When I found out I was going to speak with Taylor Morden, who brought us the ska documentary “Pick it Up! Ska in the ‘90s,” I did some digging. After scouring his Insta, I decided before we had any discussions about his new documentary, “The Last Blockbuster,” I needed his stance on one thing:
The Wonders or The One-ders?
Fortunately, he passed my test and we agree “That Thing You Do!” is an amazing film. While his newest documentary doesn’t have Cap’n Geech & the Shrimp Shack Shooters, we meet the equally endearing Sandi Harding who runs the very last Blockbuster video store.
In a world of streaming and “need it right now,” video rental stores have pretty much been forgotten. My generation grew up going to the local store with our parents on the weekend to pick up whatever VHS tape we could mostly agree on.
As we got older, a store named Blockbuster appeared and then multiplied like rabbits. In its heyday, Blockbuster had 9,000 stores with a new one opening up every 17 hours. There wasn’t just one copy of a new release like the local rental store; there were hundreds. “The Last Blockbuster” takes us through the launch of video stores and how Blockbuster became the behemoth it did.
With waves of memories (you can almost smell the popcorn!), corporate heads explaining the rise and fall, and personal stories from Kevin Smith, Doug Benson, Ione Skye, Brian Posehn, Jamie Kennedy, it is informative, but not boring. Nostalgic, but not depressing. It makes me want to make the pilgrimage to Oregon to check it out in person.
From his ska film (and more Insta peeping), you can tell there is a love of music in Morden, so it is no surprise he was in a band, he’s even played on stage with Reel Big Fish.
The filmmaking came about from common sense. “At some point, when we were paying people money to make music videos, I just realized we could spend that money on a camera instead and then I could make them,” he explains. He started on their videos, then for other bands, and grew it into bigger projects, including commercials, weddings, and real estate listings.
After a move from Washington, D.C. to Bend, Oregon, Morden noticed the Blockbuster sign on a building and figured it had been left behind after a closing. After passing by it daily, he decided to poke his head in to catch a look at the abandoned racks, drop box, and “all those artifacts of a bygone era.” To his surprise, it will still open and people were inside renting DVDs. “It was still functioning,” he says. “It was exactly what you see in the movie. It looked like I remember, it smelled like I remembered, and it was like walking into a time warp. It was as if no one had told them that Blockbuster went out of business and they just kept right on going.”
THE REEL BIG IDEA
“It’s been almost four years since I first walked in to Blockbuster and the idea sparked to dig deeper into the story of this small town video store and how in the heck they were still in business.”
He decided to put his video skills to work in a documentary about the last 12 Blockbusters. “This was 2017 at the time. And I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Netflix was the dominant beast, Amazon, Hulu, and all these things. I couldn’t figure out who would be renting movies and why. I figured if I’m interested in that, then other people might be too.” The timing turned out to be perfect: As the documentary progressed, the other 11 Blockbusters closed down, leaving Sandi Harding’s location in Bend as the final store. Morden was there, with tons of footage already, before the rest of the world descended on the location.
Now I will admit to being an impatient, click-to-buy person. I want to see something, boom, let’s do it. But if I had a video store like Harding’s near me, things could be different. Harding’s personality – along with her staff, who become like family if they are not already – makes the store a treasure. Whether it be personal recommendations from the staff or Harding searching for movie titles of the past (that do not get streamed), you get the personal customer service that sets businesses apart. Plus, there is the tangible, video in hand aspect that many love – to hold something, examine it, and enjoy it. It’s part of the experience. And we have that pandemic thing.
I am not sure if the virus has caused this reaction in you like it has me, but I am having increased interest in nostalgic things. Whether it be the light-up Disney ears I had to have, or the ‘80s music on repeat in my headphones all day, returning to a “simpler” time has been therapeutic. “The Last Blockbuster” made me wonder if we could see a return back to in-person rental service. We love vinyl again, why not movies?
I asked Morden if he thought nostalgia could save video rental. “It’s really hard to say because if you had asked me 10 years ago if vinyl would be the number one selling music format, I would say you’re crazy!,” he laughs. “There’s the huge community of people who do enjoy physical media and love to have something on their shelf. And we’ve seen that now. Our movie has been out now for a week on digital and a few weeks on DVD at Blockbuster. And it’s selling out left and right at Blockbuster. There is an interest in that sort of thing, but I don’t know if it’s as much about the object, the DVD or the VHS tape or as it is about the experience of going to a place and interacting with people. I think it’s more about. That and I hope the movie theaters in particular can withstand what’s happening now and hold out because that I think is really the last place where we go and physically gather to appreciate movies.”
SPOILER ALERT: As I watched “The Last Blockbuster” and fell in love with the store, I had that, “Oh crap, what’s happening there in 2020? Have they gone under?” Luckily, they continue to operate with updated pandemic procedures. Morden and other local residents can call up for requests and have them delivered curbside, or go in the store in small groups.
A few other facts, it is narrated by Lauren Lapkus, if the name sounds familiar she’s worked on projects like “Orange Is the New Black” and “The Big Bang Theory.” It also includes members of the music groups Savage Garden and Smashmouth.
As for Morden, while the pandemic did shut down his projects, he managed to gather clips from 88 teams with 300 people in nine countries for a fan-made recreation of “Back to the Future 2.” Using whatever mode or items necessary, everyone submitted their clips to Morden, he assembled them and put them on YouTube for a global watch party. “It was really a feel good thing early in the pandemic when we really needed that,” he explains.
Once the COVID vaccine is readily available and “regular” work can be resumed safely, he will be back on set. He has his hands full now with promotion for “The Last Blockbuster” – all the major news outlets are calling and awards are being won. Morden and writer Zeke Kamm can enjoy that a bit before the next big thing!
Until then, I encourage you to check out “The Last Blockbuster.” The movie is streaming now on digital platforms, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Fandango, the cable and satellite VOD, or you can purchase a physical copy exclusively from Blockbuster. You may even get a whiff of that familiar Blockbuster store smell….