Monday, June 16, 2008

Love in the time of downloads: dating Netflix, Blockbuster or Red Box

I’m a big film fan, but I don’t go out to the movies much except during the summer, when I live in a little town with a refurbished classic theater. It’s the kind of place where they show offbeat first run and art house films in air conditioning. There’s a swanky coffee shop on one side, a grungier one down the street, and plenty of sushi bars, so it makes for a great night out. But the rest of the year, I do all my viewing through DVDs and downloads.

When we first got to Pittsburgh, the city offered Mega DVD stores inside the local supermarket chain, Blockbusters all around, and, in case you were sick of the top five releases, one good local alternative store. In Massachusetts, I’m loyal to a friend who owns a small local store and special orders Japanese anime for my kids and foreign films for me. When we left, I made a promise to avoid Blockbuster, as a token of appreciation for my friend and his amazing collection of old, foreign, and odd movies.

With the move to Pennsylvania, we signed up for Netflix and spent the winter in a new town catching up on past seasons of Deadwood and the Sopranos. I probably should have gone for something with a bit less death, but hindsight is, well, you know. Even so, the little red envelopes that appeared in my mailbox every few days made me happy.

Two years in, I’m less in love with Netflix. It’s definitely better as a monogamous relationship, where I’m not negotiating the top of the list with kids, weekend guests, and spouse. There’s also that whole category of times where, no matter how fast they are and how many processing centers they have, you can’t really wait a day or two for a movie you need. The teenage girl sleepover, the “hey, we’re stuck home with nothing to do” Sunday evening, and the “I have the flu and need something to watch” scenarios all require movies immediately. So, sometimes we peruse the "on demand" selections offered by our cable company. Not a bad solution, although it’s often the same limited selection as the big stores.

Being tech-savvy folks who like to travel, we got into the habit of downloading movies onto our computers for the kids while they’re in the airport or car. At home, the rest of my family is now addicted to a series called Chuck, which they watch in bed, squashed around the laptop. At some point we even figured out how to connect the computer to the television so we could watch it on a slightly bigger screen. Not bad at all, although the laptop-tv configuration is a bit cumbersome and requires the sacrifice of a computer when someone requests a movie. I still find myself running into a chain rental store every once in a while on a whim or a need (hoping my friend in the local DVD store in Massachusetts can’t sense my treachery from hundreds of miles away). Recently I noticed that the supermarket had replaced its Mega DVD Store with Red Box, but I am not tempted to try it. It's too much like the vending machines in highway rest areas – something you might turn to out of dire necessity rather than falling asleep at the wheel, fully aware that there wasn’t a Starbucks or diner for the next 60 miles. Apparently I'm not the only one who views my movie source as a kind of relationship: On TechCrunch, Michael Arrington claimed he was "breaking up" with Netflix for Blockbuster back in 2006! It's clear that some of these preferences are driven by convenience as much as romance.

But maybe my love affair with Netflix isn’t over. Although it’s already sold out of its first shipment, Netflix has teamed up with Roku to offer a $100 streaming video setup – a small box attached to your tv that allows you to download and order movies on line using WiFi technology. Early analysts were complaining that the back orders would take six to eight weeks, although now Netflix claims two weeks tops.

Well, for true love, I can wait a bit longer. Even with season three of Deadwood on the top of my list, it’s almost summer. After all, my friends in Massachusetts think there might be a gelato place opening up next to the local cinema.

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