Mediacheck

The Death of Blockbuster?

A revolution in film rental means you don't have to visit the movie shop again.

By Jon Azpiri 12 Aug 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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Like most people who grew up watching television, I have countless pieces of pop culture detritus floating through my head at any given time.  Many of these bits of films and TV guano are shared memories that act as shorthand; mention them to anyone of a certain age and they'll nod in acknowledgement.  If you're having problems at work, you can re-enact a scene from Office Space; having problems with your girlfriend, just quote a line from Swingers.  Just about any other aspect of modern life can be covered by a knowing reference to The Simpsons, a show that mastered the art of the knowing reference. 

Some pop culture memories you tend not to share with others--Mexican wrestling films, Sid & Marty Krofft puppet shows, Harold Lloyd silent comedies, Saved by the Bell reruns--because either nobody you know has seen them or you're too embarrassed to admit that you've ever seen them in the first place.

I now have a place to store all of this cultural flotsam and jetsam--my ZipList. Ostensibly, my ZipList is a list of films I have requested to rent from Zip.ca, one of the many online DVD rental sites that have popped up over the last few years.  Whenever I recall a film or TV show that I have always wanted to see, it ends up on my ZipList and then in my mailbox. 

No favourite too quirky

My ZipList has become a place where all my disparate tastes come to roost.  Currently, my list contains classics like Renoir's Rules of the Game and Godard's A Band Apart mixed in with titles like The Unknown, a 1927 silent film starring Lon Chaney as an armless, knife-throwing serial killer, as well as Pink Lady and Jeff, an 80s American variety show starring a Japanese pop duo that couldn't speak English. 

The sheer variety of material available at Zip.ca and its competitors is one of the things that makes them so popular, not to mention addictive.  On sites like Zip.ca people register online and pay around $25 a month for a rotating crop of DVD rentals that arrive by mail. The site allows you to rent as many DVDs as you want from their huge catalogue, but no more than three or four at a time. After you return a film in a pre-paid envelope, they send you another DVD from your list. 

Unlike the U.S. market, which is dominated by Netflix, a California-based internet rental company that boasts more than two million customers, there are several Canadian DVD sites competing for market share.  Zip.ca is the largest site, boasting a cache of more than 18,000 titles that you can browse through with their search engine. While the selection is outstanding, it can often take several days to deliver DVDs to B.C. from the company's base in Ottawa.  For those who prefer a quicker turnaround time there's VHQ Online, which has a return centre in B.C., but also has the kind of limited inventory you'd find at a local Blockbuster. 

The initial appeal of these sites is their convenience: you can have DVDs delivered to your home and you can keep them as long as you like without ever being charged for late fees.  Over time, however, you realize that these sites are more than just handy, they can change how you watch films.

Turning viewers into collectors

Online rental sites like Zip.ca turn viewers into collectors, assembling long lists of films that they never got around to catching in the theatre.   There's a certain pleasure in culling through a site's catalogue looking for long-forgotten films that you've always meant to watch. There's an even greater pleasure when those DVDs arrive and you can check them off your list.  It gives you the illusion of doing something productive instead of just whiling away the hours channel surfing.

Instead of choosing films à la carte, these sites are an all-you-can-buffet where you can gorge yourself on your favourites and sample some things that you would never have tried otherwise.  Often when you're at a video store, you see a film you think might be interesting, but you're not sure if you want to spend five bucks on a film you may hate.  Often, you end up making a safe choice--a film that you probably will like, but not too much, and you probably won't even remember seeing it six months from now. Why risk snoring your way through a Lars Von Trier Dogma film when you can rent a Ben Stiller comedy and know that you'll likely be somewhat entertained.

With sites like Zip.ca, however, you're free to rent an obscure art house flick and if you don't like it, you can mail it back without costing you anything more than your time.  Such freedom can allow casual movie fans to take chances and perhaps discover that a Kurosawa samurai flick can be far more entertaining and action-packed than the latest Will Smith vehicle.

Conversely, these sites allow highbrow cinephiles to rent the occasional Hollywood crowdpleaser like You've Got Mail without being lectured by a condescending video clerk about how they should rent The Shop Around the Corner, the far superior 1940 Ernst Lubitsch classic that was the basis for the Meg Ryan comedy.  In essence, these sites allow you to travel outside of your comfort zone. 

So much to choose from

While online rental sites can be comforting, they can also be overwhelming.  Every time you watch a film, you know another in a never-ending stream of films will appear at your doorstep.  Instead of an unread pile of New Yorkers in your den, you'll now have an unwatched stack of DVDs.   The dizzying array of choices presented to us on Zip.ca could end up being yet another demand on our time, restricting rather than freeing us.   

The amount of choices will become even greater in the future as sites like Netflix face stiff competition.  Mega-corporations Blockbuster and Wal-Mart are starting their own DVD rental websites causing Netflix's stock to stumble as of late. 

The biggest threat, however, may come in the future from Video On Demand (VOD), which will allow digital cable viewers to have any film beamed into the TVs whenever they want. Websites such as Zip.ca and Netflix may end up being nothing more than a rest stop on the road to unlimited content.

With so much choice on the horizon, the biggest difficulty will no longer be finding something good to watch, but finding the time to watch it.  The only way we'll be able take it all in will be to spend all our spare time strapped to a chair with our eyes forced open by metal clamps like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

Which reminds me, I haven't seen A Clockwork Orange in a while.  I think I'll add it to my ZipList.

Jon Azpiri is a widely published journalist in Vancouver. He last wrote about dodgeball  for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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