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.

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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.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

14 Festive Facts About A Charlie Brown Christmas

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

More than 50 years since its premiere on CBS on December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of the most beloved holiday specials of all time. Like Charlie Brown himself, the flaws—scratchy voice recordings, rushed animation—have proven endearing. Take a look at some facts behind the show that killed aluminum trees, the struggles to animate Chuck’s round noggin, and why Willie Mays is the unsung hero of Peanuts.

1. Charles Schulz wasn't really interested in getting into animation.

Since the debut of Peanuts in 1955, Charles Schulz and United Press Syndicate (which distributed the comic strip) had gotten a steady stream of offers to adapt the characters for film and television; the artist was also directly petitioned by young readers, who would write Schulz asking when Snoopy would come to some kind of animated life. His stock reply: “There are some greater things in the world than TV animated cartoons.”

He relented for Ford Motors—he had only ever driven a Ford—and allowed Charlie Brown to appear in a series of commercials for the Ford Falcon in the early 1960s. The spots were animated by Bill Melendez, who earned Schulz’s favor by keeping the art simple and not using the exaggerated movements of the Disney films—Bambi, Dumbo—Melendez had worked on previously.

2. Willie Mays played a part in getting it made.

Schulz capitulated to a full-length special based on the professional reputations of his two collaborators. The cartoonist had seen and enjoyed executive producer Lee Mendelson’s documentary on baseball player Willie Mays, A Man Named Mays; when Mendelson proposed a similar project on Schulz and his strip, he agreed—but only if they enlisted Melendez of the Ford commercials. The finished documentary and its brief snippet of animation cemented Schulz's working relationship with the two and led Schulz to agree when Mendelson called him about a Christmas special.

3. CBS and Coca-Cola only gave them $76,000 to produce it.

When Coke executives got a look at the Schulz documentary and caught Charlie Brown on the April 1965 cover of Time, they inquired about the possibility of sponsoring an hour-long animated holiday special. Melendez felt the short lead time—only six months—made that impossible. Instead, he proposed a half-hour, but had no idea how much the show should be budgeted for; when he called colleague Bill Hanna (of Hanna-Barbera fame) for advice, Hanna refused to give out any trade secrets. Melendez wound up getting a paltry $76,000 to cover production costs. (It evened out: Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez wound up earning roughly $5 million total for the special through 2000.)

4. A Charlie Brown Christmas was going to have a laugh track.

In the ‘60s, it was standard procedure to lay a laugh track over virtually any half-hour comedy, even if the performers were drawn in: The Flintstones was among the series that used a canned “studio audience” to help cue viewers for jokes. When Mendelson told Schulz he didn’t see the Peanuts special being any different, the artist got up and left the room for several minutes before coming in and continuing as if nothing had happened. Mendelson got the hint.

5. Snoopy's voice is just sped-up nonsense.

The early Peanuts specials made use of both untrained kids and professional actors: Peter Robbins (Charlie Brown) and Christopher Shea (Linus) were working child performers, while the rest of the cast consisted of "regular" kids coached by Melendez in the studio. When Schulz told Melendez that Snoopy couldn’t have any lines in the show—he’s a dog, and Schulz’s dogs didn’t talk—the animator decided to bark and chuff into a microphone himself, then speed up the recording to give it a more emotive quality.

6. Charles Schulz hated jazz.

The breezy instrumental score by composer Vince Guaraldi would go on to become synonymous with Peanuts animation—but it wasn’t up to Schulz. He left the music decisions to Mendelson, telling a reporter shortly after the special aired that he thought jazz was “awful.”

7. Charlie Brown's head was a nightmare to animate.

Because Melendez was unwilling to stray from Schulz’s distinctive character designs—which were never intended to be animated—he found himself in a contentious battle with Charlie Brown’s noggin. Its round shape made it difficult to depict Charlie turning around; as with most of the characters, his arms were too tiny to scratch his head. Snoopy, in contrast, was free of a ball-shaped cranium and became the show’s easiest figure to animate.

8. Charles Schulz was embarrassed by one scene.

Careful (or repeated) viewings of the special reveal a continuity error: in scenes where Charlie Brown is standing near his tree, the branches appear to grow from moment to moment. The goof annoyed Schulz, who blamed the mistake on two animators who didn’t know what the other was doing.

9. A Charlie Brown Christmas almost got scrapped by Coke.

Mendelson recently told USA Today that an executive from McCann-Erikson—the ad agency behind Coke—paid him an impromptu visit while he was midway through production. Without hearing the music or seeing the finished animation, the ad man thought it looked disastrous and cautioned that if he shared his thoughts with Coca-Cola, they’d pull the plug. Mendelson argued that the charm of Schulz’s characters would come through; the exec kept his opinion to himself.

10. CBS hated A Charlie Brown Christmas.

After toiling on the special for six months, Melendez and Mendelson screened it for CBS executives just three weeks before it was set to air. The mood in the room was less than enthusiastic: the network found it slow and lacking in energy, telling Melendez they weren’t interested in any more specials. To add insult, someone had misspelled Schulz in the credits, adding a “T” to his last name. (Schulz himself thought the whole project was a “disaster” due to the crude animation.)

11. Half the country watched A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Viewers weren’t nearly as cynical about Charlie Brown’s holiday woes as his corporate benefactors. Preempting a 7:30 p.m. EST episode of The Munsters, A Charlie Brown Christmas pulled a 50 share, meaning half of all households with a television turned on were watching it. (That amounted to roughly 15 million people, behind only Bonanza.) CBS finally acknowledged it was a winner, but not without one of the executives getting in one last dig and telling Mendelson that his “aunt in New Jersey didn’t like it.”

12. A Charlie Brown Christmas killed aluminum tree sales.

Aluminum Christmas trees were marketed beginning in 1958 and enjoyed fairly strong sales by eliminating pesky needles and tree sap. But the annual airings of A Charlie Brown Christmas swayed public thinking: In the special, Charlie Brown refuses to get a fake tree. Viewers began to do the same, and the product was virtually phased out by 1969. The leftovers are now collector’s items.

13. There's a live-action play version of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Up until 2013, anyone staging a live-action rendition of A Charlie Brown Christmas for their local school or theater had one thing in common: they were copyright infringers. The official rights to the story and characters weren’t offered until recently. Tams-Witmark fields licensing requests for the play, which includes permission to perform original songs and advertise with the Peanuts characters—Snoopy costume not included.

14. In 2015, the voice of Charlie Brown was arrested.

Peter Robbins continued voicing Charlie Brown until he turned 13 years old, at which point puberty prohibited him from continuing. In November 2015, the 59-year-old Robbins pleaded guilty to making criminal threats against a mobile home park manager and a sheriff. According to CBS News, the troubled former actor claimed that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder led him to make the threats. He was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison.

Additional Sources:
The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation
Schulz and Peanuts
A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition
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