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blockbuster video


"Good afternoon, Blockbuster Video, where you can pre-order The Lion King. This is Rob, how can I help you?"
- How I was supposed to answer the phone at Blockbuster (I didn't)

Last weekend I ventured into a local Blockbuster for the first time in ages. I generally don't rent videos any more, because I see most of my movies for free now, one way or another, so why should I pay four bucks to watch a cropped, pan-and-scan video? But I went out of curiosity and rented two impulse videos ("Hmm, this looks interesting"): Fun, which actually was interesting, and The Prophecy II, which lured me because Christopher Walken is in it, and which couldn't have sucked worse if it had rubber lips. But that's not important right now.

What is important is that Blockbuster is the same old corporate shithole. Half the store now seems to be usurped by video games -- that's apparently a big source of revenue, like baseball cards in shops that supposedly sell comics. Then of course you have 50 copies of the latest mind-numbing bonanza and one copy (if you're lucky) of something like Fun. Most of all, the clerks hound you when you're trying to browse in peace: "Is there something I can help you find?" Yeah, a copy of the uncensored Crash. (More on that later.)

I can't get too mad at Blockbuster clerks, though, because for three months or so, I was one of them. Yes. This is known as rock bottom, boys and girls: working as a CSR (Customer Service Representative) at arguably the most clueless retail chain store ever devised by the minds of evil millionaires.

I'll tell you about it.

First of all, Blockbuster has a policy to carry "a family selection -- no X- or NC-17-rated films." Okay, let's look at this. Technically there never has been an X rating, therefore there are no X-rated films (porn movies use it as hype). For years the rating system was G, PG, PG-13, R, and unrated. If a movie was judged by the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board to be stronger than an R, the director could either trim it to get an R or release it unrated -- the box-office kiss of death in many cases, since many newspapers won't advertise unrated films and many theaters won't show them.

In 1990, after much criticism, the MPAA caved and created the NC-17 (No Children Under 17) rating, which is exactly what it sounds like: it denotes films for adults, not "adult films" (i.e., porn). Well, Blockbuster won't carry NC-17 films. Why? Because they pride themselves on "a family selection." Last time I checked, families contained adults as well as children. But I digress.

Early on in my nightmarish tour of duty at Blockbuster, a customer asked me if we had the NC-17-rated Henry & June. I knew we didn't have it. I knew why we didn't have it. Did I tell him why? Looking back, I kick myself that I didn't. I should have told him the hypocritical policy (Blockbuster has no problem stocking unrated erotic thrillers starring Shannon Tweed, ever notice that?) and given him the address of the corporate office so he could bitch to them.

We were expected to be happy corporate drones at Blockbuster. We were told to answer the phone the way I described above. (I refused and gave my two weeks' notice. The manager, desperate to keep me because I was the only CSR who knew anything about movies, told me I didn't have to answer the phone at all if only I'd stay. Not being an idiot, I stuck to my guns.) We were told not to discuss store policy with "the media." (Sorry, I am the media now, assholes, and I'm gonna discuss the living shit out of it.) We were told to "pre-sell" new videos at the counter, asking customers if they wanted to pre-order Forrest Gump or The Lion King (as if customers wouldn't have bought two of the most popular movies of 1994 without our prompting).

Our managers were so gung-ho as to be almost surreal. One of them was a hearty guy named Al who liked to say "Be good" where most normal people would say "Goodbye." One day he had written the following manifesto on the office blackboard, which I reproduce here verbatim (I copied it down and saved it for years, knowing I would put it to this very use one day):

Everyone must ask each customer about the Lion King -
If you do not you will be WRITTEN UP.
ALSO GREETING is not being done by all This is a MUST.
NO MORE Excuses About Uniforms.
These will lead up to Termination

...Me again. The greeting thing was a big issue. We had to look every customer in the eye and say "Hi!" or "Welcome to Blockbuster!" or "How did you like that movie you just returned?" Never mind how busy we were. Never mind that it would fuckin' freak me out to be greeted this way. The uniforms thing, I have no idea. Probably blocked it from memory. (We wore blue cotton shirts, tan pants, and a tie. According to the thick purple CSR guidebook, which I still have, "you must always appear neat and clean, with clothes pressed, proper shoes, name tags in place, and without extremes in hair or jewelry styles." This last meant no long hair on guys, no earrings on guys, no more than one earring per ear on women.)

In short, no Blockbuster policy has anything remotely to do with actual customer service. Blockbuster either has the movie you want, or it doesn't. It doesn't matter how warmly you're greeted or how many times you're asked if you want to pre-order The Lion King or how neat and clean the clerks are. If they have the movie you want, you're happy; if they don't, you go somewhere else. This is the truth: Blockbuster has only one mission, and that is to make money. Point blank.

This is a company that routinely and without irony refers to the works of art and entertainment it offers as "product." God knows how many times that shows up in the guidebook. Or "options": "The mission of Blockbuster Entertainment Corporation is to be the best provider of entertainment options that meet consumer needs." That's from the Mission Statement. So's this: "Our resolve to constantly provide the best customer entertainment experience ..." No. Getting laid is an experience. Going to Blockbuster isn't an "experience," it's renting a video, you fucking corporate assholes! Get some fuckin' perspective!

You should come over to the house sometime and I'll read to you from the guidebook. You'll be on the floor, I guarantee. They try to play up the movie angle with lame references: "In the movie Caddyshack, Carl the Greens-Keeper (played by Bill Murray) believes the best way to clean his house is by using a leaf blower. Although that is an interesting approach, it's not one that you will use to maintain your store." My favorite is from the chapter on customer service: "Just as Fred Astaire could tap dance and sing, you can balance speedy check-out and courtesy." I'd love to read the guidebook for Video Expo, the porno chain store: "Just as Marilyn Chambers could give a blowjob and take it up the ass..."

Then they try telling you how to deal with problem customers, like when a kid tries to rent an R-rated movie and his account says he's not supposed to. The book advises you to "look at the customer. Actually look up from the screen and look at the customer." What the fuck else am I gonna look at? My ass? "Suggest another title, or suggest that they browse for another movie in which they are interested."

Okay, on the planet you and I live on, a kid who's just been told he can't rent Natural Born Killers isn't gonna want The Cowboy Way just because it, too, stars Woody Harrelson. He (the kid, not Woody Harrelson) is gonna flip you off and go somewhere else. End result: some other video store gets the kid's three bucks, Blockbuster loses a customer, you look and feel like a dick, and you just had an entirely unnecessary stressful encounter -- one of many you'll endure as a Blockbuster CSR until you quit or shoot somebody, or both.

Blockbuster does love its hypocritical bullshit -- no NC-17 movies, no kids under 17 allowed to rent R-rated movies unless the parent says it's okay. At the library where I now work, we let kids take out whatever the fuck they want to. "You're thirteen and you wanna take out Pulp Fiction? Great! Here ya go! And here's a paperback of American Psycho to go with it." The library profession has a name for it: "intellectual freedom." In other words, we're not your parents and we're not police and we have no right to say what you can and can't see or read. Blockbuster seems to think it has that right. Personally, I have more respect for Video Expo. At least they're honest about what they are.

So do what the customer who wanted Henry & June did and the kid who wanted Natural Born Killers did. Go somewhere else.

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