Friday, December 30, 2011

Um, Blockbuster? This is why you're bankrupt.

If you've read any of my posts on Blockbuster (check out the corresponding label if you're interested), you know that I broke with the company in September of 2010 and have been exclusively a Netflix customer since then. (Bad timing, Vance, as this was about Netflix's worst year on record.)

Okay, not exclusively. I also frequent Redbox, the library and OnDemand. But also not exclusively Netflix because I've had two additional Blockbuster experiences. One when I rented the BluRay of Disney's A Christmas Carol from a store last Christmas, because I couldn't find the BluRay available elsewhere, and one when I rented Everything Must Go from a kiosk back in October, on a lark.

The Blockbuster kiosk had me kind of intrigued. Yeah, it was Blockbuster coming late to the party once again, this time competing with the Redbox business model the way it tried to compete with the Netflix model with DVDs through the mail. But as with the through-the-mail option, there's at least one advantage over its competition that Blockbuster brings to the table. Unlike Netflix and Redbox, Blockbuster does not have a deal with the studios to delay availability of most new releases by 28 days. This means that if I'm absolutely jonesing to watch a movie that just became available on DVD for the first time, I can visit a Blockbuster kiosk and scratch that itch 28 days earlier than I could scratch it at a Redbox kiosk. A particularly valuable advantage at this time of year, when I'm trying to cram in 2011 movies before I finalize my year-end rankings on January 24th (the morning the Oscar nominations are announced).

So I used that logic to make my second trip to a Blockbuster kiosk last night. Unlike with Redbox kiosks, which seem to be everywhere, I know of only one Blockbuster kiosk near my house. (Another sure sign of the company's ailing fortunes.) Fortunately, it's pretty near -- only a longer drive than the closest Redbox kiosk by a minute or two.

The goal was to see The Hangover Part II. My wife and I have had a downer couple of days since Tuesday, when we discovered that we had lost out on an amazing house we bid on last week. (I don't think I've mentioned it before, but we're house hunting.) We wanted to laugh last night, and she thought the best way to do that would be to see the second Hangover. Even though my own personal understanding of the film's quality is that we will cringe more than we will laugh, I also wanted nothing more than to deliver her the movie of her choice. Especially since at this time of the year, I don't discriminate -- I just want to consume 2011 movies where I can, when I can.

Pretty soon after getting to the kiosk, I determined that The Hangover Part II was not one of the movies resting inside its belly. I scrolled back through the screens chronologically, then searched by name just to be sure. I found it with a Coming Soon banner painted across its poster.

So this was my first warning that Blockbuster wasn't offering the advantages I thought it offered. I knew for a fact that The Hangover Part II would be available from Netflix (and presumably Redbox, which seems to be on the exact same schedule) on Tuesday. Well, this was also its Blockbuster availability date. What happened to that 28-day window, where Blockbuster finds most of its competitive advantage? Nowhere to be found.

Nor was that window to be found for our second choice: Cowboys & Aliens. My wife knows the film's screenwriters, and we had originally intended to see it in the theater. As with The Hangover, Cowboys & Aliens becomes available on Netflix and Redbox on Tuesday January 3rd. Which is also the day it will magically appear in this Blockbuster kiosk.

Strike two.

So I texted my wife some other options -- options which, on the whole, were things I could have just as easily scored in a Redbox kiosk. But I was here now, so it was easiest just to continue down the road with Blockbuster. She didn't like most of the options, but we did decide on one movie that we both (at least sort of) wanted to see: Mr. Popper's Penguins. And here I felt a momentary surge of renewed confidence in the Blockbuster kiosk, because I also knew for a fact that I'd have to wait until next week to get Mr. Popper's Penguins from the aforementioned two competitors.

That surge of renewed confidence lasted all of 30 seconds.

When I went to check Mr. Popper out, I saw that the rental fee was not $1 or $1.50, the going Redbox fee. (And the fee I'd paid for Everything Must Go at this very kiosk two months ago.) In fact, Blockbuster wanted a whole three bucks for me to take home Jim Carrey and a bunch of waterfowl.

Okay, now Blockbuster has sacrificed its entire advantage. Blockbuster does carry certain titles its competitors don't carry until later. But it charges a premium for that service -- two to three times the price of a regular rental. And now I understood what it meant when I'd been going through the screens of available movies on this kiosk, and certain titles, which have been available on DVD for three or more months, were advertised as being $1 rentals. My brain saw that, but if it made anything of it, my brain assumed that the $1 rental was being advertised as an alternative to a $1.50 rental, or something like that. My brain never assumed that the regularly priced rental was a whopping three bucks -- and that was even for a number of movies currently available from Redbox.

Look, I get it -- Blockbuster has its financial realities it has to deal with. If the past couple years have made anything clear to Blockbuster, it's that financial realities dictate almost everything about how you do, or don't do, business.

But if it can't even position itself as a viable alternative to Redbox with a few distinct and meaningful advantages, what hope does it have? The battle against Netflix has already been lost. The battle against Redbox could be over before it even begins.

I grumbled and paid the $3 and rented Mr. Popper's Penguins. I see everything Jim Carrey makes, but this movie had only a few scattered cute moments amid a sea of Hollywood conventionality. In fact, as my wife pointed out, it's basically the same story as Carrey's own Liar Liar, where the career-oriented jerk has to learn to be a better father and husband. (In this case, ex-husband -- he's trying to win back his ex-wife. Does he succeed? Um, yeah. Of course he does.)

As one final note about Blockbuster's cluelessness, even the packaging for the DVDs is deficient. Whereas Redbox delivers its DVDs and BluRays in these nice plastic containers that snap tightly shut, keeping the disc nestled safely inside, Blockbuster uses these odd black sheaths made out of some kind of military grade plastic, which are open on one end. You'd think that the discs should snap in to some inner part of the sheath, so that they don't fall out. But they only seem to stay in by the pressure exerted on the disc by the walls of the sheath.

And they don't really stay in at all. Soon after I'd brought Mr. Popper home, he fell out onto our living room floor. Who knows what kind of trauma that might have caused the disc, if it fell on a different surface, or even if it landed wrong on our hardwood floors. I can only imagine what kind of impact this packaging has on the life of the disc, and when Mr. Popper started to go haywire halfway through -- pixelating and skipping -- I feared that either its previous rentals had scuffed it, or it had suffered damage from the fall in our house. Fortunately, stopping and restarting the disc cleared up the problem, and there was no recurrence.

So I'll have to think long and hard about whether I'll be using the Blockbuster kiosk in my neighborhood this January. Cramming in movies before the deadline is a goal about which I care deeply, whether rightly or wrongly. And cramming in movies that are unavailable elsewhere is an even more rarified feat.

But at what cost? The difference between $1 and $3 for a rental may be that imaginary dividing line in my mind -- or it may simply be the arbitrary detail that justifies my declining to support a company I once loved, which has lost its way.


Anonymous said...

I understand the frustration that the Kiosk can sometimes cause. I use to have Netflix and soon after they raised their prices, I went another route. I have had DISH Network for a long time and when I started working there, I learned about the Blockbuster Movie pass they were offering. I pay $10 a month after the free three-month promotion and I get streaming, mail-in DVD’s, in-store exchanges, and so much more. I love movies so when I have any free time that is what I am doing so it is worth every penny. I get to see all the new releases right away and I don’t pay any late fees. My kids love it because they can rent games at no extra cost and I like that because I don’t have to buy them the game. It is perfect for all of us and I would recommend it instead of having to go to the Kiosk every time you want to rent a movie.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Anon! I have to say, I used to love Blockbuster as a company -- I always thought they had great customer service, in addition to the flexibility their services used to allow me in terms of in-store exchanges. But I don't have the DISH Network so that kind of limits me, and in-store exchanges are becoming kind of a moot point when you have to search all over creation to find a store that isn't shuttered ...

Thanks for the comment!