Monday, March 29, 2010

End of the road

Everywhere I look, there are signs of the old ways being killed off by the new.

First it was Friday, when driving to my company's closest satellite office in Torrance, about a 10-15 minute drive from my office. My route takes me past the Redondo Beach Cinema 3, now the former Redondo Beach Cinema 3.

Granted, I'd never been to this second-run theater. But it served a role in my life nonetheless: I liked noting what was playing as I drove by. That's a favorite game of mine in any theater whose marquee is visible from the street. I always like to imagine a scenario where I'll drive by with precisely one hour and forty minutes to kill, and there'll be a 100-minute movie starting right at that moment. And so I see what movie I'd watch if that theoretical scenario actually came to pass.

This theater in particular interested me, because I always imagined there would be a time when I'd finish my day at our Torrance location, and run on over for a second-run movie that started 15 minutes later. There were occasionally some choices that interested me, but just lately they'd become kind of third-run. The last time I drove by, maybe two weeks ago, they were still playing Twilight: New Moon, and some other choices that may have been even older. A theater slips from second- to third-run when it stops playing movies that came to theaters a month ago, and starts playing movies that came to DVD a month ago.

So all the signs were there that the Redondo Beach Cinema 3 was on the verge of going under, but it sill saddened me when I drove by to a blank marquee on Friday. It wasn't just that they sent their marquee letters in for a cleaning -- the place was officially closed. A look to the right showed me this sign, which confirmed it. Later, I came back and snapped a few photos.

I've written about this before, but there's something tragic to me when a theater closes. I know from talking to a friend of mine, who was considering buying a small theater, that any theater with fewer than four screens is an unsupportable business model. They can stay open, alright, but if they do, it's because the owner is taking a loss. The owner is some rich cinephile who cares more about the ongoing existence of the small American theater than he does about the way that theater puts a dent in his bank account. He can afford to care about that because the dent is so small.

I also can't help but notice the contrast between this and the high-end theaters becoming more high-end, especially with the current craze to make more and more screens capable of playing 3D. Playing 3D at the Redondo Beach Cinema 3 would have been unheard of. That's what happens to dinosaurs, unfortunately -- they die.

Then there was yesterday. I've written about Blockbuster's woes numerous times -- here, here, here and here, to name a few -- but yesterday marked yet another landmark moment in my understanding of just how much trouble the company's in. I've heard the potential bankruptcy rumors, and I've heard the announcement of store closings. But when the one store closed that I talked about here, while the other one equidistant to my house appeared to survive, I figured Blockbuster was just decreasing its geographical density, not noticeably scaling back its presence. You know, like if there are Starbucks on two adjacent blocks, and one closes, you don't really worry too much about the health of the company. It's when they both close that you worry.

Kind of like yesterday.

I left my house to go swap out a mail rental with a new release from the store, so my wife and I would have something to watch last night. (It turned out we didn't need it, since we observed Earth Hour from 8:30 to 9:30, and she went to bed soon afterward.) But when I got to the store, I immediately saw (how could you miss it) the STORE CLOSING banner above. That meant no more rentals, and that most things in the store were at a steep discount. Most depressing in these scenarios? The signs that tell you to talk to a manager if you are interested in buying the fixtures.

For the first time, my Blockbuster life flashed before my eyes. I started to seriously consider the fact that canceling my Blockbuster subscription, which has been my primary source for rentals for the last five years, was both imminent and inevitable. (And many of you have argued that it should have come long ago. If you want to look here, you'll see the benefits I considered it to have over Netflix -- benefits that have all but dissipated now.)

Now, the only Blockbuster that I've ever really frequented in this area was the one in the sleepy downtown El Segundo. That's the one I visit when I go during lunch from work. But it's too inconvenient to visit from my house, and I need a Blockbuster I can visit on the weekends. Plus, I'm really surprised the El Segundo store survived this round of store closures -- any time I go in there, I'm the only one in the store.

A sign on the outside of this Blockbuster referred me to a fully functioning operation at some other address, but I wasn't even familiar with the location. Great -- I'll have to get on mapquest to find the next closest Blockbuster to me.

I went into the store and poked around for a few minutes. At least it was near the beginning of the sell-off. There was plenty of merchandise and plenty of people picking through it. I briefly flipped through some HD DVDs -- we have an HD DVD player, if you can believe it -- that were in blank cases and selling for $1.99. They had The Untouchables, which I really like. But I didn't buy it. Moments later I was out the door. And I don't even remember what the last movie I rented there was.

I shouldn't cry for Blockbuster -- they're a faceless corporation most people root against. But I cry for the changing times. I mourn the fact that the days of physical videos are coming to an end. I guess when you compare the sentimental value of buying a CD with the sentimental value of renting a video, the one that stings more is the end of the CD-buying era. But I liked something about the idea of walking into a video store, browsing the choices quickly and efficiently, being introduced to something you might want to see just by laying eyes on it, and then walking out with it.

At the same time, I'm part of the problem. As it so happens, on Thursday night I took a twirl on my wife's Netflix account, whose password was saved on my computer from when I watched Big Fan back in January. I couldn't believe how many choices were available for instant, random viewing. After flipping through them for awhile, I found a truly random choice that had actually been deep on my Blockbuster queue, a movie I wanted to see for a really strange reason: I remembered seeing it on a movie marquee when I was a kid, back in 1981. For some reason, the title stuck with me: First Monday in October. And so I watched it right then and there. And immediately demonstrated why Netflix is making Blockbuster obsolete.

Like all new ways of doing things, I will come to fully embrace these as well. But as I've written before, it doesn't mean we shouldn't pause to acknowledge the passing of the baton, and quietly weep for the change, even if just for a second or two.


Black Sheep said...

Hey .. Very interesting post. I enjoy your perspective and look forward to reading more of your work in the future. I noticed you were following my blog so I started following yours as well. Thanks for the support. Oh, and I added you to my blog roll. Take care and sorry to hear about your neighborhood Blockbuster woes. I live in downtown Toronto and I couldn't even tell you where the closest Blockbuster is. The times, they are a changin'.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for checking in, Black Sheep! And thanks for sending referrals my way! I know it's pretty old-fashioned to still be hanging on to a Blockbuster account, but they had a very customer-friendly business model set up for awhile ... which is probably one reason they're going under.

Lady Strathconn said...

The closest Blockbuster to me is a block away and I haven't been in it in the 7+ years I have lived a block away.

It is time for you to look into a Roku box. We love ours and now they have an HD box.

Love my NETFLIX.