Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Into the Red

I've been seeing the Redbox rental kiosks for months? years? now, and a couple weeks back, I decided it was my duty as a film blogger to give one a test drive.

So Saturday night, while shopping for Easter brunch and BBQ dinner in a nearby Ralph's, buzzing on two beers after watching the 20-year reunion of my co-worker's hair band, I impulsively decided to do so.

Before seeing the kiosk, I had been planning to pick something arbitrarily from HBO OnDemand, but why not give myself the power of decision for the cost of a mere dollar? I decided I wanted to see something schlocky and preposterous, so Law Abiding Citizen fit the bill quite nicely.

I've been fascinated by the idea of the unmanned video kiosk for some time now. But the closest I ever came to actually patronizing one was on our recent trip to Australia, in Sydney, when we considered winding down one evening by renting a movie to play on my portable DVD player. (I now realize there was a flaw with that plan, because their DVDs aren't compatible with our stuff. But we didn't consider this at the time, so it's a good thing we ended up saving our money.)

I have always considered Redbox to be fairly limited in its offerings, especially considering that it was being positioned as an alternative to Blockbuster and Netflix. From what I had gathered, only the three dozen titles pictured on the front would actually be available, half of which had always seemed to be dopey kiddie fare that had never been in the theater. (Which is probably a smart business model, but doesn't hold much interest for a person like me.) I'd also thought it was kind of a populist enterprise intended only for "dumb" film fans, who only wanted to see Twilight New Moon or Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

But as it happened, I was interested enough in one of those three dozen "dumb" movies pictured, so I decided to make Law Abiding Citizen happen. (And had to admit they were not only "dumb" movies -- Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces was one of the featured posters on the kiosk.)

And here's where a very enjoyable phenomenon comes in to play with Redbox, one that my wife and I like to call "pushing the buttons." I can't really describe why, but we both think there's something very satisfying about pushing buttons on a computerized transaction machine. Not necessarily something basic and everyday like an ATM, but your slightly more exotic machines -- your movie theater ticket vending machines, your airport check-in machines, even your can and bottle recycling machines, though that involves more feeding than button-pushing.

Redbox carries that same satisfaction. You touch the screen to begin the rental process, touch the screen to select your movie choice, touch the screen to confirm, then swipe your card. (I guess "screen touching" is a synonym for "button pushing.") Most satisfying of all, the machine ejects an actual physical product to you when the DVD emerges a few moments later. Much more satisfying than a boarding pass or a ticket stub.

I left the store feeling somewhat invigorated by the whole rental experience. And the movie ended up not as bad as I'd expected, though it was as preposterous as I'd expected.

We had a fairly busy Easter Sunday with the two meals I had to prepare, a trip out to see How to Train Your Dragon, and the opening night of the baseball season between my Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. I had to get the movie back to the Redbox kiosk by 9 p.m. or else pay an extra day's rental -- instead of $1.10, it would be $2.20, or possibly $2.10, if the 10 cents tax is only charged once. I'm always eager to save a dollar when I can, but because I'd picked up my groceries on the way home from the rock show, it wasn't the closest Ralph's to my house. I knew I'd be able to get back to it on Sunday, but as the day got busy, it was starting to seem like a hassle to fit it in.

Which is when I realized another benefit of Redbox, in addition to the cheap rental cost: You can return the movie to any Redbox location. I thought I'd remember that being the case, then went on the website to confirm. (A moment later I also saw it written on the Redbox customized packaging.) So I checked to see what was the nearest location, and remembered that there was a kiosk outside a 7-11, just a mile down the road from me. Which is where I headed around 8:25, with more than a half-hour before my deadline.

There was a girl standing at the kiosk when I got there, and from her experience, I got a preview of how quick the return was. You literally just touch the screen on the large red box that says Return Rental, insert the movie, and see a confirmation on screen that the return was successful. They also email you this confirmation, in addition to your receipt when you first rent the movie. I'd typed in my email address the day before, to receive my receipt, and the system remembered my address.

The way I knew Redbox had really won me over was that I couldn't just do the logical thing and walk away. Nope, I impulsively decided to rent another movie, even though that hadn't been the original plan. The Informant! was also available, and I'd had a desire to see it building up in me, ever since I first missed it in the theater, then missed watching it on the plane back from Australia. So I went in for a second straight rental. Now it was no longer just a film blogger's experiment -- it was a customer's patronage.

And in this process I discovered another exciting thing: The offerings on Redbox are not as limited as they appear. I searched by title for The Informant!, but didn't see it among the other I titles, so I assumed that this particular kiosk must be sold out of the movie. By this point I was determined to make a second rental, even if it wasn't the movie I originally wanted, so I scanned all the offerings by title. And it was here that I discovered that the offerings are not limited to the three dozen posters on the display. In fact, not only did I find obscurer titles -- like my favorite movie of last year, Moon -- but older titles, like Major League, released in 1989, made available in Redbox for the start of the 2010 baseball season.

And wouldn't you know it, I ended up finding The Informant! after all -- categorized under "T" instead of "I." I'll let Redbox off the hook for the poor alphabetization logic -- maybe that really is for the dumb people.

So tonight I'll be returning The Informant! to any convenient kiosk. And will be doing my best to avoid making a third consecutive rental.

It's just one more reason for Blockbuster to watch its back. As I've written about ad nauseum on this blog, I may be close to canceling my Blockbuster subscription. The main reason I haven't yet done that: I still like going to a physical location to randomly choose a movie I had no premeditated interest in seeing. It now appears Redbox can help me do this, albeit on a necessarily limited scale.

With a tag-team of Netflix for my targeted rentals and Redbox for my random rentals, Blockbuster's death warrant may indeed be just weeks from being signed.


Don Handsome said...

OK. I'm going to try this soon. Maybe tomorrow. You've sold me. I'll find out soon enough, but do you know if they run out of movies? I 'm sure they do - this isn't some kind of miracle fast DVD burner that can just distribute copy after copy of The Informant!...is it? So I can see Red Box being frustratingly limited on New Releases. Still, this has potential and I'm pumped.

ProMovieBlogger said...

Nice write up. Been wanting to try Redbox.

Blockbuster is going done. They already had to bring back late fees. Hollywood video and Tommy K's already have.

BTW, I created a "How To" website for starting, running, and making money with a movie website. Check it out: ProMovieBlogger (http://promovieblogger.com).

Let us know how we can improve it.

Lord Vader said...

You're letting them off the hook for listing EVERY movie that has 'The' at the beginning of the title under T? I wouldn't!