Tech Watch: Why Is Movie Rental Still So Damn Difficult?

While other technologies advance, renting a movie seems more confusing and expensive than ever.

The year is 1990, and you want to rent Dances With Wolves. You go to the local video store, put down a couple of dollars, and head home with visions of Costner alight in your head. You are happy. Worst case scenario, your movie is checked out, and you have to rent Ghostbusters again. Not exactly a catastrophe; you can buy some Raisinettes at the counter to cheer yourself up.


Now the same scenario, in 2008. It’s December, and you’ve just purchased Blockbusters’s MediaPoint box, which was announced Monday and will ship before the holidays. It’s a streaming video box, just like Netflix’s Roku box; it sits atop your TV, and downloads movies off the Internet to be watched on your home theater system.

The MediaPoint costs $100, but purchasing it gets you 25 free movie rentals off of Blockbuster’s rental system, which effectively makes the box free of charge if you rent all 25. After you exhaust your free rentals, movies are $2, though more popular titles can range up to $4 each.

It’s not clear whether the box will be HD-quality or not; Blockbuster says it will “support” HD video, but promises only a “DVD-quality” experience for the time being. This is similar to Netflix’s Roku box, except that the Roku doesn’t charge for movies a la carte – your Netflix subscription, which can start as low as $10 per month, gets you streaming movies on your Roku, too, though new releases aren’t typically available this way. Netflix also streams its videos over Microsoft’s Xbox 360, several Samsung Blu-ray players, the Apple TV, and Sony’s Playstation 3. Apple TV, of course, also links to the iTunes Store, where you can rent or buy movies, usually for $4 and $10-15, respectively.

You do have another option, which is discrete from that incestuous group: the $300 Vudu BX100, which performs a similar function to the Blockbuster MediaPoint and any Netflix box. The Vudu lets you rent or buy digital movies too, but its selection is nowhere near that of Netflix or Blockbuster, and the box itself doesn’t have a WiFi connection like the Roku or the MediaPoint. Rentals also only last 24 hours, which isn’t ideal.

Confused yet? You certainly have more options than you did in 1990, but they’re more expensive, more complicated and almost as inconvenient as heading down to the video store. You can pay hundreds for a multi-function device like a Blu-ray player or a PS3, and get older Netflix movies streamed, but be careful that you don’t download too many and max out the monthly bandwidth cap imposed by your avaricious ISP (each company’s caps vary.) Oh, and you can’t choose movies on the Netflix Roku; you have to go to your computer and add movies to your “Instant Queue” before you can get to them on the Roku.

Or you can spent a whopping $300 on a Vudu, only to have a more limited selection and a one-day viewing window. If that’s not for you, then drop $100 or $230 on a MediaPoint or Apple TV, and still pay money for each movie you rent, only to be at the mercy of your Internet connection’s speed – you may have to wait a while for the film to download before watching, if you want a high-quality picture.


This is not how movie night was meant to be.

Blockbuster’s MediaPoint is a me-too effort that doesn’t offer any major advantages over the Roku box from Netflix, and it’s a shame. Blockbuster had the opportunity to put a truly disruptive product into a market that is practically begging for a simple, intuitive solution to video rental. $100 for the box, but 25 free movie credits? Isn’t that the same old big-box rebate scheme consumers are accustomed to resenting? Are they hoping we’ll forget to rent 25 movies, so they can keep our cash? We all know the economy is trending towards oblivion, and that Blockbuster is a wheezing, withering company. But that doesn’t make the MediaPoint deal any less petty.

Blockbuster could have introduced the same product with a few tweaks and blown the doors of Netflix, salvaging both their business model and the wider genre of downloadable movie rentals. A free MediaPoint box with any Blockbuster OnDemand subscription would be a good start; as of right now, if you subscribe to Blockbuster’s OnDemand service (which mails you DVDs, like Netflix does), then you still have to pay for each movie you want to watch on your MediaPoint box. Also, set a standard movie price; no up-charging for newer, more popular titles, please. Combine those two features with Blockbuster’s one major advantage – downloadable new releases, which Netflix lacks – and you’d have an industry coup.

Alas, we may be left reminiscing for the simple days of VHS and Raisinettes for a while longer.

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.