Blockbuster – The Glory Years

Thursday, March 6 2014
Blockbuster – The Glory Years

In the second part of our feature looking back at Blockbuster in the UK, three former store managers, who all went on to bigger and better things, reminisce about their time at the rentailer, known in industry circles as the Big Blue. It charts both the glory years, the downside of its size and the beginning of the end…

Back in the 90s I started work as a part time sales assistant in a Blockbuster store in St Albans. Hard as it will be to believe now, but it seemed like a very glamorous job. I was working for one of the biggest entertainment companies in the country, I got to watch as many free films as I wanted, and at the weekends it seemed as though the whole town would descend on our store.

From 3pm to 10pm we would have queues, quite literally, out of the door. The great unwashed of St Albans would queue patiently with two or three VHS tapes in their clammy excited hands, and the longer they had to wait, the more they added to their haul. Ice cream, popcorn, sweets, chocolate, soft drinks (and alcohol too for a short while) were all piled up and eventually crammed into bags that were way too thin for purpose.

After a couple of years I was made a full-time assistant manager, and eventually store manager. This was the heyday of the video rental business and the demand for VHS, and subsequently DVDs, seemed as though it would never wane. (Of course this complacency would eventually lead to the company’s downfall.)

After many happy years running my small movie empire, I was offered the chance to apply for a temporary position in head office. The company was getting into Trade-In (this was to be the next big thing that would take Blockbuster into the 21st Century with all guns blazing) and needed someone to initially give every single film on the database a price. After a short interview and 20 questions on films I was offered the position, so started work in the glamorous surroundings of Blockbuster’s country estate-style head office. (Apparently it used to be an insane asylum, and the irony was lost on none of us.) After three months I was offered a permanent position and so began the most enjoyable 10 years of my working life.
From Trade-In I was promoted to a full-time buyer for rental product, a great position which meant I was dealing with all the big studios and enjoying all the perks that entailed. Hardly a day went by without some great package arriving on my desk containing DVDs, box sets or film merchandise, and every other evening seemed to be spent at screenings, premieres and parties – oh, how I miss those days. I remember chatting to Tom Hanks in the foyer of the Leicester Square Odeon, shooting the breeze with Mickey Rourke at an exclusive party, and sharing a drink with Julie Walters as we bitched about fellow guests’ bad dress sense at a rather boring shindig. The list goes on, and they are priceless memories.

While all this was going on the powers that be were ensconced in their ivory tower under the impression that it would last forever. Unfortunately, in the wings, and to paraphrase Jeff Wayne, minds immeasurably superior to ours were regarding this world with envious eyes, and slowly, but surely, they drew their plans against us. As Blockbuster made hay while the sun shone, others were looking to the future, and they knew it wasn’t going to be physical rental. Others were doing what Blockbuster should have been doing, exploring new technology and making plans for the changing retail landscape. Blockbuster had the name and brand recognition, and could have been a market leader in the vod market, but by the time it was thought about others had already made the leap, and almost overnight (or so it seemed) Blockbuster was looking old-fashioned and out of touch.

Many retailers have bitten the dust in the past few years, and for most you can see why they went, but the saddest aspect of the demise of Blockbuster is that it could have been so different. It could have lived on and been a brand leader in the digital age, much as it was in the physical rental market for years, but complacency and a lack of vision killed the company stone dead. It wasn’t so much a sinking ship, as a ship that had run aground and no one could find a way to rescue it.

I will always look back on my time at Blockbuster as the best time of my working life, and I doubt I will ever work in such a fun, exciting and entertaining work environment again. Who knows, one day it might rise, phoenix like, from the ashes and no one would be happier about that than me.
Duncan Stripp, ex-Blockbuster store manager and head office staffer, now handling acquisitions at High Fliers

To me, Blockbuster UK always felt like one of those insane military outposts that some mighty world power had on an obscure tiny island. It either bought out or decimated Ritz, which always felt far more like what a British video rental chain was supposed to be like, with its garish red and yellow branding and homely, provincial feeling. It once published a drawing I did of ET in their magazine. Blocky would never be so déclassé or… kind. Blockbuster to me was always too brash and too corporate.

It decimated the network of unique independent video shops which had been established and created a hegemony in which films were merely product.

I solely blame it for the attitude which is still pervasive in this country that the newness of a film far outranks the quality and the very notion of an establishment, which I noted on the day I first started working for it, which stocked 60 copies of Ace Ventura 2 but didn’t have a single Kubrick film, was sad and dangerously influential.

On and off, I worked for Blocky between 1995 and 2002, when I opened my own first indie video store in direct competition (and successfully shut the buggers down). My fondness and nostalgia for Blockbuster is strictly reserved for the people I worked with and the antics we inflicted.

I think it was a bad thing. It not only quashed a charming and community-targeted culture of gloriously different local video shops but it played a key part in ushering in this age of monolithic corporate blandness which has ransacked our country and become the norm. It came in like an army, shut down the competition, drained the money and became too big to be sustainable which means its death takes the entire industry with it. I’m glad it wasn’t prescient enough to be in the position Netflix, itunes and Lovefilm currently hold. I’m glad it’s gone and will always be proud of the small victory my staff, my dad and I played in its decline.
Jon Spira, former Blockbuster staffer, has since launched his own video store, directed a film (Anyone Can Play Guitar) and has written a book about the video industry called Videosyncratic, which is currently seeking a publisher. And you can follow him on Twitter @videojon

I began working at Blockbuster in 1998 at 21 years old, straight out of university. I wanted to be a teacher but fancied a year off to replenish those severely bruised finances, so figured I’d get some part time work while my liver recovered from three years away from home.

Blockbuster seemed a sensible option as my family ran a video store and I was passionate about film – it was a match made in heaven. I must admit I loved it, and as I was single, had a car and the social life of a leper they liked me. So much so within six months I was promoted to manager, a position that I stayed in for five years albeit at different stores.

Initially I found Blockbuster to be the Tower Records of video rental stores, it had EVERYTHING! It bought every new title – from box office behemoths to c-grade erotica, and for any independents it was impossible to compete, especially at the turn of the century. This era saw the dawn of copy depth, the Big Blue’s bold idea of how to revolutionise video rental. I remember going to the annual conference at the Hilton in London (hosted by Jonathan Ross no less ¬- times were good), to listen to md Alex Sparks speak with great enthusiasm of this ground-breaking idea for some stores to stock more than 100 copies of the big release each week. It was indeed an impressive business plan, and certainly one that facilitated the end of those pesky independents as well as Choices and Global.

As time wore on however, the euphoria of the boom years seemed to be on the slide. Rental purchases became more selective and more conservative, copy depth seemed smaller and the emphasis now was switched to add-ons. Targets were drawn up for each shift on how many bundle deals you needed to sell, such as upselling a customer with a rental to buy popcorn, Coke, sweets and so on.

Staff were poked and prodded to do so and engaged in it with the verve of re-animated zombies, while store managers were subjected to ear-melting phone calls to debase them about how short of their targets they were.

In five short years the excitement and passion I had for working alongside films had been eroded and replaced by a dictatorial monster who cared less about whether people enjoyed the movie they’d rented, and more about whether they were walking out with two tubs of Ben & Jerry’s. I figured it was time to leave. I handed in my notice in May 2003 and came to work in my parent’s video store with the modus operandi that I could have free reign on anything I wanted to implement or develop. Eleven years later, I’m still here – as busy as ever, more passionate about films than ever before, and I don’t sell popcorn or Coke.
Dave Wain now runs the aforementioned store, Snips Movies, on The Wirral and writes about horror and other genre titles for various websites

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