For many movie buffs, video rental stores were sacred places, places to discover obscure art, commune with like-minded connoisseurs, and get into a fight with your date for refusing to put another Meg Ryan movie on your card. But the age of VHS ended with the downfall of Blockbuster, whose tape-laden shelves now only are found in mancaves, Alaskan outposts, and other places time has forgotten. But while the age of streaming has toppled these rental temples, some still seek to keep the VHS spirit alive, erecting little shrines on the side of the road.

Free Blockbuster, aside from a very disappointing Free Willy sequel, is an initiative aiming to return the joy of renting videotapes (vi·dee·ow·tayp, for anyone born after 1998) to a little metal box near you. The project was founded by 37-year-old Brian Morrison, a grizzled veteran of several video rental jobs who built the first Free Blockbuster out of an abandoned newspaper (nooz·pay·pr) dispensers in 2019. Much like the Little Free Library (lai·breh·ree) project, the intent is for people to not just take a movie but leave a movie as well. VHS tapes are preferred, DVDs are politely tolerated. 

FreeBlockbuster.org

And anyone who puts in a Betamax can go straight to hell. 

Unlike its tapes, Free Blockbuster isn’t region-locked. Morrison claims the “international” movement has managed to erect 69 boxes all over the U.S., Canada, and Australia in less than two years. In fact, anyone everywhere can experience what it was like to operate a Blockbuster venue – and not just because you won’t be making any money. While the Free Blockbuster website sells everything to get started, including refurbished donation boxes, all you really need is a sturdy box, some blue spray paint, and a curated collection of Salvation Army videotapes to build your own ‘90s nostalgia popup. 

Corpse Reviver, Wikimedia Commons

Complete the rental store look by hanging a tiny bead curtain around a copy of Debbie Does Dallas.

Of course, the real opportunity of Free Blockbuster boxes isn’t to watch a blurry 240p version of You’ve Got Mail on your massive smart TV. What the old newsie boxes offer is a portal to a simpler, more adventurous time. A time when you weren’t told what to watch by a carefully tailored algorithm choosing from a near-endless library of entertainment but instead by a bored Gen X’er pushing their favorite ‘70s nunsploitation giallos. And after the initial tapes have been swapped, a Free Blockbuster box truly is like a box of chocolates: you never know which worn-out movie throwback you’re going to get. Patrons have found all kinds of eclectic collections in their local boxes, from the entire Entourage box set to several worn copies of Babe: Pig In The City to even the mystery-can surprise that’s label-less black spine bootlegs of TV movies. 

Brian Omura, Flickr

Can you really say you’ve experienced a film if you didn’t have the twist interrupted by a 30-year-old commercial for Duracell batteries?

But according to Morrison, Free Blockbuster is more than just a trip down magnetic lane for the 17 people who still own a VHS player. He insists: “This is not a nostalgia project; it’s a future project.” The aging counter-streamist wants to remind people to once again “form community around film watching” and take pride in owning (slightly missing the point of video rentals there) physical copies of their entertainment instead of trusting the mirage that is DRM media. “Now is the time to share – the time to understand that we can have collective goods,” Morrison declares. The old Blockbuster may be dead, but with its name on every street corner, it can still serve as a rallying point for the people to come together and bring forth a glorious collectivist future by watching a stolen rental tape of Jaws 3.

For more weird tangents, check out Cedric’s Twitter. For more free movies, check out your local library.

Top Image: Dave Dugdale, Flickr / FreeBlockbuster.org

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