July 6, 2011

The renter's lament

Remember when Netflix had everything?

Or more accurately, remember when Netflix was enough?

My history with movies by mail goes all the way back to 2005, when my local Blockbuster couldn't keep up with my hunger for classic films. My subsequent subscription to their online division kept me more than satisfied, and after returning home from my freshman year of college I resumed the service. Although the local library made a noble effort, my little Massachusetts burg had virtually nothing to offer the film lover, so Blockbuster Online was an embarrassment of riches. I rented everything from the Chaplin classic The Kid (1921) to the Emir Kusturica epic Underground (1995). I received every blue envelope in the mail with a kind of bashful gratitude - "Really? For me?"

When I started dating my boyfriend in college, I "married into" his Netflix account by default. He still made all the final decisions, but he weighed my input and together we sampled everything Netflix had to offer. He made the leap to the Blu-ray plan when the time came. Around the time we moved in together, Netflix started offering their streaming service. It was a cinephile's heaven, and for a paltry monthly sum!

As the honeymoon phase wore off, some of Netflix's faults became more apparent. We had forgiven it the occasional out-of-stock film in the past. We found ourselves having to go to Movie Madness (our local video store at the time and probably the best one in the universe) to get the preferred version or edition of some titles. We could live with these concessions. But then my boyfriend began to get quite peeved at their omission of some Criterion (and other classic titles) on Blu-ray. From my perspective, there was hardly enough evidence to constitute an epidemic, so I dismissed his concerns as nitpicking. 

But time proved him right. Several months later, Criterion announced that they were formally "divorcing" Netflix in favor of Hulu Plus. This meant that Netflix would slowly remove all Criterion titles from streaming and stop purchasing physical copies, whereas Hulu would eventually be streaming the entire Criterion library (plus hundreds more titles that Criterion has the rights to). Coupled with the fact that we were already relying on regular Hulu for TV shows (but skirting the fee by connecting my laptop to the TV set), we started plunking down the $9 a month for Hulu Plus.

THEN one of us noticed that the revamped Blockbuster Online (now Blockbuster Total Access) carries all the Criterion Blu-rays. We went ahead and snagged their free two-week trial, but didn't cancel it in time and now we have it for the next month. Or two. Or three...

When does it end? Currently we have three subscription services, as well as a membership to a local video store and cards for three local library systems. And that's not even considering that we live in LA and see at least two movies in a theater per week. By my count, that's eight different means by which we can watch a movie at any given time. And we don't even have cable - but when we can afford it, you'd better believe we're snatching it up for TCM and AMC. (And that's not even counting single-serving options like Comcast On Demand or Amazon Instant, which we've dabbled in.)

Look, I'm all for competition - it's the cornerstone of capitalism. I'm not one of those people who think that the wide variety of ketchup brands in the supermarket is the downfall of civilization. But at present, all systems of media rental seem to have been ingeniously designed by some evil overseer to each lack a key feature, which necessitates having all of them. Netflix lacks Criterion titles. Hulu lacks movies of any value outside of Criterion (and now Miramax). Blockbuster lacks unlimited streaming. Cable lacks a wide movie selection. Video stores lack flexibility. Libraries frequently lack Blu-rays and can have a limited rotation of new releases. You try to play Jenga and see which services you can add or remove. Maybe getting cable would remove the need for Hulu? Nope, because of the Criterion thing. Well, maybe the library would suffice instead of Netflix? But then you lose streaming.

Again, let me state how grateful I am for the opportunity to see more movies and TV shows than ever before. But with that opportunity comes a compulsion in the hearts of all cinephiles to keep every possible avenue of media open in order to maximize consumption. It's exhausting, and it gets expensive. 

What configuration of media services do you have? Is it working for you? Do you want to add or cut down?


Unknown said...

Fortunately, I do not have this problem. Netflix offers more then enough variety fo my needs. But then I'm not quite the movie buff that you are. The only movie I really wanted to see that was not offered by Netflix was The Sergeant with Rod Steiger and unfortunately the only DVD I was able to find was ridiculously over priced on amazon.

Julie said...

I will say that the problem intensifies when more than one person is making these decisions for the household. My boyfriend and I both have different priorities/preferences when it comes to movie viewing, so the way it shakes out is we have ONE OF EVERYTHING! But it's also not as simple as his and hers...over time, a sort of osmosis occurs and now we BOTH feel that everything we have is necessary.

joem18b said...

I don't watch TV, so that simplifies things. I'm content to wait for the full season of a show I like to come out on DVD. Plus a little YouTube or clips on Huffington Post of The Daily Show, SNL, etc.

I depend upon Blockbuster for lesser-known movies that I discover only by browsing. And, along with NetFlix, for new releases.

With the advent of the DVD disk, the library system here, which comprises many different libraries, carries an humungous number of films, with many, many Criterion disks and box sets among them. Logging on to the catalog and putting a hold on a movie usually brings it along within a week.

I used to torrent movies but don't seem to need to anymore.