WHERE THE ROAD GOES DARK
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
September 24, 2009
BRADENTON, Fla., Sept. 24, 2009 -- I had become a Redbox customer. After several years of off-and-on patronage of Blockbuster, the world's largest video rental company, I discovered the simplicity of Redbox at Wal-Mart.
Instead of paying for membership as I once did at Blockbuster, I just had to have a debit card to rent a film for $1. If I rented it before midnight, I had to return it by 9 p.m. the next evening; if I rented it after midnight, I got to return it the following day at 9 p.m. If I kept it past the allotted time, the charge was another dollar.
At first, the machines seemed very convenient: I got videos every few days, and because I'm a scatterbrained numbskull, I often didn't get around to seeing the movies until more than a day after I'd rented them, and I didn't figure out the after-midnight riff until just a few weeks ago. By then, though, I found I'd exhausted the Redbox films I wanted to see. There weren't enough good ones, or many old ones, that really appealed. A lot were films that went straight to video.
I like to see two or three films a week at a theater, and was expanding that number to five with these new easy rentals. Unfortunately, on a $412 Social Security check and food stamps, the $1 fines really hurt when multiplied by two or three days and even two or three films. I had forgotten all about Blockbuster until just a few days ago, when I said to myself that I'd bite the bullet and go pay $3 or $4 there for a film I'd really like. With their 7-day grace period, returning it would be no sweat, and I might even come out ahead of my Redbox tab.
After Mass on Sunday evening, I went to a Blockbuster on 14th St. and got the surprise of my life. The peppy rental guy said the store had thousands of films and tv shows for rent at $0.99 each. You got to keep them for seven days, and after that you got a seven-day grace period, and not until several weeks passed were you charged for the original price of the DVD. And if you returned it even after that charge, you'd get all but $1 of your money back. I'd been going crazy trying to return the Redbox films while I could have rented Blockbuster films cheaper and longer. There was no enrollment fee - just fill out a contract, pick up your ID card and rent to your heart's content.
I felt like an idiot, frankly, but I had to ask myself: Why hasn't Blockbuster advertised this rental format straight up against Redbox? That oversight seemed like a microcosm of everything wrong with the American economy - the failure to see it's time to cut prices, cut rents, cut salaries, cut everything until we get back on our feet. The merchandise is ultimately junk, after all; sell it at Macy's today for $19.99 and it'll sell at Marshall's or Ross next week for $9.99 and next week at a fire sale for $2.99. What should count is getting people in the door, keeping them happy, letting them feel they've gotten a deal. Detroit has started to get that, and so has Wal-Mart - and so had Blockbuster in the last days of its life.
I'd rented a weird group of films: "Explorers," with a 13-year-old Ethan Hawke, a young James Cromwell and several other budding stars, along with a strangely satisfying German art film called the "Five Obstructions," a Jeff Bridges ensemble film with a great cast, "The Amateurs," and "The Motorcycle Diaries," which I may watch tonight. But burned as I had been by Redbox, I made it a point to carry the movies I'd seen down to the car so I could at least get those dropped off the next time I passed a Blockbuster.
That turned out to be earlier this evening - last night, actually, as it's now 4:25 a.m. Gosh, I thought, it's only 9:00 p.m. or so - why is the Blockbuster closed? Are they closing early during the week and staying open late on weekends? Unfortunately, no. A single sheet of copy paper announcing the hours of its "Sept. 21-25 Liquidation Sale" has been posted on the door and windows. The store was closing. Redbox's lousy deal had mashed Blockbuster's great deal right into bankruptcy. I dropped three films into the night deposit box and sat in my car and thought about it all.
Near closing time, I dropped by McDonald's and after a little senior coffee I asked Malea, the manager, whether she knew of any other Blockbusters around town. She knew of four beside the one near my home I'd gone to: one by the Wal-Mart on Cortez Road, one on State Road 70 past another Wal-Mart, and one on State Road 64 out near the Interstate (way past that Wal-Mart). I had nothing urgent to do so I decided to drive around to all of them.
The one at 4951 Cortez Road was so dark you couldn't even see it; in my mind's eye I remembered passing it every time I went to the Oakmont Regal movie theater in the adjoining strip mall, always wondering how it stayed open with those prices. I found the next one by accident on 59th St. and Manatee Ave., which later turns into State Rd. 64; yup, Liquidation Sale again. It took me a while to find the one on 33rd St. E and State Rd. 64, and sure enough, the same piece of paper.
Driving to the Wal-Mart on State Rd. 70, I found what was probably the last of our five local Blockbusters, and another couple of pages posted on their doors and windows. I got moody and contemplative thinking about this stuff. I had tried Netflix and couldn't afford it, even at $8.99, and found the turnaround time too slow. I had tried Redbox and was getting eaten alive by late fees. I rediscovered Blockbuster and it closed the next day.
What it is, really, is the light. There is a certain amount of light that shines onto the wide lonely roads late at night, and they keep you company as you pass from dark spot to dark spot. When I came here in 2003 from Hollywood, Calif., which was always so awash with light that it took the 6.2 Northridge earthquake in 2004 to just for once see the stars, I remember thinking that the town had potential if it grew a little.
Shortly thereafter a building boom blew in like a hurricane. County Commissioners were approving subdivisions of thousands of homes every week, or so it seemed, and Blockbusters and Publix grocery stores and Wendy's and McDonald's were going up everywhere. The value of the condo my parents left me had gone from $105,000 in 2003 to $185,000 two years later. But the enormous drag of Hurricane Charlie and three others that hit us in 2004, followed by a few more in 2005, began to take their toll just as fear over sub-prime debt began to creep into the housing market.
By 2006, when I decided to run for the County Board of Commissioners, I told the Bradenton Herald that the boom was over, people weren't coming anymore, and that we needed to plan growth accordingly. I dropped out of the race; I would have gotten 100 votes or so. People who didn't know better, and some who did, appealed to our optimism, patriotism and sense of self-preservation; no one wanted the boom to end, the property values to fall (my place is assessed at $56,000 now), the new stores to close, the new homes in all those subdivisions to start sprouting weeds and broken windows. But that happened.
Wayne Huizenga, whose wonderful name sounds like whiz-bang and Prisoner of Zenda, was strong enough to keep his Blockbusters going until the very week that I rediscovered them. The business is now going into the Redbox mode and 600 stores are closing. If I want a new film on Sunday night these days, I have plenty of Wal-Marts and Redbox machines to go to, but only 30 or 40 films to choose from. Some of them are too scratched to play right, and there's no human being to complain to; you have to take it to email to straighten out the $1 refunds. Redbox is good about that, but it doesn't really work for me. I want the Blockbusters back, and lots of films $0.99 each and 14 days if I need it.
And, you know, I'd like to see the lights on in all those dark spots along State Roads 64 and 70, and Cortez and Manatee and 14th Street. They kept me company, and I need that.