‘The Last Blockbuster’ Review: A Fond Homage to the Hobbled Video Giant, Now on Netflix

At its peak in 2004, Blockbuster licensed its name to nearly 9,000 video rental stores around the world. According to my calculations, that means there must have been at least 90,000 copies of “Gigli” in circulation by the chain, which specialized in stocking up on new releases and strangling competitors out of business.

Today, you can’t find even a single “Gigli” DVD at the one remaining Blockbuster store on earth — a family-owned, community-supported franchise holdout in Bend, Oregon. (I know because I just got off the phone with them. “Can you spell it?” asked the clerk, unfamiliar with the 2004 Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez flop.) That said, you can still find thousands of other movies for rent, which is a bittersweet thing for many who associate Blockbuster with early jobs and/or formative movie-watching experiences, and enough to inspire pilgrimages to this Tuvalu-like outpost, when there are probably local stores that could use your support amid the Amazonification of American retail.

Ironically enough, director Taylor Morden’s “The Last Blockbuster” — a jokey elegy for what amounts to the Walmart of the movie industry — can now be seen two ways, neither of them on video: You can either watch it for $3.99 on streaming (where it was released by 1091 Pictures back in January) or via a Netflix subscription (the streamer just added it today).

“Most people think Blockbuster went out of business because of Netflix, but that’s not the truth,” teases former Blockbuster CFO Tom Casey at the top of a documentary that’s driven more by standup comedians, cult film personalities and assorted C-listers than by dudes with business degrees. More entertaining than educational, but just informative enough to do the trick, Morden’s project was hatched back in 2017, when there were still a dozen stores in the country. The filmmaker treats “The Last Blockbuster” like a reality-show elimination-round countdown to see which location can survive the longest (with Anchorage, Alaska, putting up a good fight), while also attempting to provide some basic context about what happened to the once-ubiquitous brand.

But before revealing how Blockbuster went bankrupt, it’s important to establish how they commandeered an industry that had been run largely by mom-and-pop operations. Back in the 1980s, when studios charged $100 or more for VHS and Betamax versions of their movies, entrepreneurs stepped in to make that equation more affordable to consumers, renting the tapes at a reduced price — sometimes along with the player itself, as Brian Posehn recalls. After first trying to squash the emerging home video industry (in 1976, Universal and Disney sued VTR manufacturer Sony in a case that found its way to the Supreme Court, protecting the technology and by extension the rental market), studios learned to see it as a lucrative source of revenue.

This history — which we’ll call the obligatory “be kind, rewind” portion of the doc — gets a distressingly sloppy summary, when it ought to be of interest both to the generation that lived it and the younger set, who can’t fathom watching movies on tape. Lauren Lapkus narrates some of these bits, which involve visual aids projected on an old Hitachi console TV set, and professional stoner Doug Benson plays along, summarizing a boardroom scene — that time in 2008 when Blockbuster had a chance to buy Netflix — that’s goofily reenacted with Jim Henson-style puppets.

Morden prefers a more Proustian approach, allowing his subjects to riff on things like the signature “Blockbuster smell” — a mix of stale popcorn and burnt plastic — and late-20th-century dating rituals — try to decide on a movie together, then proceed to ignore it back at his/her place — which have since been supplanted by the now-acceptable tendency to “Netflix and chill.”

Between such nostalgia-tickling digressions, the director positions Bend-based Blockbuster manager Sandi Harding as his oldfangled protagonist, not so much an anti-streaming Luddite as a lover of what the movie calls “physical media” — a phrase that’s nearly as art-defiant as the streaming era’s “content.” Whereas Blockbuster once edged local stores out of business through rev-share deals (negotiating lower prices from studios in exchange for a percentage of the rental fees), Harding now finds herself shopping at Target and other local retailers for the discs she rents.

That tiny detail is by far the most revealing in a movie that otherwise tells audiences what they already know. Still, as with a classic Seinfeld routine, it’s amusing to hear funny people summarize our frustrations with something as mundane as Blockbuster, the way Ron Funches does on late fees: Everybody hated those steep penalties, but when Blockbuster eliminated them, they not only nixed a monster portion of their revenue, but removed the incentive for customers to return their overdue discs.

It will surprise no one to see consistently funny “Clerks” director Kevin Smith poke fun at the business that played such a central role in his 1994 debut, whereas Jamie Kennedy (whose big break came as the video-store horror-movie savant in mid-90s hit “Scream”) catches nearly everyone off-guard talking about the pre-stardom gig he landed as a member of Blockbuster’s “Entertainment Team” marketing campaign. Most of the other talking heads — from Adam Brody to Samm Levine, interviewed at SoCal video stores CineFile and Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, respectively — are trying too hard to give Morden what he wants to hear. As a result, the film has the overhyped feel of a hacky DVD extra, to use a royally outdated reference.

Morden isn’t interested in those seeking schadenfreude for the mega-company that all but obliterated any sense of curation in the video-rental market. (Troma producer Lloyd Kaufman is the lone grump willing to call Blockbuster out on its tendency to offer “more copies guaranteed” of “Gigli” but none of independent and non-mainstream fare like “The Toxic Avenger.”) Rather, “The Last Blockbuster” taps into analog lovers’ fond feelings for the monstrosity that gobbled up the little guys, then gave up, leaving not just movie fans but franchise owners like Sandi Harding to fend for themselves. Is the company’s demise really something to be mourned, or was its rise the real tragedy?

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