I miss it like crazy.
We were a Blockbuster family. I don’t mean that because we had the gold membership card allowing us to rent any old DVD for free with the purchase of a new release or that we’d go at least once a week while working a drop-box drive-by into our regular schedule. No, that label was earned back when VHS was king and the best way to not have to constantly buy new VCRs was acquiring a rewinding machine instead. We’d watch our rentals, pop them in the rewinder, and pile them on the kitchen counter to return each one before the deadline. Rinse and repeat. Five bucks to entertain the entire household for an evening? That’s worth waiting until the extra-long theatrical window ended to avoid the multiplex crowds.
Even so, I’m right with everyone interviewed during director Taylor Morden and writer/producer Zeke Kamm‘s documentary The Last Blockbuster when they say they can’t believe a store still licensing the name from current owner Dish Network remains open. It’s 2020. Streaming is everywhere. Studios are reacquiring the rights to their own IP in order to create their own online channels (for which their internet provider overlords will inevitably throttle competitor bandwidth for the slightest advantage). My local Family Video even pulled down the shutters a year back despite a half-baked synergistic deal to put a pizza joint next to each location being executed as a way to stay in business. Is Bend, Oregon therefore living in the 1990s? Maybe. The details, however, show it’s not quite a fluke.
Don’t get me wrong. Hearing anecdotes and jokes from celebrities about the topic of Blockbuster is a huge draw for this film. Paul Scheer‘s story about scaring customers and Jamie Kennedy reminiscing about the blue and yellow ticket being his first high-paying acting gig are great. Ron Funches having a blast mocking the culture of video rental and Lloyd Kaufman sharing 112-seconds of profanity-laced vitriol towards Hollywood and Blockbuster’s corporate place in its dichotomy are highly enjoyable. For me, though, this story’s real intrigue arrives through the history of the company itself and the ways in which its success ultimately brought upon its own demise. And so much of that comes from owner Ken Tisher and general manager Sandi Harding‘s quest to preserve their “Mom & Pop” atmosphere.
That’s what Ken’s mission was from the start when he and his wife put their life savings into the prospect of opening Pacific Video. It wasn’t until Blockbuster moved in and gave them an ultimatum to join or die that he had to pivot from independent to franchisee. It didn’t, however, mean that he had to change the way the business operated. He merely got on-board because of revenue sharing (explained by a left field, ex-Blockbuster employee in Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes) knowing sustainability was impossible without it. But as far as the community of Bend was concerned, the videostore they’d come to know and love remained underneath its rebranded colors. And Ken’s philosophies have rubbed off on the woman who’s taken charge these past fifteen years.
Harding is thus the de facto star of The Last Blockbuster—a role that’s now being fulfilled atop her responsibilities as manager, purchaser, computer fixer, and more. She’s become the face of a nostalgic, pop culture phenomenon that’s only grown in mainstream scope thanks to a John Oliver gag placing Russell Crowe memorabilia in an Alaskan location to help “save” it as a tourist attraction. That hope didn’t pan out, but now that Harding’s Oregon location is literally the final bastion of a bygone era, bumper stickers and selfies have injected a newfound revenue stream being “one of the last four” didn’t afford. So we go behind the scenes to watch her day-to-day and national notoriety to keep this train going as a legitimate town staple.
This human side to the story is the film’s heart with its random assembly of interviews (including Kevin Smith, Ione Skye, Doug Benson, Brian Posehn, and Bend critic Jared Rasic) providing laughs. Neither quite answers the question of why it’s come to this, though. For that we need to view the corporation’s growth, hubris, and unwitting exploitation. More than just Netflix throwing a wrench into their business model, Blockbuster got dismantled from the inside as its utility moved from lucrative brick and mortar brand to liquid pawn in the pursuit of bigger fish. I remember the early days of the “rent by mail” wars as vividly as the “Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD” debacle. Blockbuster didn’t give up ground. An economic crash simply ripped it out from beneath their feet.
Morden and Kamm make sure to talk to the people who know the how and why while also ensuring such historical dissection never keeps us away from the comedy for too long. The back half of the film definitely lacks the panache of the first, but that says more about how captivating the industry’s downfall is than anything else since Harding’s work to stay afloat is a joy to witness with the camaraderie between her and her family and ex-employees proving inspirational. The choice to turn off her mic and go into a lengthy montage is thus a weird impulse alongside the decision to ask interviewees to “be funny” when their authentic insight was funny enough. Thankfully these lulls don’t derail the whole’s forward progress. The rest is too good.
 The second to last Oregon store now closed
 Sandi Harding, manager of the last Blockbuster
 Doug Benson texting with Kumail Nanjiani