You can make it a Blockbuster night again.
Years after the demise of the once ubiquitous video rental stores, you can browse and borrow movies on DVDs — and even old-school video cassettes — thanks to a grassroots movement called Free Blockbuster.
It basically works like Little Free Library, with freestanding boxes set out in public by homeowners or businesses stocked with physical media available for free. "Take a movie, leave a movie. Be kind, rewind!" is how the organization's website, FreeblockBuster.org, puts it.
Since summer, four locations (or franchises as they are called by the organization) have been established in the Twin Cities.
"I think of it as a collective art project," said Brian Morrison, who came up with the idea.
Morrison, who lives in Los Angeles near a former Blockbuster, had a friend who was moving and wanted to get rid of his tapes and DVDs. Morrison noticed that there were lots of empty newspaper racks around that had been abandoned when free print publications went out of business.
He landed on the idea to repurpose old newspaper boxes as self-serve movie-sharing libraries. He set up the first Free Blockbuster outlet in Los Angeles in 2019. As word spread, other Free Blockbusters started sprouting up around the country.
Morrison turned the concept into a nonprofit, making the Free Blockbuster brand available to other franchise founders. He encourages participants to rescue and recycle abandoned newspaper boxes, but said that any kind of container will work. For those interested in a turnkey option, Morrison sells repurposed plastic newspaper boxes in Free Blockbuster blue and yellow for about $200.
As of October, there were 92 Free Blockbuster franchises, mostly in the U.S. But one can also be found in Edmonton, Alberta, and another is near Sydney, Australia, according to the map on FreeBlockbuster.org.
That's about 1% of the 9,000 video rental outlets that the Blockbuster chain had around the world before it went bankrupt in 2010. But Morrison said he's happy his idea is spreading. He expects to see the 100th outlet by the end of the year, driven by fellow fans and collectors.
"I'm awed by the response," he said.
All in the family
Jimi Nguyen was the first Free Blockbuster franchisee in Minnesota. He and his wife, Alison, are movie fans and VHS and DVD movie collectors.
"We're the weird couple that watches a lot of movies," he said.
When he was a kid, Nguyen's parents owned a mom-and-pop video rental store in Fresno, Calif., before it was put out of business by its powerful competitor, Blockbuster.
But Nguyen is still a fan of the Blockbuster chain. He and his wife made a recent pilgrimage to the "Last Blockbuster," the remaining operational franchise, located in Bend, Ore. In addition to renting movies, the store has also become a tourist attraction, a souvenir shop, an Airbnb rental and the subject of a documentary film (available on Netflix, of course).
"It was a part of my childhood," Nguyen said. "I still have a soft spot for Blockbuster."
When Nguyen heard about the Free Blockbuster concept, he said "Heck, yeah." Last summer he got a blue newspaper box, filled it with tapes and DVDs from thrift stores and swap meets and set it up outside his house in St. Louis Park.
Because it opened for business around July 4th, he made sure the box was stocked with "Independence Day" and "Born on the Fourth of July."
"I like to share what we have," Nguyen said. "I think movies are a huge part of knowing about the world."
Some of Nguyen's friends and fellow video collectors in Minnesota followed suit and started their own Free Blockbusters, including Thomas Blade.
When Blade was an adolescent, "physical media and video rental stores were my life," he said. In August, the 33-year-old set up a Free Blockbuster near his home in Burnsville.
"I hopped on the nostalgia train," said Blade, who also has a VCR machine hooked up to a bulky, retro, 200-pound CRT television. "It's definitely a generational thing."
Blade stocks his Free Blockbuster with vintage DVDs and Blu-ray discs — from "Frozen" to "Star Wars" — that he might have picked up at garage sales for a quarter.
"Every week, three or four new things are in there," he said.
This summer, Paul Zenisek also put up a Free Blockbuster outside of his Minneapolis store, Heroic Goods and Games, which sells board games, vintage toys, comics, old video games and collectible movies.
He stocked it with VHS movie hits from the 1980s and 1990s, like "E.T.," the Michael Keaton "Batman" and Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive," in addition to DVDs and Blu-rays.
At one point, the box had Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" in three formats at the same time: DVD, Blu-ray and VHS. To help re-create the feel of the old Blockbuster retail stores, Zenisek gave away Act II microwave popcorn when his Free Blockbuster opened.
The Twin Cities Free Blockbusters started distributing printed fliers advertising "Three metro locations open 24/7 to serve you!"
In September, a fourth Free Blockbuster location was established by Joe Donlin outside his home in Plymouth. He said it's a good way to share the Daniel Tiger, PAW Patrol and Angelina Ballerina videos that his kids have outgrown.
Stocked and busy
At Free Blockbuster, where VHS stands for video honor system, Zenisek said the take-a-film, leave-a-film concept is working.
"I thought it was funny. I didn't think anybody would come," he said, but he's "getting great traffic," with people posing for selfies in addition to borrowing and returning movies.
"We get a full turnover [of movies] almost weekly," he said. "That people are enjoying it on a daily basis blows my mind."
Zenisek figures that the free DVDs and VHS tapes tap into a collector sensibility similar to the resurgence of interest in vinyl records. The movie buffs also say the boxes offer access to obscure films, offbeat training videos or alternate versions of movies that can't be found on streaming services.
And then there's the nostalgia factor: Going to a Free Blockbuster replicates a lost ritual that a generation of Americans once enjoyed.
A trip to the video rental store was a regular date night or family outing. You could chat with staff about movies, browse the titles in your favorite aisle — new releases, action, classic, foreign — and study the blurbs on the VHS cases to help make your decision.
According to Zenisek, visiting a Free Blockbuster is a trip back in time. "I'm going to this place and I'm going to choose a movie and bring it home."