AMES McKIBBIN is the owner of Starland Video, which is just about the last bricks-and-mortar video rental store still standing.
NO bones, I own and run a video store, I love film and I don’t like online providers.
My main concern is not that they take a chunk of my business, but that in the long term they provide a pretty shallow level of service to the deep cultural history of film.
If you want more than just the latest blockbuster movie, to serious film fans like me, online doesn’t even come close.
Assessing the cost and performance of the online streaming services is a far trickier proposition than I initially imagined, almost as complicated as finding the best mobile phone deal.
Where most film providers have a monthly subscription fee and charge for watching the new release movies and episodes, some have no subscription fee and charge for everything, and two online providers just have a flat monthly fee and everything is free (though the range is not stellar).
Lump all costs
There is also the problem of accounting for the package offers, where some movies or TV series are included in an additional package. And some of the providers seem to deliberately obscure their catalogue of titles. To try to keep my assessment fair I decided to just lump all costs for each provider together into simply how much would it cost to see a list of 25 titles I pulled from thin air.
I tried to pick 20 films that, as a video store owner, I would expect to find on the shelves of any good store (if you can find any left), and a further five titles I would consider either relevant to the history of film, or just cool festival or foreign films. Twenty-five is by no means a large cross section, I can easily name 250 without breaking a sweat, but for the purposes of a quick litmus test it will have to suffice.
The titles were chosen prior to referencing the online providers, to try to keep it as fair as possible.
The most surprising thing I found was that of the 25 films, my hopeful hero of the story, Starland, only stocked 24: sorry about that, one title is no longer available on DVD, but the “good” news is none of the online providers had the title either.
Of the 24 online sources it was impossible to watch all 25 films with any one provider. A somewhat lacklustre start to the survey revealed the best effort to be nine titles from two providers, but with a staggering cost from one of $152, and both came with a provisional viewing window of 48 hours.
One of the titles is part of a highly successful franchise, recently screening on free-to-air TV. No online provider had this title available for rent, two had it for sale for almost $25, not a bad profit for a film released almost 30 years ago and still available on DVD. This explains why we had a huge rush in the store for this franchise.
The biggest variation in price was for some TV series. To simplify the test I chose one season from each of several popular episodic shows. A couple of providers with a simple fee allow subscribers to watch as many as you want, but, as with the movies, no one provider had all the TV series I’d flagged. Some providers charge a staggering $3 an episode for one series released eight years ago.
Out of the foreign, festival, pivotal directors and art house films, I was happily surprised that two providers had a very famous Japanese film for rent. None had the Italian neo-realist classic.
How much to rent the 24 titles from Starland? $65 under standard package deals
As a brick and mortar store in the Freak-mantle zone, we are limited in not holding enough title depth to fill occasional high demand.
Our current pricing plans restrict new-release films to overnight rentals Thursday to Saturday. From Sunday to Wednesday new releases come with an extra night for free.
Weekly DVDs blow the onliners’ 48-hour window out the water. Where online TV episodes can cost up to $3 each, some shows can be rented in store, for an entire season for $3 or up to $15 for a big multi-disc for a week.
And for customers who are not on our pre-paid plan, there is still the spectre of overdue fees. And our car park is too small.
Blah blah blah
The future? We might follow our internet cousins and move to a subscription model, $30 a month, all weekly titles at no charge. Blah blah blah. But for me, my deepest hope is that people will realise what they are losing as individuals and as a community, that the collection and curatorship of over 100 years of cinema is being lost behind the comfortable couch of internet streaming.
But eventually, DVDs and Blurays will sooner than later be a thing of the past and films will only be available online, as our NBN (B is for budget) staggers under the weight of HD films, 4K and 8K films (16 times the resolution of HD), will break its back, not to mention your internet quota.
And finally the inherent rights that came with the ownership of a film in a physical format will be stripped from consumers and put back into the genie bottle, from whence it escaped in the 1980s with the release of VHS machines.
I read a report a while back that stated 85 per cent of all films ever made are no longer available in any format, anywhere in the world.
What is left will be at my house.