Blockbuster: The Early Years

Thursday, February 27 2014
Blockbuster: The Early Years

As the dust settles on the mighty Blockbuster UK’s rental operation, which once stood over the UK video industry like a big blue behemoth, as all its stores shuttered for the last time, we asked some former Blockbuster employees for their memories, both good and bad, of their time at Blockbuster.

And the answers were so good, it’s been split into more than one feature, which will be aired in parts over the next week or two.

So what better place to start than at the beginning. Mark Oakley was pretty much Blockbuster’s first UK employee, there at the opening of its first outlet down on the Walworth Road, south London.

Oakley was a legendary industry character, there for many of the formative years of our business, first at Blockbuster, then Virgin’s growing retail empire.

Here are his thoughts on the early years of Blockbuster. More to come shortly, to share your memories, feel free to email us at the usual address, or get in touch with us via Twitter…

“I joined Blockbuster Entertainment Corporation, following an interview for store manager for their first new concept store opening on the Walworth Road, south London.

“The interview was at The Kings Cross Rail Hotel, a very polite HR director introduced me to Jim Ellis, senior vice president from Blockbuster HQ in Dallas and, from the first moment of opening the door of the interview room, I was hooked by the excitement of working both in film, my passion, and a cutting edge retail technology that was going to change the face of video rental activity forever and the best possible career opportunity was about to begin.

“I was offered the position immediately and my journey would start in January 1989 where we had eight weeks to open Europe’s largest video rental store with a live
product concept that was set to revolutionise the concept of video rental in the UK forever.

“Originally employed to store manage, my product knowledge and love of film became obvious and I was asked to become the Film Buyer, working with the Blockbuster buying team from the States, I was sent of to Blockbuster University in Florida to see the operation in action at head office, then over to the Blockbuster Distribution Centre in Dallas where I quickly learned that this was a massive Goliath about to put the “WOW What A Difference” in to video rental with the latest Hollywood releases in massive copy depth of more than 120 units of each major release. Blockbuster was THE biggest player across the USand it was down to myself and a small team of energetic Americans and video industry veteran Ian Cullen to spread the word. Blockbuster is coming.

“Back in Britain I was busy establishing Blockbuster as a new player and selling our concept to a very young British video industry, which was dominated by the independent mom and pop-style video shops and Ritz Video, Britain’s largest chain, which Blockbuster later gobbled up on its mission to be the biggest and best home entertainment retailer in Britain.

“Once we had opened eight corporate-owned stores the concept was franchised to Wade Entertainment, original McDonalds UK pioneers, and John Melk of Century Entertainment a big Blockbuster US franchise owner who quickly opened a further 15 stores including some giant 6,000sq ft stores while Blockbuster property manager Ian Cullen quickly caught up with some Blockbuster Megastores in Erdington in Birmingham, Slough and other key UK locations. He then quickly moved to assist with the establishment in Spain and other European territories about to get the Blockbuster Difference.

“We were now being taken seriously by most of the British video establishment, but faced a backlash from groups of UK independent retailers who were terrified of this giant blue video megastore about to arrive next to their tiny local business. They normally only stocked minimal copies of new releases, whereas ALL of the Blockbuster stores had centrally scaled out new releases in massive copy depth from a buyer located at head office who now had the considerable buying power to make or break a new release.

“I could see how creating a partnership with the key video distributors was key to our success and margin results on a specific release. At this time new big box rental product still had a 24 month window before TV, while satellite and cable were seen as advertising vehicles for our stores, not the future. Whereas towards the end, Blockbuster was too slow to react to the evolution of LOVEFiLM and Netflix, to the possibilities of streaming and how a movie was consumed, this was a far off time in a galaxy far, far away. Take Las Vegas, where I represented Blockbuster UK at the world’s largest video show, VSDA, the precursor to CES, as it is today. It was somewhere we could experience Hollywood, Vegas-style and see the future of home entertainment as it unfolded across the world. Back in the 1990s a video recorder would set you back £400 plus and was a big family purchase.

“Blockbuster also pioneered the three-day rental offer which gave people more time to enjoy their movie; each store had a 24 hour drop box which conveniently helped you avoid late fees. It was all designed to make the customer enjoy their experience. I also introduced large retail, sell through departments in every Blockbuster store. This was very different to the US model back then, where purchasing a movie was not as popular as renting. The UK suddenly woke the Americans up to the potential of both previously viewed movie sales and the massive potential sell through products aimed at both the collector and impulse buyer.

“Blockbuster was growing fast and a new head office and distribution centre was acquired in Uxbridge on an industrial estate, where we Established Blockbuster as the UK’s biggest and best video retailer. We then joined forces with Virgin Retail Europe where a joint venture was agreed to expand the Virgin Megastore brand using Blockbuster’s logistics. This relationship came to an end and I too joined Virgin Retail to expand and develop the Virgin Megastore business across the UK, Europe, and take Virgin Megastores to the States. I was with Virgin when we acquired Our Price Music in a partnership with WH Smith, where I then became one of Blockbuster’s biggest competitors.”

• Mark Oakley continued at Virgin for some years, before moving to Flextech and on elsewhere. He now owns and runs The Eagle, one of Vauxhall’s finest venues, home to, among other things, one of London’s best nights out, Horse Meat Disco.

• Next: some former store managers and counter staff discuss their experiences, good and bad, and more from head office

Tags: , , , ,