To borrow a line from a classic VHS-era character: In the end, there can be only one. Back in the halcyon pre-streaming days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Blockbuster Video stores dotted the American landscape, offering a one-stop shop for budding film buffs, couples looking for some “Blockbuster & Chill” and families desperate for weekend entertainment. But the mighty franchise took a perilous fall in the 2000s following a series of poor business decisions. Today, just a single Blockbuster remains, and it’s located in Bend, Oreg.
Far from being a ghost town, though, the solitary shop is a major tourist destination for both movie lovers and nostalgia-addled ‘90s kids. “People really do travel just to see us,” Blockbuster manager, Sandi Harding, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “We’ve had people from all over the world come to central Oregon; they were coming there for the nostalgia, but they also wanted to say hello, and tell us what Blockbuster meant to them. It’s a weird, surreal thing that I never in a million years thought was going to happen.” (Watch an exclusive clip from the documentary above.)
The last Blockbuster gets its close-up in the new documentary, The Last Blockbuster, which arrives on VOD services on Dec. 15. And even though Taylor Morden’s film features such appearances from such Blockbuster-friendly celebrities as Kevin Smith, Adam Brody and Ione Skye, Harding emerges as the real star due to her boundless enthusiasm for carrying on the franchise’s legacy. It’s a position she never imagined she’d be in when she first took over the store in 2004, working with owner Ken Tisher.
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“For years, I had avoided every interview, and we did many commercials that I was never in,” she says, laughing. “But then we became the last store, and I really didn’t have a choice! The nice thing is that I’m talking about something I love: I love the store, I love the customers and I love the kids that work for me. So even if I’m nervous before the interview, as soon as I start talking about Blockbuster, all that nervousness goes away.”
Harding has good reason to be nervous this year for the future of her business, though. When the coronavirus pandemic reached U.S. shores in March, Bend’s Blockbuster outpost was one of the many businesses that found its livelihood threatened. Although the store wasn’t among the businesses that Oregon governor, Kate Brown, ordered closed at the time, Harding did shut her doors for a week to plan out COVID-era protocols, including curbside pick-up, reduced staffing and customer capacity and mandatory social distancing and mask-wearing.
When Blockbuster re-opened, it found an eager audience of entertainment-starved hometown renters. “The 100,000 people we have in Bend remembered that we’re here, and that we need them to continue to support us like they always have. We’ve seen so many people coming back in wanting to rent movies, and wanting to have that experience that they did back in the ‘90s. It’s just been wonderful.”
Bend residents — and stray tourists — have returned despite stay-at-home access to movies and TV shows via streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max. While the ubiquity of those services has cut into Blockbuster’s once-dominant corner on the new releases market, with most of the newer titles often bypassing physical media altogether, Harding says that the people coming into the store are more interested in picking up the classics anyway. And by “classics,” she means a lot of the ‘90s favorites they grew up on like The Mask and What About Bob?.
“People are definitely getting more library titles,” she says of the frequently visited “We Love the ‘90s” display. “They're going for those old-school comedies and adventure movies and things that they haven't seen in a long time. It's like when you're not feeling well, and you go for the pasta and the baked potatoes — you know, the comfort stuff. People are doing that with movies, too.”
The best evidence of that newfound taste in old movies is the fact that Chris Columbus’s 1990 favorite, Home Alone, is currently the store’s highest-rented holiday title 30 years after its release. “I’ve already had to buy a few more copies, because we just can’t seem to keep them on the floor,” Harding says, adding that Christmas perennials like Elf, Scrooge and A Christmas Story are also seeing brisk rental business. “Last year it was all about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but this year it’s all about Home Alone. My own favorite holiday movie is It’s a Wonderful Life: I’ve loved that movie since I was a little girl, and have George Bailey stuff everywhere every year for Christmas.”
Besides movies, visitors also come to Bend’s Blockbuster outpost to gawk at movie memorabilia. The store is currently home to props from Russell Crowe’s personal archive that Last Week Tonight host, John Oliver, famously donated to an Alaska-based Blockbuster in 2018. When that store shut down, the items came to Harding’s shop, and she’s acquired several other pieces besides. “We have a whole collection of Highlander stuff that someone had sent to us,” she reveals. “We don't actively seek out anything, but we definitely have people that send us things, and not just nostalgia pieces. We get so many cards and letters from people just talking about the happy memories they have of Blockbuster.”
With devoted customers like that, Harding hopes that her store won’t be a memory anytime soon. But she’s also frank about the challenges that lie ahead as the industry recovers from the pandemic, and companies like WarnerMedia increasingly prioritize streaming outlets. The Last Blockbuster depicts how the Bend store is required to re-up its license with the Blockbuster brand’s current owners, Dish Network, on an annual basis, and there’s always the chance that the company will simply choose to walk away.
But Harding says that her relationship with Dish remains strong, in part because of the store’s status as the last Blockbuster in the world. “I imagine that we’ll continue to work something out every year,” she says. “I know they get a bad rap for closing all the other stores, but they’ve always been great to us and try to be as accommodating as possible.” And she plans to be there until the closing credits roll. “I hope that I’ll stick around and go down with the ship, but it’s not about me — it’s about the store and the community. If I was to leave for unforeseen reasons, I have wonderful people around me that I’ve trained well, and they’ll take over just fine. I think it’ll survive.”
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