RedBox MoviesRecently a buddy of mine gave me the idea of placing a hold on my Netflix account. He and I agreed that we were paying too much for, well, so little.

The promise of having “two movies” at a time and keeping them as long as we wanted sounded good, and for the last couple of years, it seemed like a decent and convenient thing to do. $18 or so bucks, you get the two movies, and somehow I never really sat down and did the math needed to answer this question: was I really getting my money’s worth.

5 bucksI had long given up on the rotten task of walking into a neighborhood video (oops, sorry, DVD) shop and seeing rows and rows of movies that really no one wanted to see. Missed “House Bunny” or “Charlie’s Angels 3” in the theatres the first time? Why plunk down $5 to see it at Blockbuster when you are going to get gouged in late fees when you just can’t get yourself to see the movie in time, or dammit, you forgot to drive back to the store. I would actually get stomach aches seeing all the movies at my cavernous dvd shop I used to frequent. Then I got turned on to Netflix.

And in many ways, Netflix, now the industry leader in DVD mail-order business, has a model that works: you select a movie plan that fits your budget, you create a “queue” and they send you movies by mail. You keep it as long as you want, thus avoiding those pesky late fees. You mail it back (postage free) and relatively quickly the next film in your queue appears in your mailbox. Seeing those ubiquitous red envelopes has become somewhat of a 21st century cultural touchstone. Recently, Tina Fey’s lovable loser Liz Lemon character thought nothing of rifling through a male neighbor’s Netflix that were mistakenly delivered to her –and this because she was stalking him for purely romantic reasons. Oh, and of course the man of her dreams, played by guest star Jon Hamm, of “Mad Men” had all the “right” movies.

Netflix Queue

But there is also something a tiny bit insidious about how Netflix runs its business. The belief that you have this queue of movies and unlimited time is tantamount to a certain self-fulfilling prophecy: you feel better because you think you are in control, and it’s a service you feel benefits you. It’s like having a gym membership. Unless you’re a regular gym rat or fierce devotee of elliptical machines or Pilates classes, you probably will never maximize your use of that similarly “unlimited” membership.

Some consumer economists at Stanford and UC Berkeley researched this very topic several years ago in a path-breaking work that shed light on how it is that we tend to overlook purchases like this that do not seem, on the face of it, rational. Like the gym membership, no one
really going
to watch 30
movies in
a given month
no one is really going to watch 30 movies in a given month, or probably not even the maximum 8 movies that Netflix offers in its highest priced plan. But don’t you feel good knowing that you could do this? Doesn’t Netflix want you to enjoy those movies that arrive in your doorstep as long as your heart desires? Why haven’t the clever social scientists at Freakonomics not written about this?

Me, I was having a more immediate beef with Netflix that was becoming increasingly grating. I couldn’t get the movies I wanted. I’ll be more specific: I couldn’t get the new movies I wanted. Since new releases are out on Tuesday, I used to try all sorts of strategies for nabbing a film on that day –mailing in the afternoon (not the morning) on Saturday, or sometimes on Monday morning if it was within the 100 or so mile radius to the nearest Netflix mailhub. Anything earlier, or later, and I was doomed to receive a dreaded “Very Long Wait” in my queue under the “Availability” column. That would mean I usually could not get, say, “American Gangster”, or “Juno” for several weeks, maybe months. It took me almost nine months to finally get a “Now” notification for one of last year’s Oscar winners, “There Will Be Blood”. This really sucked. Either Netflix didn’t stock enough copies of their movies or people weren’t returning them fast enough. Something had to give. I decided to find another way to get new movies.


Enter Redbox. Redbox, based in Oakbrook Terrace, IL, is a business that stocks DVDs in neighborhood supermarkets all across the country. Everything is done on-line, like Netflix: you enter your name and credit card info, browse the movie list, reserve it, then go the nearest self-service kiosk, swipe your card and out pops your movie. The best part’s the price: $1.00 per day. I tried it –first movie: “Pineapple Express” (James Franco a total natural stoner, but the film was literally like being in a pot stupor)—and I returned it by 9 pm the next day. Easy. The next film, a total stunner, “Frozen River”, I watched twice because I wanted to see some crucial scenes again. I didn’t even mind paying the extra buck, especially when I knew that Netflix was not going to do its monthly clampdown on my credit card to sustain my membership. I was off the Netflix fix and, for the moment, I felt like I was enjoying a cheaper solution. I even felt like calling Suze Orman.

Red Box Selection Screen

But I soon realized that Redbox is not all that it seems, especially when it comes to their selection of movies. While you are likely to get a new mainstream (emphasis on “mainstream”) movie on a Tuesday or virtually any day, or night, you may not be able to get movies that have strict distribution agreements with other retailers.

Case in point: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. When this film was released at the end of January, the title was “Not Found” in the Red Box roster. It was on Netflix’s. I couldn’t understand why a reasonably well-known arts film, a Woody Allen film, starring a (then-potential) Oscar nominee (later winner, Penelope Cruz) was not available to residents of my neighborhood. I even looked up other area codes at Maybe their researchers or accountants determined that my neighborhood of Prius-driving, effete and hyper-educated liberals with the Teva sandals and Yoga mats did not need another artistic film. Maybe Red Box didn’t like Spaniards.

I inquired about this matter to the folks at Redbox and here was their e-mailed response:

Thank you for your e-mail. Please understand that titles to be released are stocked in our machines in advance. Once the titles are released into circulation on their respective release dates, the machine will display them on its touch screen for as long as it has copies available. If the machine runs out of copies of a given title, then that title will not be displayed on the machine’s touch screen until some copies are returned. If you wish to find another kiosk in your area that contains the movie you’re looking for, you can use the ‘Find A Movie’ search at, or our Redbox Customer Care agents are glad to locate a kiosk containing the DVD for you.

If you have any additional questions, comments, or concerns, please let us know and anyone in customer service would be more than happy to assist you.

Thank you,

Redbox Customer Care

When I inquired further, it’s clear that their initial vague answer needed a much more concrete explanation. It still didn’t quite solve much and I still wasn’t going to get my hands on Penelope Cruz:

Thank you for your email,

In regards to your question. The film, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” is not available with Redbox DVD, as for the reason that it is an exclusive with another movie company.

If you have any additional questions, comments, or concerns, please let us know and anyone in Customer Service would be more than happy to assist you.

Thank You,
Redbox Customer Service

I did some more searching and realized that Redbox doesn’t have the distribution access or authority granted by the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company. Turns out that Weinstein brokers deals with outlets –and only those select ones—to put out its movies. Blockbuster, yes, that same wretched blue and yellow place that reeks of stale popcorn and stocks giant boxes of Dots, apparently had the “exclusive rights” to “Vicky”, and there was no way for Redbox to have it. Here was their namby-pamby e-mail response to my continued pressure to figure out what’s wrong here:


Thank you for your e-mail. We apologize for your frustrations. Your comments, suggestions & business are important to us. I will share the information you have provided with the appropriate parties.

If you have any additional questions, comments, or concerns, please let us know and anyone in customer service would be more than happy to assist you.

Thank you,

Redbox Customer Care

Red Box VendingAnother film I maybe (just maybe) wanted to see –also from the Weinstein folks—was “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”, a film whose unfortunate title might explain why Redbox didn’t want housewives and soccer Moms seeing this title at their local Lucky or Albertsons. Same issue, same blocked access. Netflix does have these titles and I wonder this is because they are the industry leader in DVD mail distribution: it doesn’t make sense for them not to have it. But what about Redbox? How does a company get on its feet if its being constrained, not just by unfair agreements between a movie’s distributor and retail outlets? How is this fair? In the parlance of free trade and commerce, isn’t this an anti-trust violation, in which a much-smaller and non-competitive entity simply has no choice in what they can offer its customers? As it turns out, Redbox is involved in some litigation with Universal over these same distribution issues. Probably another studio heavy pushing its way around on how (and who) gets its products, and of course consumers get shafted in the process.

But I’m also wondering whether this may be of Redbox’s own doing, meaning that maybe they don’t need to worry about the small percentage of their customers who demand a higher-quality film like “Vicky”, an artsy film, even a foreign one, because the truth of the matter is that the Redbox roster leans heavily towards the crowd-pleasers, the films that families would watch together, or at least have much more commercial, and yes, I mean, blander, lower-common-demoninator appeal. Better a “300”, a “Paul Blart: Mall Cop”, an Adam Sandler throwaway film, a “High School Musical” sequel, or whatever, over the latest Lars von Trier, the latest Cannes Film Festival winner, or any other foreign flick with a budget not like “The Dark Knight” or the current “Watch Men”.

NetflixDespite the frustration of almost always having to wait for a new release on Netflix, no one could beat its overall selection. I used to find old Kurosawa or Truffaut films, even rarer foreign films that seemed hard to find. Netflix even acts as a main distributor itself, through its “Red Envelope Entertainment” division. Last year, for example, it helped distribute a treasure of a film I saw at the French Film Festival in New York, “Love Songs” (“Chansons d’amour”). It didn’t have a distributor so Netflix bought the rights and eventually had the film in its own roster. (By the way, this gem singlehandedly revives the singing musical format in French cinema, not seen since “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, and the story is nifty as well.)

The quandary is this: do I return to Netflix and get used to the waits again and fork over $18 a month (or less, if I go with the 1-at-a-time plan)? Do I threaten to quit Netflix altogether, as my buddy did once on line, and then receive an instant reduced rate to try to keep you as a customer? Or do I keep my account on hold and force myself to watch banal Mom porn like “Nights in Rodanthe”? I wish these companies would one day think of their own customers in general, and not marginalize them for their own profits. It simply makes no sense for companies to reduce, rather than bolster, the number of distribution outlets so that consumers can have easier access to their films. That is the nature of competition, and that ensures that we at least have many choices for our own entertainment and hard-earned dollars.

Pile of Money

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Comment by hjohn06
2009-03-26 17:10:19

I was just searching for something else, but came across your post. I would say you have a few things you can try. It would involve keeping Netflix, since there are films it has that you can’t get elsewhere. But there a couple options you may explore to reduce your costs.
1. Assuming you have a sufficiently fast internet connection, Netflix does offer free streaming of movies to your PC. If you don’t like watching it on you PC or able to connect it to your tv, there is also the option of buying a netflix ready device and stream movies on them to your tv. Think all, but the Xbox360, do not require extra monthly fees outside of the cost of the device. Assuming you would need fewers movies mailed to you, you can change to a cheaper plan.
2. Redbox coupon codes. keeps an up to date list of redbox coupon codes. Though some codes are only good on a certain day, but you can keep renting from Redbox and not have to pay for every rental. And the same assumption as number 1, you would need less movies from netflix, thus you can change to a cheaper plan.

I hope these suggestions may be helpful to you. Do not quote me on anything, as this is all info that I have read from the Netflix site or else where. So you should double check anything that doesn’t sound correct.

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