Blockbuster comeback? Remembering ups and downs of renting movies in person

In the days of countless on-demand movie streaming options at home, a lot of young people can’t imagine having to plan ahead to watch a film.

“Any of us who lived in the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s have a certain nostalgia for Blockbuster, right?” said WTOP entertainment editor Jason Fraley of the movie rental retailer, which closed its brick-and-mortar stores in 2014.

During Blockbuster’s prime, movie fans were only too happy to travel to a store to choose a weekend’s worth of films and video games.

“It was just so cool to go in with your family or friends to peruse the aisles,” recalled Fraley. “It was always divided up by different genres, and you would go through and pick up the actual cases, turn them over in your hands, and read what the story was about, and think, ‘That plot sounds cool; I’ll give it a shot.”

At its peak, Blockbuster had more than 9,000 stores worldwide.

“Now, it did have its downside — you had to make sure you rewound the tape,” Fraley said.

That technical requirement for rewinding a VHS tape was enough of a universal memory that when some noticed the Blockbuster’s homepage page was again active, with the message, “We are working on rewinding your movie,” industry insiders began speculating that the company is poised for some sort of comeback.

It’s unclear what the business model might be for a revamped Blockbuster.

By 1998, Blockbuster had some competition: “Suddenly, those little discs started arriving in our mail in little red envelopes marked Netflix,” Fraley said.

Following suit, Blockbuster began mailing DVDs to customers willing to wait a few days for their movies to arrive. However, when Netflix went all-in on streaming movies, Blockbuster chose not to.

“In the end, you can’t stop progress, and you can’t stop the march of time and technology, and ultimately, streaming is way better than video stores,” Fraley said.

While Fraley said that he “hates to burst the nostalgia bubble” for Blockbuster fans, “We have all these high-def restorations of even classic movies that you can just bring up at the press of a button, as opposed to a video store that might not have certain obscure things in the aisles.”

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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