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How to Rent Movies With a Very Happy Ending

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Are you thinking of making it a movie night? Here's how to save when renting a flick.

How to Save Money on Movie Rentals
If you're an entertainment maven, chances are you love movies enough to rent them, whether it's a brand-new video such as "Avatar," or a recent classic along the lines of "You've Got Mail." (Hey! Now that sounds catchy...)

So in this installment of the Savings Experiment, allow us to sift through the abundant, popular rental options, because hey: We're all thumbs .. as in thumbs up or thumbs down, a la Siskel and Ebert.


Now then: In terms of the plot synopsis, imagine if you will a movie buff who begins by scoping just a few flicks every now and then--let's call him Fast-Rent Freddy. Then, through a gripping and dramatic transformation worthy of a Spielberg epic (okay, a "South Park" episode) he eventually morphs into Cinemaphile Fred. Here's how the deal goes down.

REDBOX
Based in the Chicago area, Redbox has become a huge favorite among those who want to pick up a movie on the go, see it for a night and return it the next day, without ever having to brave the aisles at a conventional rental store. With more than 20,000 locations nationwide, Redbox kiosks--which resemble soda machines with an attitude--can be found at major supermarkets, shopping centers, convenience stores and McDonald's locations. (Would you like fries with that?)

Here's how it works: You can reserve movies online at Redbox.com (you need to start an account first). Then you can find where you can pick up the movie by entering your zip code after you hit the "rent" button. I did this, and found 20 locations within two miles of me in Chicago.

Each Redbox kiosk holds 630 DVDs that span a total of 200 different titles, almost all of them new and recent releases that rotate weekly. The same films are available at every Redbox, so at any one time, you have just 200 films to select from.

How much does it cost to rent? $1. Yup, that's it. That buys you a night's worth of entertainment. But be forewarned: late fees apply if you don't return the film by 9 p.m. the next day--and will cost you $1 a day. So a week's worth of absentmindedness is going to set you back a total of $8, original rental included.

Still Redbox has its advantages, including convenience, and an iPhone app that allows you to locate kiosks. All in all, a pretty good deal for Fast-rent Freddy.

NETFLIX
Ah, but let's say Freddy is becoming more accustomed to that comforting glow from his big-screen TV, and the reassuring scent of popcorn wafting from a Tupperware bowl. He wants more--as in more movies a month.

In that case, Netflix could be his flick fix. With this immensely popular mail-in service (which has a third more subscribers in 2010 than in the first quarter of 2009) you can rent unlimited movies, one at a time, for $8.99 a month. You can either stream or view via DVDs by mail.

Netflix also offers graduated price plans that allow you to rent out up to 8 DVDs at a time for $47.99 a month. There are no late fees, but you can't get new films out until you return the old ones in the handy, pre-paid mail-in envelopes Netflix provides you.

Nowhere does Netflix say how large its catalog spans, but company reps tell us they stick more than 100,000 different titles. They also have a 24-hour customer service line (1-866-636-3076) and offer 1-month free trials. An added bonus: You can collect frequent flyer mile bonus points with United's Mileage Plus through subscription specials.

Netflix has also made some noteworthy moves into the digital realm. You can instantly watch movies (some new releases) and TV episodes (including current season) streamed from Netflix to your PC or Mac. Netflix users can also view films on the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii (starting this spring) and the Roku digital video player for Netflix, a Time Magazine Gadget of the Year in 2008.

So in terms of deals, Netflix beats Redbox price-wise if you take their introductory deal at $8.99 a month, and rent out and return more than 9 films in that monthly period.

BLOCKBUSTER
And so Freddy--who's starting to look more and more like a couch potato, to the consternation of his sexually frustrated wife--is beginning to think about playing the field. He gathers he's more sophisticated than he used to be, with hints of Cinemaphile Fred showing through in his smoking jacket and Jean Renoir beret. Is there something more for him out there, he wonders.

There is at least one other big mail-in choice that also has bricks-and-mortar stores to boot: Blockbuster. They used to be the King Kong of movie rental chains, until Netflix came along with a model that crushed those Blockbuster late fees. Blockbuster now has its own mail-in system, which words in quite similar fashion to Netflix, except that it allows you to mix mail with store visits. In all, Blockbuster carries about 95,000 video titles (with considerably less in stock, of course, at their store locations).

If you choose their by-mail option, you'll pay $8.99 (1 DVD at a time), $13.99 (2 at a time) or $16.99 (three at a time) per month. The "All Access" model, which allows users to to use a combination of mail and up to 5 in-store exchanges, costs $11.99 (1 DVD at a time), $16.99 (2 at a time) or $19.99 (3 at a time.)

You can also rent in-store, of course. And though Blockbutser loudly announced "The End of Late Fees" in a highly-publicized ad campaign, that's not quite true. In fact, the chain agreed to pay out $630,000 to 47 states in 2005 for misleading advertising.

Mostly movie rentals are $5 for 5 days, a probably sign of competition from Redbox. The movie is due back by store closing on the 5th day. If you keep the movie after the 5th day, you will be charged an additional daily rate of $1 per day up to 10 days. After 10 days, the movie will be auto-sold to you at the retail price. (If you forget the due date, it's printed on the receipt.)

But as with anything involving Hollywood, there's intrigue afoot. Blockbuster is in trouble--big trouble--with the company losing retail stores left and right. It has even resorted of late to openly attacking Netflix's streaming selection, as documented by Consumerist.

VIDEO-ON-DEMAND MOVIES
Also known as pay-per-view, the on-demand systems offered by Verizon and Optimum/Cablevision allow you to order a movie and watch it in your home with all the convenience of a DVD rental. This system only makes sense i you already have cable in your home, or plan on getting it, as the monthly fees for most cable services surpass Netflix's highest-priced rental plan, for example. Some options include:

Verizon FiOS TV offers a video-on-demand service consisting of current studio releases and library of approximately 1,800 titles, with 2,000 titles planned over the next couple of months. New studio releases can be viewed for $3.95 per movie; library movies for $2.95. A subscriber generally has 24-hours to view the selection. Subscribers can start, stop and pause the selection at will. Those prices compare favorably to Optimum/Cablevision, which charges slightly more ($4.95) for new movies, and the same $2.95 for catalog films.

Though Fred is feeling frisky, he's probably not going to go this route--unless he's absolutely too lazy to haul his butt to a Redbox, or find something on Netflix or Blockbuster.

Still, after watching "Lawrence of Arabia," Freddy of Suburbia has decided to explore some more exotic realms of the video rental landscape. Armed with a machete and a bologna sandwich, he sets off for the Silicon Valley...

MOVIES ON iTUNES
From "Crazy Heart" to "Avatar," iTunes has a good many of the new releases movie watchers want to rent. Their system requires that you have an iTunes player; TV shows run $1.99 standard, $2.99 high-def, $39.99 gets you a season pass for all episodes (standard) or $59.99 (high-def). In the movie realm, "Crazy Heart," for example, costs $3.99 to rent and $14.99 to own. It's also 1.54 GB, so depending on your download speed, it could take you hours to download. Speaking of time, you have 30 days from the time of your download to watch the movie, and 24 hours from the time you start watching to finish it. Then the film disappears from your iTunes library.

HULU
Either inspired by some Mandarin ("a hollowed-out gourd used to hold precious things") or the Indonesian word for "butt" (no lie), Hulu is a joint venture of NBC, ABC and Fox. To view it, you need a Flash Player 10.0.22 and Java Script. But if you have that, it's perhaps the easiest option: Simply go to hulu.com, and click on a video to watch right away.

Though Hulu allows free streaming of TV shows and movies, experts continue to speculate that Hulu will soon go to a paid model similar in pricing to Netflix, as reported by AOL's Daily Finance. Currently Hulu airs about 10,000 hours of TV and movie content, including 18 titles from the Criterion Collection, popular with cinema buffs. But Hulu also recently lost two of its most watched shows, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."

When his wife walked out and took the ATM card, Fred found himself hard up for cash, and thus embraced Hulu's free stuff. There's not nearly the selection he's used to as a newly minted cineaste, but hey: Hulu will do-lu in a pinch.

BOUTIQUE STORES
Blockbuster may have 95,000-plus titles available, and Netflix some 100,000-plus. But will they have cult classics such as "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" or "Putney Swope"? Probably not. That's where stores such as Odd Obsession come in.

The Chicago store stocks some 20,00 titles of this ilk, with very reasonable rates: DVD Rentals: $3 for 3 nights; $4 for 1 week; rare VHS films: $2 for 3 nights, $3 for 1 week; and Monday and Tuesday specials that allow you to rent 3 movies for $6 (3 nights) or $8 (1 week).
Another such store in Chicago that's known the world over--and will rent to you anywhere, by mail--is Facets Multimedia. Renting from the staff at Facets is like visiting a boutique coffee shop with baristas who are going to coach you, with brio, on the most exotic cup of joe. Want to know the store where Chicago film critics and historians love to hang out? Facets is it.

Facets will rent you 4 movies at a time, unlimited, for $23.99 a month (their most popular plan), or 2 movies at a time unlimited for $14.99 a month, and 1 movie at a time unlimited for $8.99 a month. The 42,000 titles run the gamut from popular Hollywood films to Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's stunning "Decalogue," 10 films based on the Ten Commandments (no, not the Charlton Heston flick).

AND THE ENDING? TIME TO USE YOUR HEAD, FRED
Well, it all turned out happier than expected. After a brief separation, Cinemaphile Fred's spouse became a film fan, too, and the two agreed to reconcile and live happily ever after--provided they can agree on the right rental strategy. Will it all work out in the end? Here's what we recommend:

  • If it's money that matters, Hulu is free and easy to use. You have a very limited selection compared to what major rental services offer, meaning you'll likely be taking a chance on movies you don't know. But this is a Savings Experiment, and free is free, oui?
  • For occasional rentals of new films, Redbox remains the game to beat with that $1 price tag and super-convenient kiosks. Yup: No rental cash registers manned by clueless clerks. But it only long as you can avoid late fees. If you're worried about that, consider the $5 for 5-day rental from Blockbuster, though it's not likely to be a brand-new film to DVD. Also keep in mind that Redbox works best if you only rent a film five or fewer times a month, and are content with a selection in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands.
  • For frequent rentals of films--that is, nine or more a month--we like Netflix over Blockbuster because of the larger selection, though it's extremely close. Not only are the rates similar, but Blockbuster offers you store locations that integrate into their mail-in plan. That said, Blockbuster basically copied the model from Netflix, which has earned raves for it. And it's hard to say how much longer Blockbuster will be around; I just saw a Blockbuster a few hundred yards from my home close up in 2009.
  • And for the movie mogul in you, a "double feature" could work. That is, consider going with Netflix as your basic service, supplemented by "boutique film" rentals from Facets Multimedia. You can't put a rice on good taste in film, and unlike Netflix--or any other rental service for that matter--Facets is staffed from top to bottom by people who are passionate about their film, and want to turn you into an educated viewer.
Now then, roll the credits. And pass the buttered popcorn, will ya?

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