Sunday, September 28, 2008

Consumer Guide to Online Movie Rentals: Blockbuster, GreenCine or Netflix?

Which movie rental service to use? One does wonder. With most of us now having less discretionary income at our disposal, how and where we spend our movie-watching funds grows more important. As someone who has belonged to the three top online rental services (two of the three for several years now), I feel qualified to give you some tips. Granted, this is just one man's opinion, but it’s coming from a fellow who uses these online services religiously. (Important Admission: For the past couple of years I have been writing for GreenCine and so I realize that I cannot fairly judge it. But I'll still try. I did join as a paying member several years prior to my writing for the company and so had a chance to observe and judge its performance.)

I joined Netflix
at the beginning of 2003 and have never stopped using its service, though I have changed my number of DVDs out at one time from three to six and back again. When a friend told me about GreenCine in April 2004, I joined and have remained with this service, too. When Blockbuster began its online service, I became a member shortly after, from April of 2007 through the end of that year. After eight months, I canceled my membership, but started up again this past June then stopped after three more months (the reasons why appear below).

The Catalogs

Netflix (NF) has the largest film catalog of any supplier. Whatever movie you might want, chances are best that you'll find it here. While the Blockbuster (BB) catalog does seem to be growing, it still does not compare with that of NF. I find GreenCine's (GC) to be by far the smallest of the three, yet this company sometimes offers titles I can't find anywhere else. A recent example: the 2006 award-winning German film Pingpong . Although BB appears to be trying harder now than it initially did to offer a more inclusive catalog, it still lists titles that it claims to have on order but which somehow never seem to actually arrive in-house. Some titles in my BB queue remained there, listed as not yet available, for the full eight months of the first round of my membership. Currently, the very interesting Spanish "Scare" movie series 6 Films to Keep You Awake seems to be the latest group of titles for which you can queque on BB and never actually see. (These titles -- and others -- that never became available on BB were simultaneously rentable from both NF and GC.)

The Service

NF's service is by far the best. With all three online companies, as soon as you've returned a DVD, the next available one in your queue should automatically be sent to you. Because NF's warehouses are located throughout the U.S, few of us are farther away than a day or two from receiving that next DVD in the mail. I happen to live near the Queens, NY, warehouse of both NF and BB, so one-day service is the rule, unless something goes stray in the mail (a rarity) or your own region is currently out of the DVD you request -- in which case it may be shipped from a warehouse in another state, requiring an extra day or two in the mail.

Location, location, location: GG has only one warehouse -- based in Los Angeles -- which initially made for much longer wait times, both arriving and returning. The company has circumvented this to some extent via its new policy of "Quick Return," a kind of honor system (imagine that in this day and age!) in which, as soon as you have mailed back the DVD, you can click on Quick Return in your queue and GC will count this particular movie as "returned" and will send you your next film. If you're on the east coast, or really anywhere outside GC's west coast warehouse, this cuts down the delivery time considerably.

There is more to service, however, than automatic shipment, and this is where all online services occasionally trip up. Netflix has been sued several times, I believe, for what certain members have termed unfair business practices. I must say that I have not noticed this in regard to the service I've received, but I do know that once in awhile -- this current month, for instance -- I am receiving four DVDs at a time rather than three at no extra cost, due undoubtedly to someone else's class action suit. It seems to me that NF is relatively quick to act on complaints and so I find myself with little to complain about regarding NF. A few weeks ago, that company did experience a day or two during which its entire site was down, no DVDs were shipped and it took a full week or more before the entire operation seemed to right itself completely. This did disturb service, but events such as this occur from time to time on web sites and must be "put up with" by members, as long as they do not occur too frequently. (As I write this, in fact, the GC site is down so that I cannot access my queue or get some links I need for this article.) Overall, NF handles its practices like any smart business, aiming to please its customers and keep abreast of changes that might impact its industry.

One of these changes is the on-demand craze, for which both NF and BB provide an immediate "play" service via which you can watch many films on your computer, as well as (from NF) a "box" you can purchase for $99, plug into your TV and tap into a portion of NF's online movie catalog. I may do the box eventually; for now I prefer getting the DVDs and their often-very-interesting special features, not to mention the English-for-the-Hearing-Impaired subtitles (great for better understanding of heavy southern drawls and British/Irish/Scot accents).

Of these three online services, only BB provides a walk-in alternative/addition to its service. To make use of this you must join BB's Total Access program, which allows you to rent movies online, return them to a BB walk-in store and, for each movie returned, take one out of the store's current selection. This is quite helpful if you happen to live near a BB walk-in store, as I do. My daughter, on the other hand recently cancelled her BB account because she does not live near enough a walk-in store to make this worthwhile. When BB began its Total Access, the company charged much less for it, making it a can't-lose situation for the consumer (but a money-loser for BB). When they nearly doubled the price for the same service a few months later, I decided to drop BB, since its service has not been up to snuff and the price hike seemed the last straw. When I joined again six months later, it looked initially as though service had improved. But not really. At one point in my second go-round, I managed to go almost two weeks without receiving a movie online. (The BB phone reps were generally helpful, however, and emailed me a coupon I could print out and take into the local store for a free rental.) Still, regarding my online service, after several phone calls, one of the BB phone reps explained that BB had recently changed its policy to the following: If the first movie in your queue is not available, instead of immediately sending out the next available film in your queue, BB waits one full day before doing so. The next day, if that next film also has a wait --- that's right -- BB delays another full day before trying again. In my experience, NF would never pull something as shoddy as this. Its technician would simply move down your queue immediately to the next available film and send it out. When I learned this information, I simply closed out my BB account once again. Still, I may give them yet another chance -- and for the following reason:

Blockbuster Rental Exclusive: Yes, that's what you'll find written on a number of DVD boxes at any walk-in BB, and it means that you either cannot get this DVD from NF or GC-- or that you will probably have to wait quite a while before receiving it from either of them. If you're like me, you may want to see the film right away (particularly if you need to write about it). So this "exclusive" is both smart (for BB) and annoying (for any outsiders). When I first heard about it, I expected some sort of restraint-of-trade lawsuit against the companies that were colluding on this. It did not happen, however, so perhaps this is simply business-as-usual.

What about GC's service?
Comparing either NF or BB to GC, regarding service, is like comparing a major department store to a mom-and-pop gift shop. GC does not have the staff or number of copies of each film to compete, but since its membership is also, I suspect, much lower than that of NF or BB, its service is better than you might expect. There is more of a wait for popular titles, but while you wait, there is also a raft of compelling movie-related stuff to read and ponder: The GC Daily Blog, Guru Movie Reviews, Interviews, Polls, Lists, the Weekly Dispatch and much, much more. GC is definitely the most movie-loving, movie-related, movie-friendly of the three services. And for this reason alone -- my occasional writing for the site not withstanding -- I shall probably remain a member. (Of course, you can get many of these extras without becoming a paying member of GC. But I believe in supporting a concern as movie-friendly as this one.)

Helpful Tips for (Maybe) Getting Movies a Bit Faster

Yes, yes: Keep your queue filled. That's what all the services recommend. (Yet, all it really takes is to have one or two or five truly "available" movies in your queue each week in order to keep them coming in timely fashion.) Beyond this, what? In order to have the best crack at the new films when they first appear, you should try to make certain that any movies you have out will arrive back on Monday morning and certainly no earlier than Saturday. If your movies arrive back on Friday, for instance, NF or BB will sent out the next available film already in your queue, for they cannot send the next week's batch until the next week. Monday is when NF first sends out the new films, which can not legally be rented until Tuesday, so that one day in the mail makes everything kosher. Be sure that any new releases you want to see are placed at the top of your queue, and you should get at least some of your choices in this manner. If you wait until Tuesday to queue up films that make their DVD debut on that day, this will, in most cases, already be too late, for they were sent out the day previous. (GC is sometimes a little slow on this, so you might still get new films here on a Tuesday.) Oh yes: about BB. This rental service used to allow you to place new releases at the top of your queue on Monday or even before. Of late (the week I re-resigned from this service), BB was not allowing me to queue up for the week's new films until Tuesday morning, by which time I would have much less chance of getting them. Yet another reason to use Netflix.

What's the Cost of Each?

NF plans range from eight DVDs out at one time, unlimited rentals, for $48 per month to three out/unlimited for $17 to one out/unlimited for $9 per month.

BB's Total Access plans (with unlimited in-store exchanges) range from 3 DVDs out at once for $35 per month down to 1 DVD out for $22 per month. BB's Movies-thru-the-Mail only plans range from $16 per month for 3-out to $9 for one-out.

GC's plans range from ten DVDs out at once, unlimited rentals, for $60 per month to three out/unlimited for $22 per month one out/unlimited for $10 per month

So. BB undercuts NF by a buck on the three-out, while GC costs more across the board. But the simple dollar price doesn't give the full picture. NF and BB mail out only Monday thru Friday (and in a holiday week, there are only four possible mail days) but GC mails out Monday through Saturday, offering the possibility of more DVDs in a single week. And for all of BB's vaunted Total Access possibilities, I found that, on my one-out unlimited program, I might actually be able to watch three-to-four DVDs per week (or 12-16 per month) for $22. On my NF plan, via mail only, service is good enough that I can consistently watch 4-5 film per week (or 16-20 per month) for $17.


For any of you out there who watch as many movies as I do, Netflix is the prime answer. I think it's smart to keep a second option open however, and for that I would -- and do -- go with GreenCine. If Blockbuster ever manages to clean up its act, who knows what it might provide. Its Total Access/in-store option is a good one, but the manner in which BB runs things is not. Word on the street a few years back was that BB wanted to buy NF, and indeed tried to. NF said no (thank goodness for us film buffs), so BB decided to start its own service. The rest, as they say, is history. And also mystery: why a company as big as BB can't do a better job. Perhaps the motive of putting NF out of business by first taking it over or--when that did not work--competing with it turned out not to be such as smart one.

Netflix, after all, came up with its original brilliant idea and has continued to refine and improve it over time. While all three firms are businesses that must turn a profit, the differing ways in which each one works is worth noting and considering before you make your first -- or next -- move regarding an online movie rental service.

No comments: