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August 30, 2017

Alaska: Blockbuster’s final frontier

Some of the famous video rental stores have managed to stay in business, but for how long?

Cultural institutions, like old soldiers, never die. They just fade away. Take the case of Blockbuster Video, a company that officially went bankrupt in 2010.

If you’re a millennial, you’ve lived to see this corporation’s complete life cycle. At birth, they were a behemoth. During childhood, a treasured designation. Teenage years, they were successful on the surface with boiling tensions underneath.

By your college years, video stores became shells of their former selves. VHS tapes from the early 2000’s piled up in untouched mountains topped with signs advertising ever-declining prices. It was a quick death. One summer, I applied for a job at Blockbuster, then, just a year after graduation came the announcement that they were shutting down.

Yet that isn’t quite the end of this story. Thanks to the franchise nature of the chain, certain owners remained determined to stay afloat. These men and women were pitied at best and mocked at worst. Take, for example, the episode of South Park in which a Blockbuster serves as the haunted Overlook Hotel in a special Halloween-themed parody of “The Shining.”

A change began to occur, however, in November 2013 when Buzzfeed published a list of the last 50 remaining locations in the U.S. From that moment on, periodic waves of nostalgia would emerge towards the video rental icon that ruled the 1980’s and 1990’s.

In the spring of 2016, for instance, YouTube reviewer Chris Stuckmann visited an Indiana Blockbuster in a video that went viralAbout a year later, CBS’ Sunday Morning ran a feature on the popularity of stores in Alaska, where poor internet speeds have allowed the brick and mortar shops to linger on. A subsequent write-up in The Washington Post was picked up by other outlets, who included several Instagram posts featuring incredulous gawkers posing for selfies in front of the once iconic blue and yellow signs and logos.

Given such outbursts of nostalgia, you might well think that video rental stores could see a renaissance similar to vinyl record shopsFor all the interest and good will, though, no such resurrection is in sight.

That Indiana Blockbuster that Stuckmann visited? Already gone. So are most of the ones from that Buzzfeed map. In fact, of those 50 locations from 2013, just 10 remain (six in Alaska, three in Oregon and one in Texas).

So what happened? There’s no one consensus answer, but complacency is a worthy culprit. After its IPO in 1999, the new millennium brought corporate infighting, a bid to buy then-rival Hollywood Video and even a highly-publicized end to those infamous late fees. All the while, the world shifted under their feet.

Still, it’s not entirely a “he not busy being born, is busy dying” cautionary tale. In 2000, Blockbuster recognized the coming need for video-on-demand. They had to chose between a renowned energy company with fiber-optic infrastructure or an entrepreneur with a small direct-mail business and big plans.

The energy company? Enron. The direct-mail business? NetflixYou can guess what happened. The deal with Enron would fall through and Blockbuster passed on multiple $50 million offers to buy Netflix.

Today, Netflix is worth $70 billion, 14 times the net worth of Blockbuster at its peakSo, when you think back to all those Friday nights you picked the wrong movie, take comfort. It could’ve been a lot worse.