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Online DVD Rental: It's time for you to give it a try.

Renting DVDs online isn't just for geeks anymore.
by Chris Parry

How many times have you swore to yourself that you'd never walk into a Blockbuster store ever again? For most people who would call themselves movie fans, the number is pretty high. For those who would call themselves film buffs, the number is extraordinary. "Now, how do you spell Citizen Kane... Is that with a C or a K?" - I never wanted to hear that again. I also never wanted to hear a video store clerk tell a customer to put a widescreen rental back and get the fullscreen version because "widescreen is the kind that has the two annoying black bars on top and bottom of the screen." And I never - ever - again wanted to pay a damn late fee for a film that was overpriced to begin with. But hey, that's a fantasy world I'm thinking about, not reality. It could never happen, could it? Well yeah, actually, it could. Because if you have a DVD player, a credit card and a functioning mailbox, you never have to go through video rental store hell again. And yes, it doesn't even matter if you live in the US, Canada, the UK or Australia.

The concept is rather simple. You join a DVD rental company, usually for a monthly subscription fee around the $20-$25 region. This then allows you to choose three discs, which the company will mail to you next day. You can keep those discs for as long as you like, or you can watch them and send them straight back in the pre-paid envelopes the company provides.
If you send a movie back, when the company receives it, they'll send you the next pick in your 'queue', usually the same day. You can, if you so choose, just never send your three discs back, as long as your monthly fee is still being paid. Alternately, you could keep on renting movies as fast as they can send them out, getting incredible value over the course of the month.
This is how online renting works, and for the serious renter who doesn't want to mess around with queues in stores, late fees, and ridiculously fees for new releases, it's a godsend.

To compare whether renting a DVD online is a better deal than not, I charted my rental habits the month before I joined Canada's, so I could see what I was spending and what I was getting for my money. Here's how it went:

3rd of month: Rented six weekly videos from Blockbuster. Five titles I wanted were either out or not stocked. Cost for my 'second picks': $11.45
11th: Returned the movies a day late. Paid $5.50 in late fees, rented another four weeklies and one two-night new release. Total cost: $18.30
14th: Returned the new release, again a day late, for $4 late fee.
18th: Returned the weeklies (on time), rented two new releases for $7.50
19th: Returned scratch disc for refund, was instead asked if I'd stepped on it and told I'm "lucky" they weren't going to make me pay for it. I stop the experiment right there, determined to never again darken the door of a Blockbuster with my fury.

Total cost: $41.25 for three new movies and ten old ones, not including gas money to get to the video store and time spent standing in line. And in doing all that, I only got the movie I wanted about half the time.

Now let's compare that to my first month of membership ($24.95 Canadian):

1st of month: Received three films, all new releases. Watched them in one sitting, dropped them in a mailbox that afternoon. Cost: $0.
3rd: Received email telling me the discs had been received and the next three in my queue had been sent out.
4th: Received those three, at them up and sent them off next day. Cost: $0
6th: Received confirmation email that the next three films were on the way.
8th: Received those three, decide to increase my membership level so I can receive four films at a time instead of three. Receive email telling me that my fourth pick is on the way.
10th: Call up to congratulate them on making me happier than Blockbuster ever had. They're too busy to chat because demand is growing by the day and they can barely keep up.

I'll save you the rest of the month's financial data, because it's all the same: $0 in late fees. $0 in gas. Zero standing around in queues. Only very occasional instances where the movie I wanted was out (two out of some 18 movies over the course of the month). I rented more films than before, and ended up paying half what I usually pay at the local corporate giant.

The biggest name in US online DVD rentals, Netflix, says that most of its customers rent about six movies per month through their service, which means, if you’re on the $13.95 per month two-discs-at-a-time deal, you’re paying $2 per new release movie – with no late fees. That’s a sensational deal.

If you think this is where it all falls apart, guess again. Really, the only catches are issues that I can deal with.

1. Two disc sets count as two rentals. This is a pain, but not a huge one, since I'm not paying any extra for the second disc, it just takes up an extra rental slot. I can cope with that, and if I'm smart I only take the second disc if it has something on it that I need. If Disc 1 is the fullscreen version, for example, I don't even both with it.

2. The mail can run slow. This isn't the rental firm's fault, but it can be an issue and did occasionally lead to last-minute runs to the video store when all my discs were in transit. To avoid this, I send me discs back one at a time, rather than all at once, which means I always have something to watch. Increasing the number of discs I receive has also negated this considerably.

3. The newer stuff is in high demand. So occasionally the system sends out your second or third pick. This can be annoying if you really need a specific film and have held off on renting it locally because you're expecting it to show up soon, but it's a minor annoyance, and really not an issue if you go for older films (as I do) instead of brand spanking new releases that everyone else also wants.

That's it. No other catches to report.


NETFLIX is the kingpin of the online rental business. They charge $19.95 per month (plus tax) for three discs at a time. Their system is bulletproof, their selection huge, and they're lightning quick, especially if you're in a big city where the mail arrives quickly. If you’re a movie freak, their industrial strength account gives you eight movies at a time for $39.95 a month, which is a decent deal compared to what that number of movies would cost you in a retail situation.

WALMART has tried to step in on Netflix’s turf and is actually a little cheaper, but if you shop at Walmart by choice, you'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes. Support the little guy. Or in this case, the little guy that became huge by doing it first and best.

I can't say enough about CINEMAFLOW.COM. They charge CAN$24.95 per month (though I go for the $30 plan with an extra disc thrown in), and though Canada Post can be slow, they're serving me very well. A five-disc option is available ($34.95 per month) as well as a two-disc option if you're only a casual renter ($19.95 per month). Competitors abound, including the recently launched ZIP.CA, which claims to be the ‘only’ large player on the Canadian scene, and has some serious tech know-how backing the company (the owners run the Canadian Internic domain registration service). For Ontario customers who prefer to deal locally, MOVIESFORME.CA is a good option. All of these companies charge similar fees, but I can personally vouch for the CinemaFlow folks as being legit and providing a great service, at least where I am in Western Canada.

NOTE: In the months since this story, my opinions on, or as it's now called, changed markedly. To see why Zip.Ca is now my Canadian online DVD rental option of choice, see this article.

The field is a little more clogged. A lot of little guys tried to get started when Netflix took off in the US, but few managed to deliver the sort of service that is required to grow in the industry. The national telephone company, Telstra, recently joined forces with the NineMSN media conglomerate to start FETCHMEMOVIES.COM.AU, but a look at their site reveals the cold dark face of corporate opression as the opening page reminds you that "while you can keep a DVD for as long as you want, you can not keep it." Well, duh. Their price structure charges you AUS$40 per month for a three disc plan, which is high but pretty standard in the battered Australian rental market.
Hoyts Cinemas has put out HOMESCREEN in an effort to win business, but they too are a corporate giant that has shown no sign of putting up with competition in the market. And they're half owned by the people behind FetchMeMovies, which is even more sinister.
WEBFLICKS.COM.AU runs just a little lower than those two in price, but at least if you do business with them, you're not dealing with the devil. I mean, seriously, if we wanted to deal with corporate giants for our online DVD rentals, wouldn't we have just stuck with Blockbuster in the first place?

MAILBOXMOVIES.COM has made some good early ground, earning recommendations from movie magazines like TotalFilm and boasting a four-disc deal priced at the same rate others price their three-disc deals (UKP20 per month). One extra positive note for MailboxMovies is that you can rent XBox and PlayStation games off them as well. Nice set-up.

But the real power player in the British scene is VIDEO ISLAND, who charge only slightly more than MailboxMovies (UKP17 per month for three discs), but have a UKP26 deal for five-discs at a time that can’t be beat.


So there you have it, folks. The complete rundown on how to rent online, why you should rent online, and what it’s going to cost you to rent online. If you’ve never tried this kind of thing before but aren’t sure whether you’ll see a benefit, you can always try a free trial membership with any of the companies mentioned above.

In fact, if you were sneaky, you could conceivably sign up for a two-week trial for each of the companies listed, one after the other, and not pay a cent for your online DVD rentals for a good few months. It’s up to you, but one thing I can guarantee you is once you’ve tried online DVD renting, you’ll never spend nearly as much money at Blockbuster. And that, in itself, is the best reason I know of to give it a try.

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originally posted: 03/05/04 12:38:47
last updated: 10/06/04 05:40:45
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