‘The Last Blockbuster’ is about more than just a video-rental chain’s demise


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This new documentary is about more than just nostalgia, however, coming as movie theaters — closed by the pandemic — face their own existential threat and wrenching changes, in ways that seemingly echo the demise of the video-rental chain. In that sense, the film proves timely in its warning about how a brave new digital world can claim casualties in terms of existing businesses and social interaction.

Filmmakers Taylor Morden and Zeke Kamm tell the story somewhat whimsically, in part through the last remaining Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon, whose manager, Sandi Harding, has fought to stay afloat while larger trends and economic forces consume those around it. The store’s emergence as a media novelty and even tourist attraction is the micro half of this larger, macro story.

Inevitably, the film must include the rise and fall of Blockbuster, as told in part through the eyes of media figures who actually worked in the stores, among them director Kevin Smith, who immortalized those times in the movie “Clerks.”

Still, the business half of the story is equally fascinating, as the presumption that Blockbuster was simply killed off by Netflix, shifting habits and new technology is presented as a simplistic version of events.

Kevin Smith in the documentary 'The Last Blockbuster.'

As detailed here, the chain’s downfall owed as much to corporate greed, misguided decision-making (like an ill-advised “No late fees” campaign) and the 2008 financial crisis, which dried up Blockbuster’s liquidity at just the moment when resources were needed to grow and evolve its business.

It’s noted, too, that Blockbuster’s early expansion came at the direct expense of mom-and-pop stores, which doesn’t make the nostalgia expressed for what the video store represented — “the perfect high-school job,” among other things, as comic Paul Scheer recalls — any less real.

Speaking with unsentimental eyes, former Blockbuster chief financial officer Tom Casey says he can’t imagine anyone missing a trip to a video store these days, what with a rich supply of entertainment at our fingertips. Yet that ignores how such innovations often mean sacrificing personal exchanges as well as the cost to people who derive their livelihoods from those businesses — leaving behind what Smith calls, using more colorful vernacular, a lousier world.

“I miss it like crazy,” says voiceover artist James Arnold Taylor of those Friday-night trips to Blockbuster.

For that reason and others, “The Last Blockbuster” is worth watching, as much for what it says about now as how it reminds us of the way the media world has changed. And as an added bonus, no late fees.

“The Last Blockbuster” is available on demand (where else?) on Dec. 15.

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