It's a near-guarantee that you haven't been to a Blockbuster this year, or possibly this decade. And after today's announcement that the company is shutting down its 300 remaining stores, you likely never will again. But that doesn't mean that video stores have outlived their usefulness—or, especially, that streaming is anywhere near ready to replace it.
Blockbuster's physical demise will be seen as a cause for Twitter punchlines aplenty, which is fine. But let's take a minute to think about exactly what we're losing. And let's start with Indiana Jones.
A year ago, a good friend sent me the following email in response to a post I had written about paying for content instead of pirating it. In it, he detailed his simple quest to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. In short? He couldn't:
As far as I can tell, there are zero video rental stores in all of Philadelphia. The last one closed this year.
The nearest redbox is like 30 minutes from my apartment, and it isn't going to have this movie anyway.
It's not on comcast on-demand or amazon streaming.
It's not on netflix streaming.
If I ordered it up today as a Netflix DVD it probably would not come until Monday.
I could order the DVD from Amazon and pay for express shipping. That would be about $22.00
There is one FYE in Philly that sells new and used DVDs. They did not have Lost Ark, but I could have gotten Temple of Doom for $7.99.
In fact, you can't rent any Indiana Jones movie for online viewing, or even buy them individually. Because the rights to the film are tightly guarded, the only streaming option available to you—which itself is a fairly recent development—is to buy all four of them as part of an iTunes package. It will cost you $45 in HD.
It's easy to dismiss this as an isolated case; we can live without instant Indiana Jones gratification. But it's a more widespread problem than you might think. You won't, for instance, find any Star Wars movie online, for sale or rental. And a quick stroll through the invaluable CanIStreamIt database revealed that other classic titles ranging from It's a Wonderful Life to The Lives of Others to Taxi Driver are either equally absent or only available for an overpriced purchase. Likewise Raging Bull, ditto Lawrence of Arabia. You get the point; it's a long list.
What Blockbuster offered—and what a Redbox kiosk's few dozen offerings can't—is choice. Aisle upon aisle of curated choice, of both recent hits and classic films. Your digital options have improved vastly in the past couple of years, but there are still significant blind spots.
It's true that no physical store could contain the thousands of thousands of titles that fill the virtual shelves of iTunes and Amazon. But it's also true that many of those titles are junk, and many must-see movies aren't among them.
There's also the matter of quality, not just of title selection but of viewing experience. HD movies that you rent from iTunes, Amazon, or whomever look just fine—depending on your internet plan and provider—but they don't hold a candle (no, really, it's not even close) to a physical Blu-ray. The kind that you could have picked up from Blockbuster.
And then there are the people who don't have an internet connection that's even capable of HD streaming, or that would choke on a download of that size. It's easy to forget—especially on a tech-focused site like this, whose readers presumably fork over extra for superspeed connections—that much of America depends on physical media because they don't have access the kind of bandwidth that gives them an alternative.
The map above shows who's got the fastest and slowest internet in America, among those who actively test their speeds. Long story short, many people who live in the red or darker shades of orange would be lucky to stream the Archer title sequence, much less a high-definition movie.
None of these problems is in and of itself serious or widespread enough to throw a fit about; if any were, Blockbuster would be announcing store openings instead of shutting it all down. But it's important to remember that Blockbuster going away doesn't mean we're fully ready to replace it. And that we're now somehow even further away from Indiana Jones than we were a year ago.