Monday, January 25, 2010

Not a big fan of this trend

(Seems like an appropriate poster for conference championship Sunday, doesn't it? Go Saints!)

Yesterday I wrote about being thwarted in my attempt to see a movie, largely due to a comedy of errors. Today it's an institutionalized thwarting I want to write about.

The other movie I tried to pick up two weeks ago, in addition to Hustle & Flow, which I discussed yesterday, was Big Fan, the indie from last fall in which Patton Oswalt plays ... well, plays a big fan of the New York Giants. It's directed by Robert Siegel, the writer of The Wrestler (my favorite film of last year), and involves a nightclub altercation with a player, as well as a large amount of unnerving, obsessive behavior.

There's been awards buzz around Oswalt's performance, though as time goes on, it seems unlikely that enough people will see it to cast a vote for him. Especially if they are relying on Blockbuster. Which, of course, Academy members wouldn't be, but stay with me, I'm trying to make a point here.

I'm hugely interested in this movie. It's one of the ones I knew I'd see prior to my February 2nd deadline for closing out my 2009 rankings, and the reason I've been so confident is that it's already on DVD. Then it's just a matter of prioritizing it over the other movies that are already on DVD.

Or so I thought.

It turns out, it wasn't actually available on DVD two Sundays ago -- I thought it was already out after Oswalt appeared on The Tonight Show to promote it -- but it did become available two days later, on Tuesday, the day of the week on which DVDs are always released.

Of course, "available" is a relative term here.

When I went to Blockbuster this past Friday, my first choice was Big Fan. I hadn't specifically looked for it again since two weeks ago, but its time had definitely arrived.

Except, as you have no doubt anticipated by now, it wasn't there. I thought I might have just been looking in the wrong place, because there was also a special section for the best movies of 2009. But nope. Not there either.

I asked the Blockbuster clerk about it. I could tell she was one of the helpful ones, not one of the ones who "just works here." She looked it up and told me that corporate hadn't sent out any copies, and that it would probably be quite a long wait to get it online. When I asked her why they chose not to stock what seemed like a pretty mainstream film -- and oversold Oswalt's performance, saying he was going to get an Oscar nomination for it, as if the strength of my indignation might prompt her to reach below the counter and produce a copy -- she said she didn't know. She was clearly frustrated, too: "Sometimes I think it's just a bunch of monkeys at keyboards making these decisions." Thus kicked off a head-shaking discussion about where the industry was going, and how neither of us was satisfied with the future prospect of having to stream most movies we wanted to see.

This Big Fan scenario has thrown out of whack my whole understanding of just how much things are changing. When I saw that Blockbuster wasn't carrying Hustle & Flow in stores anymore (only later recognizing that it may have just been out at the time I looked for it), that was something of a shock, but it was nothing compared to this. Until now, the one area where Blockbuster had been beyond reproach was its new release section, which makes a certain amount of business sense. New releases are the only rentals you can count on to fly off the shelves. To meet that demand, Blockbuster will order literally a hundred copies of certain movies for each store. Those copies obviously rent enough to make it worth having to dispose of the extra inventory once the demand dies down. Some of those extras will sell as previously viewed copies, and maybe the rest will be dumped in a landfill, but either way, they made their money on the initial spike of interest.

You'd expect that kind of thing for your Transformers and your Iron Mans and your Dark Knights, but Blockbuster has also been quite good about stocking the obscure titles. There may only be one copy, but they'll have it. At any given time, the new release wall is strewn with random shit you've never heard of -- a lot of it straight-to-video, sure, but plenty of independent or foreign films that had limited theatrical releases.

Like Big Fan. You'd think that would be a slam dunk. Patton Oswalt is not a household name, but neither is he an unknown -- he voiced the main character in Ratatouille, after all. Yet here it was, unavailable -- the first time I had ever seen that. The first time I'd tried to find a new release at Blockbuster, and not even seen the cardboard copy of its poster indicating that it should usually reside in that spot. There was simply no evidence of it, because it didn't exist.

And this is a big deal, because you can't rely on being able to get a new release online. Not surprisingly, new releases often have the words "Short Wait" or "Long Wait" next to them online, because there are so many other people who want to see them the same time you do. "Long Wait" is what it currently says next to Big Fan.

For me, this is traditionally where the store comes in, and it's one of Blockbuster's big advantages over Netflix. The demand for that movie may be high at the store as well, but they seem to have budgeted more copies. Or, failing that, I can just go to a different store. I'm not saying there haven't been times when a particular movie is difficult to get, just that you can always find it with a little elbow grease and persistence.

I tried to use such elbow grease yesterday. I went to a second Blockbuster, to see if maybe it was only that particular Blockbuster that had not been shipped the title. But there was no Big Fan here either -- neither an actual copy, nor an empty spot where it was supposed to be. Infuriatingly, however, there was a copy of a movie called Big Stan -- several copies, in fact, as if taunting me. Big Stan is a comedy starring Rob Schneider as a guy who learns kung fu to defend himself in prison. Not an acceptable substitute. But, ironically, it does demonstrate what I was saying about Blockbuster's deep new release section.

So now I'm faced with an interesting scenario: A movie becomes available on DVD three weeks before my ranking deadline, and, short of buying it, I may have no way of seeing it at all.

Not so fast.

The other trend I wanted to write about in this piece had to do with Blockbuster's primary rival, Netflix. Last week, news broke that Netflix had reached an agreement with Warner Brothers to hold off on offering that studio's new releases for 28 days after they become available for purchase. In exchange, Netflix would get to stream more of that studio's movies. To me, who is still clinging to the physical DVD, this was a step in a direction that made me nervous -- and, according to the article I read, just the first such agreement Netflix wanted to make with various studios. It's all part of the same worrisome trend, and for a moment, I considered calling this post "The DVD new release: an endangered species."

Not having much more hope for the presence of Big Fan on Netflix, especially considering where that company is heading, I nonetheless figured I ought to search Big Fan on my wife's Netflix account, just to be thorough. Maybe I'd find that Netflix has some kind of exclusive rights to the movie, which prevents Blockbuster from carrying it in stores. Maybe at the very least I'd see whether I could expect the same "Long Wait" for a DVD of Big Fan through Netflix. If not, perhaps I'd depend on my wife's kindness in order to see it, and get it moved to the top of her queue.

In fact, I discovered, the thing that I fear might actually be the thing that saves me on this particular movie. Lo and behold, Big Fan is available for immediate streaming. Just like that, I went from not knowing when I'd get to see this movie, to possibly watching it right now.

We're forced to adopt changes in various industries all the time, whether we like those changes or not. Maybe this is one trend I'll end up embracing after all.

I can tell you this: When I'm watching Big Fan sometime this week -- at the exact moment of my choosing, and even on my own laptop as long as my wife is logged in to her Netflix account on it -- I'll definitely be able to see its value. Which, only yesterday, I didn't think I'd be able to see.

That's how things change ... gradually. Then before you know it, you're a big fan of the thing you thought was your biggest rival.

Maybe there's a Blockbuster vs. Netflix lesson in there as well.


Don Handsome said...

Vance -

The lesson is simply to dump blockbuster. You already know about Netflix, but Big Fan is also available at my local video store in a section called "Films you can't rent at Blockbuster" (they are extremely anti blockbuster at this place). I know you like the fact that you can walk into any blockbuster to return and rent more movies, but what use is that luxury when they are continually screwing you by not having any good films available. Just commit yourself to a fiercely independent local DVD shop and get on board with're on a sinking ship.

You've been warned,


Vancetastic said...

Help me make my decision - what else is in that section? What else am I missing?

Don Handsome said...

Mostly its just NC-17 rated films - like The Brown Bunny - which may be falsely categorized as a film "you can't rent at Blockbuster" and Criterion Collection films. This weekend I noticed a few newer titles in addition to Big Fan, they had Objectified, Of Time And The City, Humpday, O'Horten, and Gomorrah. I guess the trend you should be picking up on here is that perception (at least) is that Blockbuster ignores arty, foreign, and arty foreign films. I tend to think that this is true.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks. Your video store is selling Blockbuster a bit short, as I have seen O'Horten, Humpday and Gomorrah there for sure. In fact, I had Humpday in my hand yesterday until I decided to delay my Humpday viewing until later in the week in favor of Tyson.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

How about this...Netflix is or will very soon by streaming a lot of their back catalog on line or via X-Box, PS3 or Wii. could have rented it from iTunes and began watching it instantly.

The day is fast approaching where there will not be any physical discs anymore. You should start to embrace it.

Vancetastic said...

I meant to make this more clear in the post, but maybe I didn't -- I am not satisfied with streaming. I don't think it's good enough yet, not to mention that I don't currently have a good system to watch streaming video on my TV. In the future, I'll have that system and the streaming will be faster, and then I'll have no problem embracing it ...

Daddy Geek Boy said...

I've rented HD movies from iTunes and watched them on my computer screen. The quality is really nice. Though without the hookup to the TV, I can see what you mean.

But imagine, it will soon be where nothing is ever "out of stock" when it comes to renting a movie. (Actually been working up a blog post about this)