15 Fast-Forward Facts About Blockbuster Video

David Friedman, Getty Images
David Friedman, Getty Images

It wasn’t too long ago that Blockbuster Video was on top of the home video world. More than 9000 stores dotted the U.S. in 2004, each offering some 6000 square feet of DVDs, VHS tapes, video games, and candy bars. But the arrival of Netflix and entertainment-on-demand stripped the company to the bone and necessitated bankruptcy in 2010. Today, only one independently-owned Blockbuster is still operating in Bend, Oregon, a location made viable by a lack of high-speed internet in the surrounding area. If you’re feeling nostalgic for a time when it required transportation and human interaction to watch a movie, check out these 15 facts about the rise and fall of America’s onetime video king.

1. The first Blockbuster store opened because of falling oil prices. 

Dallas, Texas entrepreneur David Cook was still smarting from a collapsed oil market in 1985 when his wife, Sandy, broached the idea of opening up a video store. Cook had been writing computer programs to manage inventory for big oil businesses, but a market collapse led to a stack of unpaid invoices. At the same time, the VHS rental market was exploding, growing from 7000 stores in 1983 to 19,000 in 1986. The Cooks decided the industry could use a mega-store with an inventory larger than independent shops could provide. Sandy came up with the familiar blue-and-yellow color scheme, and Blockbuster was born.

2. Blockbuster was the first video store to keep tapes on shelves.

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Rental stores of the 1980s had a problem: Patrons who enjoyed movies but didn’t enjoy paying for them had a habit of relieving owners of their inventory. To discourage theft, an empty VHS box would sit on the shelf and an exchange would be made at the counter. But because Blockbuster’s inventory was so vast—the Cooks began with 8000 to 10,000 titles—it would be impossible to have a back room for the movies. The tapes stayed on shelves, allowing customers to see what was in stock. The system allowed for quicker customer turnover and an efficient inventory system that could allow them to populate an entire store with stock in a single day. By 1988, the franchise had more than 400 locations.

3. Blockbuster abstained from porn. 

Unlike many mom-and-pop shops that had a neon sign and a set of swinging doors that led to an adult selection of titles, the Cooks decided early on that Blockbuster would be a genital-free zone. It wasn’t a moral issue for them: “We don’t care if people watch pornography,” Cook told Business Week. “We just don’t want to sell it to you. A lot of families came to our store only—not because of the selection and not because of the long hours and not because of the convenient check-out and the three-day rentals—they came because they didn't mind their kids running around the store because they wouldn't see any garbage.”

4. Blockbuster was sued by Nintendo. 

It was inevitable that Blockbuster and other video chains would capitalize on the resurgence of video games in the 1980s by renting out popular titles. Mario and Link, however, were not willing to cooperate: Sticking to its reputation for stern business, Nintendo sued the company in 1989 for copyright infringement, complaining that stores were photocopying game manuals. (Blockbuster said they were simply compensating for the worn-out originals.) The two wound up settling out of court. By 1994, Nintendo had capitulated on its anti-rental stance, and Blockbuster reported that game rentals made up 8 to 10 percent of their revenue.

5. Blockbuster made a fortune on late fees. 

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It’s difficult to lose money gambling on the over-booked, overworked American consumer, and Blockbuster was no exception. The company profited enormously from late fees, which accrued after the one- or three-day rental term had expired. In 2000, $800 million, or 16 percent of total revenue, came from fines. After the company revamped its policies in 2004 to trumpet “no more late fees,” New Jersey state attorney generals cried foul: While that may have been technically correct, a movie or game more than eight days late meant the customer was charged the full purchase price. Though Blockbuster's policy was to reverse the charges within 30 days if the customer returned the item, they were still charged a restocking fee.

6. Blockbuster tried becoming a mini-amusement park. 

Though he eventually turned the company over to other investors, Cook anticipated the idea that Blockbuster could become more than just a rental outfit when he named the company Blockbuster Entertainment in 1985. In 1994, executives tried to make good on the label by opening a center dubbed the Blockbuster Block Party in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Spread over 60,000 square feet, the “adult amusement park” featured laser tag, mazes, and motion simulator rides. The press referred to it as a “miniature Disneyland on steroids,” but the concept never caught on.

7. Blockbuster music stores banned male employees from having long hair.

Getty Images

Starting in 1994, male employees working for the Blockbuster Music spin-off stores were told that long hair and earrings were banned. (According to Billboard magazine, their hair could be "no more than 2 inches past their collars.") A number of workers who refused to comply and were terminated wound up suing; the case was lost on appeal in 1998.

8. Blockbuster got exclusive rights to some movies.

In the 1990s, some titles, like Lolita (1997), were exclusive to the chain, leaving smaller shops unable to secure them for their own inventory and prompting some to buy from wholesalers who ignored the exclusivity rules.

9. Blockbuster advertised on dry cleaning hangers. 

Sensing a missed opportunity to capture the attention of dry-cleaning customers, Blockbuster and several other businesses placed advertisements on bags and clothes hangers in 1998. Coupons were also stapled to the supplies.

10. Blockbuster turned down Netflix. 

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Netflix was just beginning its ascension into a DVD-by-mail and streaming giant when CEO Reed Hastings met with Blockbuster in 2000 to pitch the possibility of his company handling Blockbuster’s online efforts. At the time, Blockbuster couldn’t conceive of how Hastings could add any value to their enormously successful enterprise; according to Forbes, Hastings was “laughed out of the room.”

11. Blockbuster later mailed Netflix a kitchen sink. 

After feeling the pressure from both Netflix and Redbox rental kiosks, Blockbuster developed its own mail rental service in 2004. According to Fast Company, when Hastings told listeners on a conference call that the company had “thrown everything but the kitchen sink” at Netflix in an attempt to be competitive, he received a kitchen sink in the mail from Blockbuster the following day.

12. Blockbuster tried to buy Circuit City. 

With Circuit City ailing, Blockbuster tried to arrange a buyout worth $1 billion in 2008—but the electronics franchise went bankrupt the following year. Blockbuster wound up losing a billion all by itself in 2010, forcing it into bankruptcy.

13. Vacant Blockbuster stores were in high demand. 

Consumerist Via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Blockbuster began to vacate their locations, there was some small consolation: the storefronts were in high demand by strip mall occupants. A pawn shop franchise bought several locations in Florida and Puerto Rico; cell phone stores took up other locations. Business owners attributed their appeal to being in prime foot-traffic spots.

14. Someone noticed the title of the last movie rented at Blockbuster.

Aside from the independently-owned, in-name-only stores, the last official Blockbuster Video location closed in November 2013. The last title rented? Seth Rogen’s 2013 apocalyptic comedy This Is the End. The company posted a photo of the moment on its Twitter page. And yes, the customer still had to return it.

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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