Entertainment

Free Blockbuster Is Bringing Back the Community Video Rental Hub

Take a movie, leave a movie in one of the nine states where you can find a Free Blockbuster box.

free blockbuster
Grace Han/Thrillist

There is only one Blockbuster still standing, in Bend, Oregon, the subject of a recent documentary available on Netflix, but blue-and-yellow boxes full of free DVDs and VHS tapes have been popping up across the country over the last year. Modeled after the “little free library” concept that's grown to over 100,000 boxes in more than 100 countries, Free Blockbuster is bringing back the community aspect of the humble video store.

Free Blockbuster was first imagined by Brian Morrison in 2018, after noticing how many unused newspaper boxes there were in the Los Angeles area. A friend of his was moving across the country and wasn’t going to take all of her DVDs with her—so Morrison took them off her hands, put them in an abandoned newspaper box he had painted in the Los Feliz neighborhood, and it grew from there.

The project aims to “combat the myth of scarcity” by providing free entertainment as widely and communally as possible. Since the inception of the first Free Blockbuster in 2019, the project has grown to 28 boxes in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia, Oklahoma, Georgia, Washington DC, Colorado, and Louisiana. Anyone can sign up to start a “franchise” in their own city—which boils down to starting and operating a box to make sure it’s well-stocked—through the Free Blockbuster website.

Morrison admits he wasn’t really a Blockbuster guy. Growing up, he would go to West Coast Video in his hometown of Philadelphia before Blockbuster surged in popularity in the late '90s. But as video stores big and small have been forced to close their doors since the advent of streaming, and movie theaters have shut down in many cities thanks to the pandemic, Free Blockbuster has provided a revived dedication to the communal sharing of physical media.

“I think it's a hard time for any small business,” Morrison says. “But we're definitely seeing this atrophy of smaller business, while the corporate behemoths are able to maintain and pivot. One thing I think we're super aware of is that we need collective spaces to share cultural experience.”

Free Blockbuster was quickly embraced by the VHS-adoring community on social media. In March of 2019, Se7ven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker tweeted in support of the project and dropped off a couple of tapes of his own in a Los Angeles box. Morrison still considers March 28, the day of the tweet, to be a Free Blockbuster holiday. “That was a series of things that went from being like, an insane thing that a crazy person was doing on his own to being a collective,” Morrison says.

Along with fostering a community of physical media fans, Morrison hopes that Free Blockbuster can reinvigorate the sense of discovery that has been lost in the algorithmic streaming era. Each photo of a Free Blockbuster box highlights the vast range of media it inspires: one box in Philadelphia featured the entire series of Entourage; one in Los Feliz had three copies of Babe on VHS; another in Virginia put 8 Mile, Burn After Reading, and Zombieland together. Many locations also include bags of popcorn or movie theater candy to pair with your selection.

“I've seen surreal… really weird stuff in these things,” Morrison says. “My favorite is when people drop off movies they taped off a TV that still have the commercials in there. That makes me so happy.”

Morrison grew up around video stores, and later worked for digital streaming companies like Fullscreen and Quibi. Roaming around a video store was one of the best ways to discover hidden gems, but Morrison says it’s counterintuitive for big streaming platforms to try and recreate that experience.

“If they've paid X amount of money for whatever new Marvel movie, they need to get enough people to watch that to justify the investment,” Morrison says. “So in a lot of ways, they don't want you to watch anything weird because that ultimately doesn't translate to success for that department.

“It’s in their best interest to keep us in this sort of new niche ecosystem,” Morrison continues. “The grid video store was great, because it was by section and it was alphabetical. You were gonna see a big hit next to something you've never heard of. Garbage Pail Kids and Back to the Future are the same in the eyes of the video store.”

In recent years, Blockbuster has been largely remembered through rose-colored glasses. But many claim that Blockbuster was too corporate, too expensive, and a large reason why mom-and-pop video stores are such a rarity nowadays. “It wasn't Empire Records,” Morrison says with a laugh. Conversely, Free Blockbuster takes the nostalgia of Blockbuster and gives it a grassroots spin that acts in spite of private, corporate interests.

“We believe in public goods, we believe that we can share,” Morrison says. “We don't have to all hoard things, there's enough for everybody and that's OK.”

blockbuster, bend oregon
Inside the last existing Blockbuster in the US. | ANDREW MARSZAL/AFP via Getty Images

Taylor Morden’s Netflix documentary The Last Blockbuster similarly echoes this nostalgia for the corporation over the communal love of movies. But it’s also indicative of our fascination with Blockbuster, and how—seemingly against all odds—it has been able to stay in the cultural conversation over a decade after it shuttered most of its locations. 

Free Blockbuster is not the first project to use the “take a movie, leave a movie” format—Morrison credits Video Honor System as the first of its kind in Los Angeles—but Free Blockbuster stands out because of its deliberate use of Blockbuster’s iconic branding.

Free Blockbuster’s aesthetic has gotten attention not just from nostalgic patrons, but from Blockbuster corporate itself. In November 2020, Morrison got a letter from an attorney for Blockbuster, politely asking to cease the use of their trademarks. 

“While we are certainly flattered by your affection for the brand, we also have to be diligent to ensure that the Blockbuster Marks are used correctly,” the letter reads. “If we allow uses like this one, we run the risk that our trademark will be weakened.”

Morrison is hoping to get a trademark license from Blockbuster corporate to continue the project, but he acknowledges that the idea will still live on even if they have to change the name or their branding. “We’ve seen what happened to vinyl,” Morrison says. “We know what's happening with VHS. I don't think this is going away.”

Morrison also doesn’t think Blockbuster is the bad guy for the cease and desist—they’re just doing their job of protecting their intellectual property, he says—he just hopes that they can work out a relationship that is mutually beneficial.

Morrison says there’s no rules to making a Free Blockbuster other than that it has to be free and there has to be movies. He acknowledges he can’t control how people choose to participate in the project, but he offers stencils and guidance to those interested in bringing a box to their area.

“Go build one,” Morrison says. “Build it in your dorm, build it in your apartment building, build it on the street, you know, wherever. The important thing is community, it's the best way to do this. The best way to combat tyranny is by building an in-person community. We do miss the community of the video store, and we feel like there is a little bit of community here.”

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Cody Corrall is a film and culture critic based in Chicago, on Twitter @codycorrall.
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