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Busting Blockbuster

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As readers can see by looking at the comments, it turns out my information is several centuries out of date. I’m leaving this post up, though, cuz I think it’s good food for thought: Blockbuster may have changed its policies, but the Morality Police are always on the job.–MS

Last night, in need of a bottle of water while roaming the desert of Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, I was forced to patronize Blockbuster Video. It was the first time I’d been inside a BBuster store since 1990 or thereabouts, when I cut my card in half and mailed it to the company along with a letter of protest.

At that time BBuster refused, and as far as I know still refuses, to carry movies with a rating above PG-13. The policy was instituted right after the NC-17 rating was created, primarily to accommodate the film Henry and June. 51gjdb9sitl_sl500_aa240_.jpgThe Motion Picture Association of America didn’t know what to do 217t3ydye1l_aa180_.jpgwith Henry and June, an arty film based on the diaries of Anais Nin that was clearly meant for adults, but had too much “redeeming social value” to stigmatize with an R rating. According to the MPAA, “an NC-17 rated motion picture is one that…most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under… NC-17 does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense…{and} can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider … off-limits for viewing by their children.”

I object to Blockbuster’s policy not because I require 24/7 access to films rated R, NC-17 or XXX, but because the company has way too much power over what kind of movies get made. This is how it works:

A new BBuster store, back then at least, opened somewhere in the US every 17 minutes. Within a few months any independent video stores in the vicinity went out of business—it happened in my neighborhood, on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. Steadily mowing down the competition, BBuster became, in some areas, the only video rental store for miles around. Profits from video sales and rentals comprise a big chunk of film revenues–and so the industry-wide tendency is to avoid putting anything into a movie that might jeopardize those sales with an NC-17 rating. The end result: More dumbing down of movies that increasingly cater to “families.” As the company proudly noted in their response to my protest letter, they are a “family oriented business.”


It’s the same thing with Borders versus independent bookstores, or supermarkets versus mom-and-pop grocery stores, Starbucks versus Joe’s Café, Red Lobster versus The Sea Shanty, Walgreens versus the friendly neighborhood pharmacist…I could go on, but it’s depressing. None of these businesses, however, with the exception of bookstores, wield influence over the production and distribution of art and culture. As for bookstores, the chains generally cater to their respective neighborhoods: Borders in Emeryville carries my erotic anthologies. And at this point there’s no rating system in publishing, so Anais Nin and Philip Roth 51m0ggm3tsl_bo2204203200_pisitb-dp-500-arrowtopright45-64_ou01_aa240_sh20_.jpgare safe on the shelves of even a Midwestern Barnes & Noble. True, the chains have driven a ghastly number of independent bookstores out of business; the Bay Area is one of the few places in the country with stores like Cody’s or Black Oak still going strong. I’m not happy about this situation—but I’m not outraged, as I am about BBuster. Many is the hour I’ve spent in Borders, and I know I’m not alone. And, I confess, I actually prefer Starbucks to Joe’s Café: the bathrooms are roomy, accessible, and impeccably clean.


I don’t know anyone who’s particularly happy with what America’s become aesthetically, with chain stores and strip malls turning every town and city from Maine to Washington State into exact replicas of one another. Ripping up my BBuster card didn’t change a thing, but, helpless in the face of the cloning of America, my little act of rebellion gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction.


3 responses »

  1. Blockbuster dropped its “no R-rated movies” policy in 1994 when it was acquired by Viacom. It currently carries R-rated movies as well as unrated softcore erotica like Red Shoe Diaries. It has been sold several times since 1994 and is currently independent.

    More importantly, its size, power, and influence has peaked, and it no longer really exerts than much overall marketing influence. It has been losing nearly $1 billion/year in the mid-2000s, and is pretty much a “paper tiger” and a shadow of its former self. This is due to a number of causes, including competition from other chains, and online rental and download services like Netflix, iTMS, GreenCine, etc.

    One thing the mega-sized businesses have learned in the Internet era is that there’s no business reason to try to restrict choice. (Blockbuster was founded by a right-wing activist.), for example, is the world’s largest book seller by far, but will carry basically any book with an ISBN/barcode, even self-published works.

    Just goes to show you how diligently I keep up with my causes–1994? BBuster stopped censoring that long ago? I really am behind the times. Thanks for the update.–MS

  2. Blockbuster has carried R-rated movies longer than I have worked there (12 years.) Your information is several CEOs old.

    Many movies now come out as ‘Unrated, Uncut and TOTALLY EXTREME!’ editions and that is usually the only version we will carry. Passion of the Christ and Kids are found at Blockbuster not to mention the torture porn rental exclusives we get all the time.
    Things have changed.

    Many times when a major chain ‘anchor’ type store moves into a strip mall or shopping center, it is in the lease that independently owned stores of the same business type have to move out of the mall/center.

    Again, I’m mortified that I am so completely out of touch. I’d delete the whole post, but I think it’s an interesting topic for people to think and talk about, so I’m willing to embarrass myself.–MS

  3. How was the bottled water? 😉

    LOL! Thanks for making me laugh. The answer: it was simply superb.–MS

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