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.

12 Amazing Facts About Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great moved to a foreign land as a teenager and became one of the most important leaders in its history. During her 34-year reign, she transformed Russia’s culture while expanding its borders. Here's what you need to know about the unlikely ruler, who is the subject of not one, but two series: HBO's Catherine the Great, which debuts on October 21, 2019, and Hulu's The Great, slated for 2020.

  1. Catherine the Great's name wasn't Catherine.

The woman who would become Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 (Julian Calendar) in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was the daughter of Christian August, a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth, who had connections to the Russian royal family.

Despite being a princess herself, young Sophie wasn’t exactly a top-tier member of the European nobility. But thanks to her mother’s campaigning, she was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich (later known as Tsar Peter III), heir to the Russian throne. The couple wed on August 21, 1745. Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy—despite her Lutheran father’s objections—and took on a new Russian name: Ekaterina, or “Catherine.” Her official title would be Empress Catherine II (Peter the Great's second wife had been Empress Catherine I).

  1. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself; all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

  1. Catherine the Great overthrew Peter the III so that she could rule.

Peter III assumed the throne on January 5, 1762, and was immediately unpopular. He enraged the military by pulling out of the Seven Years’ War and making big concessions to Russia’s adversaries in the process.

Eventually, Catherine believed that Peter was going to divorce her—so she worked with her lover, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, and her other allies to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. In July 1762, just six months after he took the throne, Peter III was deposed in a coup d'état. Eight days later, he was killed while in the custody of one of Catherine's co-conspirators.

With Peter out of the picture, Catherine became the new empress of Russia. She was formally crowned on September 22, 1762. She never married again, and took numerous lovers during her long reign.

  1. Voltaire was basically Catherine the Great's pen pal.

Catherine, a bibliophile, built up a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her reign, she began a correspondence with one of her favorite authors: The great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Russia fascinated Voltaire, who had written a biography of Peter the Great. Catherine would never get the chance to meet him in person, but through these letters, she and Voltaire discussed everything from disease prevention to Catherine's love of English gardens.

  1. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea.

Russian interest in the Crimean Peninsula long predates Vladimir Putin. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, Catherine seized the landmass, thus strengthening Russia’s presence on the Black Sea. And her conquests didn’t end there. Over 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire during Catherine’s rule. Much of it was acquired when the once-independent nation of Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Tsarina Catherine’s slice contained portions of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine.

An illustration of Catherine the Great.
iStock.com/traveler1116
  1. Great Britain asked for Catherine the Great's help when the Revolutionary War broke out.

In 1775, the Earl of Dartmouth approached Catherine with a request for 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain put down the colonial rebellion in America. She refused. As the war continued, British diplomats kept trying to establish an alliance with Russia, hoping that the Empress would either send military aid or, failing that, pressure France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine did neither. However, out of concern for Russian shipping interests in the Atlantic (and elsewhere), she did attempt to mediate an end to the violence between Britain and its rebellious colonies in 1780.

  1. Alaska was colonized on Catherine the Great's watch.

Russian explorers had been visiting Alaska since 1741, but the empire didn’t set up its first permanent colony there until 1784, when merchant Grigory Shelikhov sailed to Kodiak Island and established the Three Saints Bay Colony. Later, in 1788, he visited Catherine in St. Petersburg and asked if she’d give his company a monopoly over the area’s lucrative fur trade. She denied his request, but thanked the explorer for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.” Russia’s colonial presence in North America would continue long after Catherine’s death—and it wasn’t limited to Alaska.

  1. Catherine the Great embraced inoculation.

Thomas Dimsdale, an English physician, built upon an existing technique for immunizing people to smallpox. The technique involved finding a carrier of the ailment, then taking a blade dipped in a very, very small amount of "the unripe, crude or watery matter" from that person's pustules and injecting it into the patient’s body. In 18th century Russia, smallpox claimed millions of lives, so Catherine was eager to see if Dimsdale’s strategy worked. At her invitation, he came to Russia and quietly inoculated the empress. The procedure was a success, and with the Tsarina’s encouragement, Dimsdale inoculated about 150 members of the nobility. Before the end of the century, approximately 2 million Russians had received smallpox inoculations.

  1. A rebel claimed to be Catherine the Great's dead husband.

Catherine’s Enlightenment-fueled beliefs didn't lead to the demise of serfdom. According to Marc Raeff in his book Catherine the Great: A Profile, "During her reign it was possible to buy and sell serfs with or without land, buy whole families or individuals, transact sales on the estate or marketplace; contemporaries termed all this ‘veritable slavery.'”

The unjust arrangement triggered 160 documented peasant uprisings in the first 10 years of Catherine’s reign. The best known of them was Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775) [PDF], which was organized by Yemelyan Pugachev, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars. To win support, he introduced himself as Catherine’s deposed and deceased spouse, Peter III (even though Pugachev looked nothing like Peter). Pugachev and his followers enjoyed some big military victories early on, but after a crushing defeat in August 1774, their revolution fell apart. Pugachev was captured and executed in Moscow on January 10, 1775.

  1. Catherine the Great's art collection was the basis of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

In 1764, Catherine purchased a set of 225 paintings—including works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals—from a Berlin dealer, and founded the Hermitage with those works. Catherine went on to buy or commission thousands of additional pieces for her budding museum. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has more than 3 million items in its collections.

  1. Catherine the Great was Russia's longest-serving female leader.

Thirty-four years after assuming the throne, Catherine passed away on November 6, 1796. The monarch was succeeded by her son, Tsar Paul I.

  1. Wild rumors flew after Catherine the Great's death—including that one about the horse.

A lot of rumors sprung up in the wake of Catherin's death. One said that she had died while on the toilet, while another—the most persistent tale, and a completely unfounded one—claimed that Catherine the Great was crushed to death while attempting to have sex with a stallion. Where exactly the story came from is unknown; an autopsy determined that the empress had actually died of a cerebral stroke.

10 Facts About the Beastie Boys's 'Sabotage' Video

Beastie Boys via YouTube
Beastie Boys via YouTube

With their raucous mix of rock and hip-hop, the Beastie Boys were a band everyone could love. They also made killer music videos, and their 1994 video for “Sabotage” is arguably one of the greatest in the history of the medium. Directed by Spike Jonze and inspired by ‘70s cop shows, “Sabotage” finds the Beasties in cheesy suits, wigs, and mustaches, cavorting around L.A. like a bunch of bootleg Starskys and Hutches. If you were alive in the ‘90s, you’ve seen “Sabotage” a million times, but there’s a lot you might not know about this iconic video.

1. It all began with a photo shoot.

Spike Jonze met the Beastie Boys when he photographed them for Dirt magazine in the early 1990s. The band showed up with its own concept. “For years, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz had been talking about doing a photo session as undercover cops—wearing ties and fake mustaches and sitting in a car like we were on a stakeout,” Adam “MCA” Yauch told New York Magazine. Jonze loved the idea so much he tagged along when the Beasties went wig shopping. “Then, while he was taking the pictures, he was wearing this blond wig and mustache the whole time,” Yauch said. “For no apparent reason.” So was born a friendship that begat “Sabotage.”

2. Spike Jonze filmed “Sabotage” without permits.

The Beasties weren’t big fans of high-budget music videos with tons of people on the set. So they asked Jonze to hire a couple of assistants and run the whole production out of a van. “Then we just ran around L.A. without any permits and made everything up as we went along,” MCA told New York. They’re lucky the real cops never showed up.

3. The Beastie Boys did all their own stunt driving.

After binge-watching VHS tapes of The Streets of San Francisco and other ‘70s cop shows, the Beasties knew they needed some sweet chase scenes. “We bought a car that was about to die,” Mike D told Vanity Fair. “We just drove the car ourselves. We almost killed the car a couple of times, but we definitely didn’t come close to killing ourselves.”

4. “Sabotage” inspired the opening sequence of Trainspotting.

Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting famously opens with Ewan McGregor and his buddies running through the streets of Edinburgh to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” In the DVD commentary, Boyle revealed that the scene was inspired by “Sabotage.”

5. Two cameras were harmed in the making of “Sabotage.”

“Sabotage” was supposed to be a low-budget affair—and it would’ve been, had Jonze been a little more careful with his rented cameras. He destroyed a Canon Scoopic when the Ziploc bag he used to protect the camera during an underwater shot proved less than airtight. He apparently told the rental agency the camera stopped working on its own, but he wasn’t as lucky when an Arriflex SR3 fell out of a van window. That cost $84,000, effectively tripling the cost of the video.

6. MCA crashed the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards to protest “Sabotage” being shut out.

At the 1994 MTV VMAs, “Sabotage” was nominated for five awards, including Video of the Year. In one of the great injustices of all time, it lost in all five categories. When R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” won Best Direction, MCA invaded the stage dressed as Nathanial Hörnblowér, his Swiss uncle/filmmaker alter-ego. “Since I was a small boy, I had dreamed that Spike would win this,” MCA said as a confused Michael Stipe looked on. “Now this has happened, and I want to tell everyone this is a farce, and I had the ideas for Star Wars and everything.”

7. There’s a “Sabotage” comic book you can download for free.

After MCA’s death in 2012, artist Derek Langille created a seven-page “Sabotage” comic book in tribute to the fallen musician and filmmaker. You can download it for free here.

8. There’s also a “Sabotage” novel.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Sabotage,” Oakland-based author and Beasties super-fan Jeff Gomez wrote a five-act novel inspired by the video. He spent months researching cop movies and real-life police lingo, and he watched “Sabotage” about 100 times, keeping a detailed spreadsheet of all the action unfolding onscreen. “They created a really great universe, and I just wanted to play around in it for a little bit,” Gomez told PBS.

9. There’s a “Sabotage”/Sesame Street mashup on YouTube.

In 2017, YouTuber Is This How You Go Viral, a.k.a. Adam Schleichkorn, created the video “Sesametage,” a reimagining of “Sabotage” made with edited bits of Sesame Street. It stars Big Bird as himself, The Count as Cochese, and Oscar the Grouch as Bobby, “The Rookie.” Super Grover, Telly, Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie also turn up in this hilarious spoof of a spoof.

10. “Sabotage” nearly became a movie—kind of.

Jonze and the Beasties had such a blast making “Sabotage” that they wrote a script for a feature film called We Can Do This. The movie, which they later abandoned, was set to feature MCA in two roles: Sir Stuart Wallace, one of his “Sabotage” characters, and Nathaniel Hörnblowér (whom he portrayed during that 1994 VMAs protest). Jonze told IndieWire the film would’ve been “ridiculous and fun,” which sounds like the understatement of the century. “There were no 1970s cops in it, but it was definitely in the same spirit,” he said.

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