Rent a Wreck: For a former video-store giant, not such a blockbuster decade

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Rent a Wreck: For a former video-store giant, not such a blockbuster decade

In a Dallas strip mall, in the neighborhood George W. Bush now calls home, sits a bright and fluorescent Blockbuster that, on this cold Thursday night in December, is populated by maybe a handful of customers — high-schoolers grabbing a game, a middle-aged mom checking to see whether Julie & Julia's out yet. The manager has time enough to show off the monolith perched near the front door: a newfangled kiosk that allows renters to upload a movie to an SD memory card—the kind you might find in your camera, computer or older smart phone. This location, in Blockbuster's hometown, is one of only a few in the country to receive these machines, which are still in beta testing. The manager says "maybe a couple" of customers have kicked the tires — not quite ready for The Future, it seems.

The kiosk — which was manufactured by NCR, maker of automatic-teller machines—sits on a shelf filled with items once unheard-of in a store most often visited on slow Friday nights. Blockbuster, in addition to renting movies and games, now peddles home electronics and tchotchkes: netbooks, Samsung Blu-ray players armed with Blockbuster On Demand capabilities, Snuggies. Blockbuster is attempting to become a corner-store Best Buy.

Exactly 2.6 miles east on this same street, beneath a busy highway, it's a different scene: The miniature marquee mounted outside this Blockbuster reads, "THIS STORE CLOSING LAST 10 DAYS." Reminiscent of Tower Records' sad goodbye three years ago, there are "Everything Must Go!" signs everywhere, deep discounts on DVDs (five used for $19.99 — many of them brand-new titles) and even deeper discounts on books, games, candy, posters and the other assorted whatnots Blockbuster started carrying when the brick-and-mortars stopped attracting, you know ... whatyacallem ... people.

This thrift-store Blockbuster is located precisely 10.1 miles from Blockbuster's downtown Dallas headquarters, which is where Blockbuster chairman of the board and chief executive officer Jim Keyes sits as he discusses a Blockbuster "in transition."

"People see a store close, and they go, 'Oh, bad,'" says Keyes, whose company will shutter about 300 stores by year's end and another 600-plus in 2010. "But retail chains are like trees. They get dead limbs, and you have to prune them. And sometimes you have to aggressively take off the lower limbs for the tree to grow high. When we cut off a limb, there's a perception we're going out of business, when, in fact, we're keeping up with the changing needs of the customers."

Keyes arrived at Blockbuster from 7-Eleven in July 2007, after the war with Netflix had already been lost in the mailboxes of Americans grown weary of schlepping down to Ye Olde Video Rental Shoppe to see if a copy of their Saturday-night special was in. (Matter of fact, Keyes went in to work just as the ink was drying on a patent-suit settlement with Netflix.) At the same time, those bloodred video-rental kiosks were invading grocery stores and convenience-store parking lots. Blockbuster, once the video-rental giant, was assaulted on all fronts.

The title of Edward Jay Epstein's January 6, 2006, piece in Slate said it all: "The last days of Blockbuster." (His was the first of many such stories that have run somewhere almost every week since then.) Epstein enumerated myriad blunders the company made long before Keyes' arrival, chief among them the refusal in 1998 to cut a deal with Warner Bros. to distribute DVDs exclusively for the same cut the studio made off video cassettes and the lack of foresight to buy Netflix when it had the chance (for $50 million!), instead partnering with Enron (!) on a video-on-demand deal called Project Braveheart (!!) that died with much finger-pointing in 2001.

Then came the steady plunge: profits down by millions every quarter for the last two years, debt restructuring, store closings and a Bloomberg story in March of this year that said bankruptcy restructuring was "possible." That last bit of rumor-mongering cost Blockbuster 77 percent of its value in a single afternoon; by the closing bell of March 3, 2009, the stock was worth 22 cents a share, down from its 52-week high of $3.68.

"If there's one thing that caught me by surprise this year, it was the strength of the perception that Blockbuster is going away and that if it has a chance of success, it has to catch up to Redbox and Netflix," Keyes says. "The interesting thing about that premise is, these are single-channel operators. With Netflix, if your mom put Julie & Julia in her queue and [then] decides to buy it from Amazon, she now has a movie she doesn't want to see. If she's a Blockbuster customer, all she has to do is go to the store and exchange it for something she wants. And Netflix doesn't offer immediate gratification—I have to wait for the movie. The store has immediate gratification. And the kiosk is another thing altogether—you're at the store, the kids are screaming, you just wanna get a couple of things and get them home. No one else can cross all of these occasions like Blockbuster."

If Keyes sells more like a pitchman than chairman and CEO, that's most likely because he's spent the past 15 months introducing myriad initiatives greeted with derision by, for the most part, early-adapting techies and bloodthirsty bloggers who still loathe Blockbuster for those late-fee charges done away with years ago (after some legal wrangling). "Institutional memory — how they stuck me with a late fee back in 1992," says Keyes. "The bloggers, they're venting over that." Anyway: He has to sell the company. No one else will.

In June 2008, Blockbuster went to Comic-Con International armed with kiosks from which users could download movies to Archos media players — problem was, no one had (or has) an Archos media player. (Keyes says now he would have preferred to have gone with Microsoft or Sony, but they had no interest.)  Then came the On Demand set-top box in December '08, which people didn't like ... or need. (Keyes says now that "people just didn't want another set-top box or remote.") That morphed into the July 2009 announcement that Samsung's online-enabled plasma and LCD TVs and Blu-ray players would allow for pay-per-view streaming of Blockbuster-provided content, which didn't thrill analysts who saw it as the same-ol', same-ol' (more streaming content ... yawn). And then, most recently, was the SD-card kiosk—which, as it turns out, spits out movies that won't play in most devices that use SD cards without a $50 adapter you have to buy at the store. But, hey, the SD card is free!

Keyes insists that those products were just experiments, a sneak peek into a possible future for which consumers, and maybe Blockbuster itself, are not yet ready. "We're way ahead of our headlights when it comes to the technology," he says, acknowledging that perhaps press-release hype sent off the wrong signals, that's all. "We're losing the PR battle." Sooner or later, he maintains, the company will hit upon the strategy that aligns with Keyes' goal of "anywhere, any time, any movie." At which point, he hopes, Blockbuster stops being a punch line and becomes, after years in Wall Street's wasteland, profitable again.

To use yet another analogy: Blockbuster, Keyes says, "is a football team that's rebuilding. At first, the press is all over you. They're gonna hammer you, tell you you're dead, you'll never be as good as you were. Meanwhile, you're slowly building positions with strong players, and in three years you've got a winning team. It's hard to get pats on the back when you're posting the real financial results that come with a transition."

There are signs Blockbuster's competitors are also having issues: Redbox is raising its prices in some areas from 99 cents to $2 a rental, and Netflix is attempting to make the inevitable — and necessary — leap into online streaming. Because, really, how long till DVDs go the way of the CD? With the landscape shifting drastically under its franchise foundations, Blockbuster is sure spending a whole lot of time just proving it's a going concern. 

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