Review by Robert Chynoweth
In the interest of full disclosure and an attempt at journalistic objectivity, I must stand and admit that I'm a Netflix-aholic. As an incurable movie-addict from childhood, Netflix has become the enabler I've always dreamed of. My queue overfloweth with recommendations of previously undiscovered treasures of cinema's rich history.
That said, when good friend Gord Lacey asked me to join Blockbuster's Total Access service and write a review, I immediately felt my loyalties being put to the test. After a few minutes of great inner turmoil, my greed for more, more, more movies won out and I relented. You see, to me Blockbuster had come to represent the megalogigantor-ing of America and I avoided their blue and yellow stores like anything Paris Hilton.
With a small chip on my shoulder, I signed up on December 12, 2006. I was searching for every possible reason to not like Blockbuster. But signing up for the service was impressively easy - a mere five minutes from clicking the "sign up" button to searching for my first movies. My joy was quickly extinguished, though. As a Mac / Safari web browser user, I've become accustomed to the minor inconveniences of websites formatting improperly (i.e. skewed margins, overlapping hyperlinks, squeezed lettering, etc.). But so many of these formatting problems exist on the Blockbuster Total Access site that Safari is rendered utterly useless. I made the fast switch to Firefox and most of the problems were solved (but not all). Mac / Safari and Netflix work perfectly together. Obviously, if you're a PC user, you're saying, "duh! Get over it Mac loser" and muttering something about eight percent market share or something.
As previously stated, I'm an addict for recommendations so dove right in rating movies to see what Blockbuster would suggest. Right off the bat, I was impressed with Blockbuster's rating system - their increments are in half stars instead of full stars (a la Netflix). A minor, geeky detail, to be sure, but nice. You must have a steady mouse hand, though, as the stars are very close together and the slightest twitch will change your rating.
The recommendations that came up after rating a couple dozen or so films were about what you'd expect. One annoyance Blockbuster has that Netflix doesn't is they frequently include movies you previously rated among your recommendations. As a matter of fact, since starting Total Access, I've also received recommendations for movies I've already rented. I guess Netflix assumes that if you've rated the film, you've already seen it and don't need it included in future recommendations. I side with Netflix on this. Again, a minor, geeky detail but just annoying enough for me to mention here.
Selection is a major selling point for me because I love watching a wide assortment of films - from new releases to obscure, foreign, independent, road-less-traveled films. I did a side-by-side comparison search and noticed that Blockbuster occasionally had films that didn't show up on Netflix. Blockbuster's website claims to have a selection of "over 65,000 titles" whereas Netflix boasts "over 70,000 titles". If you tend to watch mostly new releases and mainstream fare, I'm sure either service's selection will suit your needs. Otherwise, you might want to signup for a trial subscription to both and see if they have what you like. I know Gord loves the TV on DVD stuff and both have an impressive selection in that category.
Along the same lines, there seems to be a significant difference between the two services in the "availability" of DVDs. You see, just because you place a DVD in your queue doesn't mean you'll get it anytime soon - certain films are more popular than others and quantities can run low so it may take awhile for you to get it. Here's the difference I've noticed: with 49 films in my Netflix queue, all but one are listed as "Available now" but my Blockbuster queue (which contains 18 films) has only eight listed as "Available now". The remaining ten films say either: "Short Wait", "Long Wait", or "Very Long Wait". That's a difference of 98% vs. 44% availability! Food for thought.
Now, two very cool design elements on the Blockbuster site get my recommendation - take note Netflix. First, the search results page has a "display options" area where you can choose between three different on-screen configurations (e.g. box cover artwork only, box cover artwork plus info, or titles only). This made searching through dozens of results much quicker and easier. Search results are listed in alphabetical order, but I wish I could display the results in different orders (i.e. average rating - highest to lowest, etc.). Alas, Netflix doesn't offer this option either. Second cool element is the movie queue is always displayed as a floating box on the right side of the screen. I like being able to keep an eye on my queue, as I usually end up rearranging it as my mood changes.
Perhaps it's because Blockbuster Total Access is a fairly new service, but I noticed a general lack of movie information for most films. Commonly missing are: a list of genres a film fits into, complete lists of stars and directors, and member reviews. If you're like me, I find these "extras" very helpful in choosing my selections and love that Netflix provides them in a clean and organized way.
If you've read this far, you're probably thinking, "sounds like Netflix for me!" But wait a minute because I've got something that just might tip the scales. Unlike Netflix, you can take your return DVD envelopes to any local Blockbuster store and exchange them, right then and there, for a new movie - any one in the store. No joke! I thought, "there must be a catch." But there isn't. The store returns your envelope and the next movie in your queue is mailed out to you. You still have to return your movie to the Blockbuster you rented from, which could be a drag for someone used to simply dropping an envelope in the mailbox. But, in essence, this doubles the number of movies you can get from Blockbuster. Now, I live in Los Angeles, which has no shortage of Blockbuster stores, but if you live in one of the less populated areas of the U.S. that doesn't have a Blockbuster store, this option has no relevance. Plus, judging from the hundreds of Blockbuster stores that closed around the country last year, this option may lose its luster quickly. Not to mention that you actually have to step foot inside a Blockbuster store -- with their poor selection, grubby appearance and subpar customer service.
In conclusion, I realize that Netflix has a few years head start on Blockbuster Total Access, so they're going to be slicker and more organized. Netflix has the "cool" factor going for them right now and Blockbuster has to shake its bad rep as a dingy franchise with listless clerks who think "The Seven Samurai" is the new action flick starring Lucy Liu and Keanu Reeves. So, unless you live next door to a Blockbuster store, I'd say Netflix is the better choice for the next six months or so. By then, Blockbuster Total Access should have worked out some of the bugs and created a better, more user friendly site.
Robert is a freelance DVD Producer/writer working in the Los Angeles area. He's produced DVDs for Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.