’ll find on Hulu right now (February 2019)

From dramas to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.
Home Theater

They were robbed! From Crowe to Pacino, 10 times Oscar voters got it wrong

With the 91st Oscars rapidly approaching, now is a fine time to look back at several Oscar-worthy performances that were completely ignored by the Academy, as well as others that were nominated and astoundingly denied the little naked…
Movies & TV

The best new movie trailers: Yesterday, Tolkien, Triple Frontier, and more

Everyone loves a good trailer, but keeping up with what's new isn't easy. That's why we round up the best ones for you. This week, it's trailers for Yesterday, Tolkien, Aladdin, Frozen 2, and Triple Frontier.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

Best new shows and movies to stream: Deadpool 2, The Umbrella Academy, and more

Need something to watch this weekend? Check out our list of the best new shows and movies to stream right now. On the list this week: Deadpool 2, The Umbrella Academy, Lorena, and more.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Amazon Prime right now (February 2019)

Prime Video provides subscribers with access to a host of fantastic films, but sorting through the catalog can be an undertaking. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Here are the best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now.