You’ll have to forgive me if I seem a bit out of sorts. I’m in mourning, you see. I’ve lost a friend that I’ve known since childhood. Her name was Blockbuster Video. She was born in Dallas in 1985, close to my childhood home of Plano, Texas. But we didn’t really grow close until I was in my twenties, living in Los Angeles. She shared my passion for movies, and I carry fond memories of many a Friday or Saturday night spent hanging out together. She introduced me to some of my favorite films, some of which were smaller, lesser-known films that I discovered when forced to browse because the New Releases section had been wiped clean.
Admittedly, Blockbuster and I had grown apart over recent years. Her presence in my life dwindled. She no longer lived close by, and it grew more difficult for us to connect. I made some new friends, Netflix and Redbox, who also shared my passion. Redbox lives right around the corner (in fact, a family of three Redboxes resides at the corner strip mall). Netflix was always willing to come right to my house, and now she actually lives with me. I guess my loyalties are fickle, and convenience won out over nostalgia.
Still, it was with sadness that I read the recent news that parent company Dish Network has decided to close down its few hundred remaining Blockbuster stores, as well as the DVD-by-mail program. According to the New York Times, about 50 stores around the country that are independently owned will remain open, at least for now. The announcement didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Blockbuster has been ailing for a number of years. Dish Network just purchased the company through bankruptcy auction in 2011, primarily to acquire its digital distribution catalog. The Blockbuster On Demand pay-per-use VOD service and the Blockbuster @ Home streaming service (exclusively available to Dish satellite customers) will live on.
It’s kind of ironic that the Blockbuster brand will now exist primarily in VOD form, given that VOD is essentially what killed the video store. Blockbuster, which itself was responsible for the death of many a mom-and-pop video store, was ultimately done in by the convenience of streaming video-on-demand – first and foremost by Netflix, and then by a diverse crop of competitors, including the iTunes Store, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and CinemaNow. Why get in a car and drive to the video store, where you may or may not find the title you want, when you can simply press a few buttons on your TV, Blu-ray player, cable/satellite box, or streaming media player to watch the same movie?
Well, quality is one reason. The quality of streaming VOD is getting a lot better, but it’s still not up to Blu-ray standards, particularly on the audio side of the equation. If I’m going to rent a low-budget indie film or just plan to casually take in a flick, I’m content to use a video-on-demand service but, when we’re talking about a big-ticket (ahem) blockbuster release, I want pristine video and high-resolution audio, and I’m willing to drive to my local video store or kiosk to get it. Broadband limitations are another reason. Some people don’t have the broadband speeds necessary for a good streaming experience, and some people just don’t have broadband or the equipment to access streaming content. Now that Blockbuster is gone, the primary options for disc rentals are Netflix’s by-mail program (Netflix has clearly shifted its focus to streaming, so it remains to be seen how long the company will keep its by-mail program alive) and Redbox, which has a very limited selection of titles within each kiosk.
Is Redbox shedding any tears over the passing of Blockbuster? In the short term, Redbox will likely pick up some displaced Blockbuster customers, but the company has to see the writing on the wall for its primary business model, much as Virgin Megastores couldn’t have been too excited to see Tower Records close its doors, knowing its own fate was being sealed. Redbox is trying to keep itself relevant in this new streaming age. In partnership with Verizon, the company has launched the Redbox Instant streaming service, which is still in beta as I write this. For $8 per month, you get unlimited streaming, as well as four one-night credits per month to be applied at any Redbox kiosk rental. The service also adds a Premium Video on Demand option, akin to the pay-per-use rental options from iTunes, VUDU, and Amazon. The pay-per-use VOD route provides earlier access to big-ticket movie releases than the subscription services do, usually the same day as the DVD release. It’s worth noting that the rental price for a Redbox VOD title is higher than that of a physical Redbox disc rental. You can stream Redbox Instant to your computer or to the free iOS/Android app; also, Samsung, LG, Roku, Xbox, PlayStation, and Google TV have added a Redbox Instant app to their Web packages.
As our disc-rental options dwindle, I can’t help but wonder how it will affect Ultra HD content delivery. The first crop of Ultra HD source devices, like Sony’s FMP-X1 and the RedRay player, are download services, but we’re being told that a disc-based Ultra HD format is coming. Will there be any place to rent these UHD discs to watch on our new UHD TVs, or will we only have the option to buy the movies? Will Netflix and Redbox feel any compulsion to add this type of disc to their rental catalogs? Frankly, I only buy discs for movies that I already know I love or that I need for demo purposes. I would be very reluctant to blindly purchase UHD movies on disc, especially if they carry a premium price tag. It’s yet another hurdle that any disc-based UHD format will face.
In the meantime, I will bid one final adieu to Blockbuster. I suppose, if those 50 non-franchise stores manage to survive, I can always take a road trip to visit one. Perhaps they’ll become tourist attractions. The former retail giant will be relegated to the space in my heart occupied by the likes of Bob’s Big Boy and Stuckey’s. I seldom see one in my travels, but if I know one’s close by, I might make a special trip just for nostalgic purposes. Any hey, record stores are making a comeback. Maybe in 20 years, a new breed of hipster will decide that renting and buying movies from an actual store is cool, and we’ll see a resurgence. It could happen.
By Adrienne Maxwell, HomeTheaterReview