BEND, Ore. — Walking into the last Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon is stepping into an aura of cinematic nostalgia.
Lining the walls are the vibrant blue and sunny yellow color schemes complete with candy and DVD rentals to refresh the memory of what it was like to scan the sea of titles before one finally came home with a movie and Milk Duds in hand.
What used to be a $5 billion company with more than 9,000 stores worldwide at its peak 17 years ago has been reduced to a single shop in central Oregon saved by a loyal clientele and the lure of tourism. Its grave may also be a preview of the movie industry’s reach outside streaming.
While the rest of the company has become nothing but a memory to millennials and folklore to Gen Zers, the final store in Bend has capitalized on its identity as an operating relic of a bygone era. The shop features Russell Crowe memorabilia that was once housed in several of the last few stores in Alaska before they were shut down in 2018. Items include Crowe’s hood from Robin Hood, robe and shorts from “Cinderella Man,” and vest from the French musical film “Les Misérables.”
The store has also created a gift shop section where customers can purchase hoodies, T-shirts, and onesies donned with the classic logo and throwback motto, “Be Kind, Rewind.”
They even offer face masks, on brand for a state that just ended its mask mandate two weeks ago more than a month after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) relaxed guidelines.
While grazing through the final Blockbuster, however, it became more clear why it went under. Nearly every movie I recognized on its shelves produced after 2010 was watched not by DVD or VHS, but through online streaming, where Blockbuster as the middle-man was eliminated. I couldn’t help but to wonder if the same process might play out with theaters due to streamed new releases, which accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic.
Recent blockbusters at the box office have shown a bright spot for a hard-hit industry on the rebound as the nation re-opens. Disney/Marvel’s “Black Widow” hauled in more than $80 million, a new high for an opening weekend since the start of the pandemic. The movie also brought in $7.16 million Monday. Others are also posting big-box office returns, including “F9,” which pulled $70 million on its opening weekend, and “A Quiet Place Part II,” which hit $48 million over Memorial Day weekend.
While these numbers are hitting post-pandemic records, the boost in box office revenues may have been a product of pent-up demand, and the same movies are quickly ending up available online. Each title is now offered on streaming services for an extra cost, and WarnerMedia plans to release its 2021 movies in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously.
Of course, comparing Blockbuster’s demise and the movie theater’s at the hand of online streaming misses that the experience is entirely different. Streaming may offer a substitute for the final product, but it won’t replace the experience of an auditorium designed for a cinematic experience. Blockbuster Video, on the other hand, was far more a hassle as a mere middle man that would land its customers right back at home.
The same reason is why musicals are still performed on Broadway. While recreated in Hollywood, the magic of a live performance can’t be adequately recaptured with a camera lens. Movie theaters may take a permanent post-pandemic dip, but it’s unlikely they’ll go away entirely.