Sandi Harding, manager of the last Blockbuster store in the world, has been getting the same question over and over lately.
Is the Netflix comedy “Blockbuster” based on her store in Bend, Oregon?
The answer is no. In video store classification terms, “Blockbuster” would be placed in the fictional comedy section.
“People are shocked that we don’t have anything to do with the ‘Blockbuster’ show,” says Harding, 50, the Blockbuster manager for 18 years. “We haven’t even heard from them.”
“Blockbuster” executive producer Vanessa Ramos says she wanted to work with the last-Blockbuster concept but “build our own little world” with the series, starring Randall Park as the beleaguered store manager. The location was even moved to the fictional small town of Iron Creek, Michigan.
But how close does the show “Blockbuster” come to the real thing? We checked.
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The real celebration party left Blockbuster smelling like beer
In “Blockbuster,” Timmy (Park) throws a party (with ill-fated fireworks) to celebrate becoming the last store in the country. The real Bend location threw a planned outdoor party with a local brewing company in July 2018 after the only other remaining Blockbuster in America – in Anchorage, Alaska – closed.
“It made that party explode; a charity event became a celebration that suddenly we were the last Blockbuster in America,” Harding says. “The store smelled like beer for several days afterward, (and) we hadn’t anticipated people coming in (the store) with beer. But at least there were no fireworks.”
When the Blockbuster in Perth, Australia closed in May 2019, that store’s managers called from Down Under to wish the Bend location luck as the last official store in the world.
“It was bittersweet. We always used to joke, ‘How can we knock them off?'” Harding says. “We were excited to be the last one. But at the same time, the reality is people were losing their jobs. That was not lost on us.”
There are seriously quirky Blockbuster employees
Just like the Netflix show, and in the Blockbusters of old, there’s a “staff recommendations” section, with every employee specializing in their favorite genre. “Everybody’s got seven to eight movies in that section,” Harding says.
The manager insists the real store has the stories and quirky staff to match the “Blockbuster” sitcom. There’s even physical comedy, as one employee was notoriously klutzy. “Every time she tried to mop, she’d go headfirst into the mop bucket,” Harding says.
During one memorable stint, police informed the store that a man arrested on drug offenses had confessed to hiding “a large amount of cash” in one of the Blockbuster DVD sleeves. But he couldn’t remember which one. The employees spent weeks looking before one employee opened the right sleeve. “She actually turned the money in; everyone was laughing at her about that,” Harding says.
Real Blockbuster has its own stars (and a Matthew Fox security video)
Netflix’s series features Park and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” star Melissa Fumero. The real store has been graced by actor Rainn Wilson (“The Office”) and model Chrissy Teigen. “Weird” Al Yankovic beat it on over and Harding posed with YouTuber Logan Paul. Ron Howard brought his whole family and tweeted a picture posing with Russell Crowe’s “Cinderella Man” satin boxing robe, which is on display.
Onetime Bend resident and “Lost” star Matthew Fox also memorably visited the store.
“One of our managers was totally in love with (Fox),” Harding says. “So she was watching the video surveillance like every day. It was on a constant loop of Matthew Fox.”
Blockbuster hangs in there, despite Netflix
The notoriety of being the last Blockbuster on Earth has helped out the often struggling business, which has become a tourist attraction. There’s merch (“Last Blockbuster on the Planet” Christmas ornaments are hot sellers this time of year, at $10).
“We even sell the Blockbuster laminated membership cards,” says Harding, who also rents out the store on Airbnb for nostalgic sleepovers.
Income from sources besides movie rentals now accounts for about 80% of the income, Harding says. “We definitely sell way more stuff than rent movies now.”
The ultimate twist is that DVD-destroying Netflix is streaming “Blockbuster” and aired an original documentary on the Bend store – 2020’s “The Last Blockbuster.”
“The irony of it all is pretty funny,” Harding says. “But good for them. They’re helping us. Any publicity we get is good. Our store is looking much healthier than it’s looked in some lean years.”
For the short term, the last Blockbuster is chugging along.
“We’re doing all right. I think we have a couple more years,” Harding says. “But you know, everything could change in a heartbeat.”