It was 1985. Late summer.
I had just finished a DJ’ing gig at a hotel during the summer (along with a few other part-time jobs at the same time).
Getting ready to head back to Lansing, Michigan (and hopefully to my previous position at a local club there), I got a call from a friend of mine, Jeff. He had moved down to Dallas and was apparently having a good time, but missed familiar faces. At his invitation, I hopped a plane down to Dallas, to take a brief vacation before returning to the world of the gainfully employed.
Dallas was great. Lousy public transportation, but some seriously great night life. This was 1985 when clubs were providing – what are now illegal – substances, as you paid your cover to enter. From mild to wild – whatever your taste, there was a club for it.
As my two-week stay was winding up, I started wondering about staying in the area. Jeff checked with his landlord, who ok’d my sticking around for an extra week in pursuit of employment. I’ll never forget the morning I sat down at the breakfast table and found the ad for video store clerks at some unknown operation called “Blockbuster Videos” (it was plural back then).
It was perfect. I was a frustrated, unfulfilled filmmaker with a serious background in film studies from a community college in Michigan (where I also programmed the student film series).
So first thing Monday morning – I called them and setup an appointment to come in and speak with the interviewing team; next thing I knew, I had to find a blue polo and tan dockers – as I had been hired (over the objections of the manager of the store). Seems I impressed the president of the company’s ex-wife (who happened to be running much of the company at that point in time.
For the next five years it was an unbelievable whirlwind. Initially, I was a video store clerk. Then they moved me to their national distribution center in Garland, where I became their inventory control supervisor, responsible for over 1 million video tapes being picked, packed and shipped around the country. (Needless to say, my partying on New Year’s Eve was screwed for the next few years). In addition, they had me create an in-store cross-merchandising brochure for the stores – to assist employees with connecting people with lesser-known films, based on their rental history.
Then came demographic purchasing; as stores opened, a demographic report would come back to me in the warehouse and I would be responsible for locating and purchasing films designed to make a store more “friendly” to its neighborhood (Jewish, Spanish, Gay/Lesbian). This grew into becoming their buyer for spanish-language films – which required me to watch literally hundreds of Mexican / Puerto Rican / Spanish / South American films – and ensuring the appropriate culture was represented in new (and existing stores). Oh – and can’t forget the synopsis database: those little descriptions on the VHS cassettes? The first 10,000 or so were written by myself and a good friend, Gordon K. Smith.
On top of all of this – I got to know one of the most incredible people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting: the founder of Blockbuster, Mr. David Cook. He and his ex-wife, Sandy, were the driving force behind the creation of the company.
Cook was a total computer geek, in a way: but what I really remember, was his great sense of humor, respect and support for the people who worked for his company. If you wanted to succeed, he was there to help you: so was his team of executives (for the most part).
It was a powerhouse five years. Because of my experience at Blockbuster, I found myself smack dab in the middle of the film and video industry when I decided to leave (as Cook relinquished his involvement with the company). His belief in me, provided me with the confidence to pursue other avenues – and eventually gave me the courage to start my distribution company, which lasted for almost 20 years. I even ended up producing a feature film (“The Seller“).
Last week, I drove by a Blockbuster in Lansing – with the “going out of business” banner; but I had no idea that it was curtains for the entire chain. In existence for just shy of 30 years, the monster has now been slain by the technology that it helped to develop.
It’s sort of sad, as I really enjoyed what that company did for film overall. Their determination (and success) at creating superstores with tens of thousands of titles that people just never had access to, is commendable. Most of the films that Blockbuster initially stocked were designed to overwhelm you when you walked in. Some of us, though, would go home with 4, 5, 6 films a night… films we had heard about, but never seen.
It was an exciting time of discovery for the world of film. Stream all you want, but the personal nature of going into a store and speaking with people about what films to rent – and why – just will never be matched again. Therein lies the sadness.
RIP Blockbuster. You gave me one hell of a ride – taught me that a large corporation (at the beginning at least) was able to treat its employees with respect. So many good memories of friends, customers, filmmakers… hell, I even got to meet Debbie Reynolds, Jean-Claude VanDamme, as well as Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller (Ben Stiller’s parents, for those who don’t know).
And one last note: to David and Sandy Cook – congratulations on sparking the fire that became the home video industry – as well as my sincerest thanks for providing me with professional guidance and advice that have stayed with me to this day. One of my few regrets in life, is that I lost contact with the two you. Perhaps this blog post might catch your eye. I hope it does.
I would love to thank you in person.