Opinion: I’m nostalgic for a lot of things, but Blockbuster isn’t one of them

Editor’s Note: Bill Carter covered the media business for more than 25 years at The New York Times. He has also been a contributor to CNN, and the author of four books about television, including “The Late Shift.” He was the Emmy-nominated writer of the HBO film adaptation of that book. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

People can get nostalgic about almost anything.

Bill Carter - Bill Carter
Bill Carter - Bill Carter

I’m nostalgic about good egg creams, which once were in every place with a soda fountain in my native Brooklyn. Also, I’m nostalgic about every street game we played with a Spalding (“Spal-deen”) high bouncer.

Until recently, I had not thought about being nostalgic about having to drive to a store in a strip mall to rent a movie to watch on a date night at home. (Nor, in the VHS era, about having to remember to rewind.)

But after stories about people trying to revive the whole Blockbuster experience, I felt compelled to remember those halcyon days.

What I mostly remember from the video-rental era is wandering around the big floor space, whose walls were lined first with cassette boxes, later with DVD cases, displayed under genre categories — drama, comedy, mystery, documentary, kids, foreign, horror, indie — and pulling down the cases to read the backs in search of something that might work for both my wife and me.

I also recall pondering the persistent question: “How did all these lousy movies get made?”

The better ones, especially the recent “blockbusters,” were almost always out to renters who got there earlier.

So, often we wound up with either some under-the-radar rom-com because some actor we liked was in it; or maybe a French film about some affair that went “hilariously” wrong; or a drama that promised “gripping tension” or “life-affirming” themes. (Actually, I would generally avoid anything that sold itself as life-affirming, because that usually translated to “treacly.”)

Most of these boxes/cases would be adorned with blurbs from critics like, “Love and laugher, in merry abundance!” Or the perennial, “An instant classic!” These would be attributed to a newspaper in Ashtabula, Ohio, or a publication I’d never heard of, like, “Film Forum–and Fauna.”

Upon viewing, the disappointment quotient was alarmingly high, which often led to making more than one selection next time, in hopes that two guesses would lower the failure rate. Even if it did, that resulted in one film being watched for 10 minutes before being rejected, and the unfortunate subsequent development that its wretchedness had not fully set in, leading to its being rented again a couple of months later because the title, the forgotten plot details (and those blurbs) sounded so promising.

So, truly, I had not thought to miss the Blockbuster era of regular video rentals.

After all, if you like a movie and you have the right streaming service, you can just order it up to watch whenever you like, right? You won’t get shut out because a couple in Omaha, Nebraska with a subscription to the same streaming service got there first.

That’s not to say that the whole streaming experience is flawless, of course.

Like the video store days, the film might not be easily available or easy to find. You might have to hunt around to find it, if it isn’t “Barbie” or “Mission: Impossible.”

And if you’re just browsing through the list of “thrillers” as you used to in the store on foot, the same experience of “never heard of this, what’s it about?” kicks in; then an exclamation-filled blurb pulls you in, and so you read the synopsis and that doesn’t tell you much so you spend another 10 minutes going on Rotten Tomatoes, trying to find some critics whose views might sync up with yours; and then your eyes start to glaze over and you find yourself instead going back to episode four of the British crime series on Acorn TV that you started but now has begun to get predictable.

Even if you do find the movie you were looking for, or some “overlooked gem” that your sister in Virginia recommended, it might be on a service you don’t pay for; or it’s on one you do pay for, but to see this one you have to pay an additional fee of $9.99.

Now that’s getting a whole lot closer to that old Blockbuster experience. (Though, on the bright side, no fine for not rewinding your VHS tape.)

Still, in terms of convenience, it’s inarguable that streaming in the living room beats a trip to the video store.

When it works. And when you don’t care how much you’re paying.

The idea of gathering old movie DVDs in a lending library of sorts definitely has a quaint appeal, which is likely why folks like film producer Brian Morrison — cited in the New York Times piece on Blockbuster nostalgia — got the idea to do it. And why a director like Ava DuVernay has endorsed it.

One of the best points she made about what’s been lost in the switch from physical DVDs to streaming has been the disappearance of those “director’s cuts,” and the deep dives into the “making of” that were included with the DVDs of movies. I personally did not often wander off into those “extras,” but when I did, I enjoyed them.

I sense that if the streaming services decided to add that feature, they would charge extra for it, given that so many of them are losing lots of money.

But I doubt the surge of nostalgia will inspire a sudden boom in DVD sales. (Yes, believe it or not, films are still converted to DVDs.)

Every technology has its day, and once it is replaced, there’s no going back — except among some wistful aficionados.

Some people still listen to radio dramas. And you know what? Some of them are not bad at all!

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