Back in the early 90s, I was a person who wanted to make movies. People who wanted to make movies tended to go and work in video stores whilst waiting for that elusive big break to come. Not one to buck the trend, I worked in Blockbuster.
The chain had only just taken over the store when I joined. Previously it had been a Ritz Video, and the takeover had meant all of those thousands of distinctive yellow VHS sleeves had been replaced with blue and white ones.
It could be argued that many jobs are little loops of routine presented with very minor variations on a daily basis until you are fired, quit or die. From the store opening rituals to the store closing rituals and everything in between, things that started out unfamiliar soon became comfortable and ultimately became depressingly routine. I can still picture every shelf, and could have a pretty good stab at telling you where the majority of individual titles were located upon them.
After I'd been there a few months, an edict came down from head office that all branches were to play a single 45 minute trailer tape, presented by Ulrika Jonsson, on a loop throughout business hours. This is the sort of thing that doubtless sounds wonderful in a board room but can have a calamitous effect on the sanity and well-being of staff. At least Bill Murray had a whole day to play around with in Groundhog Day. My life loop only lasted 45 minutes. I kept a cassette of music labelled 'The Jonsson Solution' tucked under the counter, and would play it over the shop's PA system (Against store policy! Rebel! Rebel! Smash the system!) whenever I felt like I was at breaking point. To this day I associate the first song on that tape (Ever Fallen In Love... (With Someone You Shouldn't've) by Buzzcocks) with sweet, sweet relief from Jonsson's voice.
One day, I got a call from a 'regional' manager which I remember vividly to this day. He told me that the quarter's takings across his stores hadn't met targets. The store that I worked at had met them, but some stores in the middle of nowhere were dragging his average down and he wanted a quick boost of profit over the next week.
His instructions run thusly;
1) Tape up the 24 hour drop box with industrial tape, and put a sign reading 'Drop box out of order; please return films to counter' on it.
2) Whitewash out all of the windows in the store and write 'Massive Sale Now On!' in the whitewash.
3) Sit back and watch the cash roll in.
His logic about the dropbox ran thusly;
1) If a customer is forced to walk into the shop, they might buy something.
2) If a customer can't return a video in the middle of the night, they'll come back tomorrow and buy something.
3) They might not be able to come back tomorrow, and will thus accrue profitable late fees.
His logic about the whitewash/sale ran thusly;
1) Everyone loves a sale! Whitewashing the windows will increase the curiosity factor!
2) Once inside the shop, they'll forget why they came in and won't notice that there isn't a sale. They might buy something.
My objections were varied and manifold. A small selection might include;
1) People will notice that a sale doesn't exist.
2) No, honestly, they will.
3) They'll ask what's on sale. I will reply 'The usual fine selection of goods'
4) They might, at this point, stab me. I wouldn't entirely blame them.
5) How can a hole in the bastard wall be 'out of order'?
6) A customer who has accrued a late fee because we've removed his means of returning his video will refuse to pay it.
7) A customer who has travelled all the way to the store in the middle of the night to find that we've removed his means of returning his video will simply post the video forcefully through the letterbox instead.
8) A videotape being pushed through the letterbox with sufficient force will set off the motion detectors and summon the police.
7) The police will contact the keyholder to come out in the middle of the night to turn the goddamn burglar alarm off.
8) The keyholder is me. I hate you beyond my ability to express myself.
I should probably point out that these requests came solely from one rogue regional manager, and I'm sure were in no way representative of activities across the chain as a whole nearly 20 years ago. This was little consolation at the time, as it was my regional manager. I kept myself cheerful by writing.
I wrote the first odd little fragments of what would eventually become the screenplay for my first film TrashHouse whilst standing in that video shop, although those fragments wouldn't end up gelling into any sort of coherent whole for six years or so. I can clearly remember writing 'It's raining. A girl in a red cloak walks up a hill towards a dark house' on a notepad beside the cash register, and that became the opening scene of the movie.
Except the hill.
And the cloak.
And the rain.
And it wasn't quite the opening scene, because we had to add a pre-credits sequence to get some gore in nice and early.
But there was definitely a girl and a house, so the point remains valid.
I quit Blockbuster at one point, then somehow ended up getting rehired a few months later when I was desperate for money. I can remember that first shift back, standing behind the same counter, looking at the same shelves, thinking "God, I'm never going to get out of here".
On 20th February 2006, despite having been shot on a shoestring, TrashHouse was widely released on DVD across the UK. I went for a long walk that day and spent a lot of time thinking. In the early afternoon, I found myself in that same branch of Blockbuster. I hadn't been there for a few years, even as a customer, (I'd moved house a couple of times and it was no longer my closest branch), but I walked in and saw my movie on the shelf.
It was, actually, the first time I'd seen one of my films on a shelf anywhere. Available to the public.
Available to rent in the shop where I'd stood for thousands upon thousands of hours, dreaming of making films but worrying in my heart of hearts that I'd never get to do it.
If I get ten moments as good as that in my whole life, I've got nothing to complain about.
A few days ago, that branch of Blockbuster (my branch of Blockbuster) closed down. Today, the not-entirely-unexpected news comes that the remaining stores are going to follow suit.
So, goodbye Blockbuster. Seeing the empty shell of a shop last weekend felt like a genuine punch in the gut. Another iconic brand gone from the high street, another facet of the film experience consigned to history.
And where the hell are the filmmakers of tomorrow going to waste their early 20s working now?