Updated on 10.01.10

Doing the Math on Renting a Movie

Trent Hamm

It’s Saturday evening. The kids are in bed. Sarah and Trent want to stay up late watching a movie. What’s the least expensive option?

Redbox If we’re already thinking about this earlier in the day, there are several Redbox machines within ten miles of us that we could visit as part of our shopping trip. Renting a film there lets us choose what we want that day and the cost is only $1 per night. However, we also have to be sure we’re going to return it the next day or else we’re going to be spending $2 … or $3 or more on that rental. Good selection and potential low cost … if you can return it easily.

The local video store It has atrocious selection (the only new release they had in there the last time I visited was Marmaduke), but the price is fantastic – $1 for three days of rental. Plus, I can walk over there and return it whenever I like. Cheapest rental option overall, but the selection is abysmal

Online rentals In terms of giving us the most convenience combined with the best selection, this is the best option. We have several ways of renting a movie online, starting the download, and watching it starting in about fifteen minutes – Amazon Video on Demand, iTunes, and the Playstation Store all allow this. Unfortunately, most of the time, you’re going to be paying at least $2 for that movie, and often more for newer releases. The most expensive per hour of movie watching, but the most convenient.

Netflix It costs $9 a month, but you always have a disc of some sort sitting there that’s a movie that you at one time wanted to watch. On top of that, there’s streaming – but the selection on streaming is very random and loaded mostly with older releases and independent films and documentaries. The best option if you watch more than one or two films a month.

Watching a DVD we already have We have a shelf of DVDs – why not just watch one of those? It’s free, but you’re almost always just rewatching something you’ve already seen.

Given those options, here’s how things flush out for us.

If you’re a Netflix subscriber, that alone takes care of the vast majority of your rental needs. We subscribe to Netflix because we watch a movie about once a week and watch some non-commercially interrupted TV shows on streaming, especially during the winter (like Doctor Who, for example). That takes care of almost all of our needs for about $9 a month, which brings our cost per hour of entertainment well under $1.

Without Netflix, Redbox is probably the best option – if it’s convenient. In other words, if you can rent the movie, watch it that night, and return it the next day, you’re paying about $0.50 per hour of entertainment – a very good price. On top of that, the selection is usually quite good at a kiosk. However, if it’s not convenient for you, the cost goes way up – if you can’t return it for a few days, it gets pricy quick.

Wait on renting online until you have a gift card to burn. The prices are so high compared to other rental venues that we’ll just find something on streaming rather than renting a new release for $4 or $5. The exception to this is if we have a gift card of some sort to use more or less for this specific purpose.

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  1. LP says:

    If you want the selection of Netflix and don’t want the subscription price, look into Interlibrary Loan at your local library. You can submit requests online at my local branch, and you’ll be notified via email when your movie has arrived. Yes, you have to pick them up and drop them off at the library, but that’s no worse than going to the local Blockbuster, IMO.

    Redbox fans should look into the active community which exchanges Redbox codes for free rentals. It may be ethically a little questionable, but theoretically, you’d never pay for Redbox again.

  2. Raghu Bilhana says:

    I would have to disagree with you on this Red box thing. The choice at Red box is very very limited and gives us with only a choice among the B grade movies (sociopath movies). I used to be a regular customer at Red box but of late the choice it gives us is pretty bad.

    Cant watch 95% of the movies at Red box with your family together.

  3. Maggie says:

    Often we watch movies at the spur of the moment, when one of the kids suggests “Hey, let’s watch a movie!” In that moment, when our teenager is volunteering to spend 2 hours with us, it is totally worth the 5 bucks to rent a current movie from Amazon.

    That said, we do have netflix and watch many things on the Roku. My younger son has in the past caught up watching series that were on after his bedtime when he was little.

  4. Jenna says:

    We mostly use the library now. Great selection, long “rental” period and it’s free. Not for spur of the moment though!

  5. Ajtacka says:

    We’re outside the US, so many of these options just aren’t available to us.

    Our options for any TV/movie watching are basically: video store (I know of only 2 in this city, which has a population of 1m), local TV for either local-language or dubbed shows and movies, downloading (yes, it’s questionable), the few international networks that allow international viewing, or iTunes. iTunes tv rental has been a godsend for us!

  6. Michelle says:

    The watch instant selection on Netflix is random?? Are we using the same service? I find the watch instant selection to be great, lots of new releases (check out the Starz plays section). Right now on the Roku, we have “Up”, “Star Trek”, “2012”, and lots more like those. Maybe not brand new releases, but not random B movies either.

  7. RK says:

    As much as I’m not a fan of it, actually working at the library and being the one to have to keep those things in order — the library is a great option for cheap (free if you get them back on time) video rental.

  8. Annie Jones says:

    We use Netflix and supplement with Redbox and library rentals. Our Redbox seems to have mostly kids’ and family movies, as does our library. We also use our DVR to record movies from TV and watch later. We don’t buy many movies…other than kids’ flicks, we generally don’t watch movies more than once.

  9. Rebecca says:

    Library rental is great, but we can never just go over and get one. The library has limited hours, and the chances that our particular library has what we want to watch is slim. But we can request items on interlibrary loan and watch them when they come in. Just not on our schedule. We do a lot of redbox, actually. Our kids are in bed by 7:30pm, so we often watch a movie on the weekend if PBS isn’t showing something we want. We rarely watch anything during the week.

    We have 2 redboxes just 3 min away, and several more within 10 min of driving. The trick to getting the rental you want is to reserve online before going over to the box. Its annoying to sit behind someone who is just browsing at the box for 20 min when I just need 2 min to pick up what I have already paid for. It also helps to reserve early in the day, esp on the weekends. By 7 or 8pm the boxes can be picked over.

  10. Laura In Atlanta says:

    The choices offered by RedBox are awful! Netflix gives you a much bigger selection of titles, including rare documentaries and foreign releases. I think its worth the ‘extra’ cost to have that selection, plus the free streaming choices..

  11. deb says:

    I adore Netflix! We have the $9/mo plan and use it all the time.

    Our library:
    – Closed on Saturdays
    – New releases are $2.00
    – New releases are reserved months in advance so there’s little chance of getting one
    – Closing for good next summer
    – Not such a good selection especially because they will be closing

    – Ugh, just not convenient
    – Costs more than just rental fee because we’ll end up buying stuff while we’re renting/returning

    Online rental:
    – $$, but the next best thing to Netflix

  12. Noadi says:

    Since I love watching older moves, tv shows, and documentaries, Netflix is the best choice for me. I use the steaming option far more than the disc rentals. I have a roku player that connects to my tv to stream Netlfix and a few free channels for the player like NASA TV, Pandora, etc. A $70 player and $9 a month has replaced cable tv for me, totally worth it.

  13. BeccaT says:

    I too totally adore Netflix. If I mail the movies back the day after I get them, I can get 10 a month in the mail. I watch movies online too, but my “high-speed” service here in a rural area is not fast enough, so I have to put up with a certain amount buffering… good time go do a quickie chore. I do find ample selection in the online stuff.

    The really wonderful thing about Netflix is for the first time ever the selection of movies available to me is not in any way dictated by the tastes of other people. Whether it is movies in theaters, what’s at a video store, what I can find at yard sales and so on, every other option is dictated by what the majority wants to watch.

    A streaming DVD I recently saw is “Between the Folds.” I can’t think of any documentary that was more mind blowing. It is about the world advanced origami. A must see.

    Netflix is great if you have a lot of time to watch movies. But when I go through a period when I am too busy, I just order stuff for other people to watch… either my kids, or friends I utterly trust to watch a movie and mail it the next day.

    Once in a while Netflix sends me a defective movie… no problem, they will send me another two. Once I had to call the 800 number to get these, no problem, the sent them. It is a great company, with a great website.

  14. karishma says:

    ” A streaming DVD I recently saw is “Between the Folds.” I can’t think of any documentary that was more mind blowing. It is about the world advanced origami.”

    BeccaT, I just have to say that I found this statement so hard to believe that I had to add the movie to my streaming queue!

  15. Kacie says:

    I once tried to return a video to a Redbox, and couldn’t because the machine was full! It was a Sunday evening.

    Rather than take the time to drive to another location a few miles away, I opted to pay an extra $1 and try again later.

    The fact that I couldn’t return a movie really stunk.

  16. Joan says:

    I realize not everyone pays for cable, but if you do, in our area, the Comcast cable company offers pretty good free movies or even free episodes of TV shows through its OnDemand service. There are also $2.99 and $4.99 movie options, and while that is a bit much for some people, I have used it occasionally to catch a new release right when it opened – it’s still less than one movie ticket, and 10 people can fit in my living room and watch it! (Plus I can make my own snacks!)

    My husband and I have used this to discover several new TV series that we enjoy watching, like American Pickers, which we’d never have seen otherwise.

  17. Cheryl says:

    Our local library charges for DVD loans and for reserves/ We like to see movies more than once. We record off air and watch later.

  18. Sara says:

    You also have to consider the cost of driving. If you have a Redbox within walking distance, it’s pretty cheap, but the Redbox closest to my house is 6.5 miles away. The library is 4.5 miles away. Blockbuster is 7 miles away. The gas for two round trips to any of those adds at least $2 to the cost of the rental! It’s also a lot of extra time. For me, Netflix is definitely the best option because I don’t have to go any further than my mailbox to get or return movies.

    I don’t understand why people buy DVDs. There are very few movies that I would want to watch more than once or twice. If I do want to watch a movie again, I can always add it to my Netflix queue again. Your objection to watching a DVD you already own is that you’d be “just rewatching something you’ve already seen,” so why’d you buy it if you didn’t want to rewatch it?

  19. Sara says:

    *farther than my mailbox.

  20. Karina says:

    I agree with whoever said that Netflix instant streaming is awesome. I don’t know what random B movies Trent is limiting himself with…My husband and I are watching the newest seasons of the Office and 30 Rock that just were released in Sept on DVD on the instant stream…We also have Star Trek, 2012, the Stoning of Soraya M, the Cove, all kinds of great movies!

  21. Kristen says:

    We are thinking of finally signing up for Netflix beginning next month. Our plan is to cancel at the end of March and sign up again next November–basically, it’s worth it to us to pay for Netflix through the winter months when there’s not much else to do, but not in the summer months when we should be outside being more active.

  22. Marsha says:

    @2 Raghu:

    I agree that the Redbox selection has gotten bad. It’s all R-rated movies or shows for preschoolers. We have teens who aren’t allowed to watch the trashy stuff (and we don’t want to watch it ourselves), and they’ve outgrown most of the other selections. Where have all the PG movies gone? Aren’t they making them anymore?

  23. valleycat1 says:

    Years ago when the movie rental industry was moving from VHS to DVD, our first DVD player was a dud & we finally chucked it. We didn’t replace it & therefore save lots of money by not renting movies. We seem to have plenty of choices from our basic cable subscription, or we do something else. If we did have a DVD player, we’d probably use the library as first choice – obviously we’ve broken the habit of ‘gotta see [a given] movie now.’ The expense of renting movies is one of those things we’ve made the personal decision not to incur, as for us it doesn’t add to our quality of life.

  24. Lisa says:

    My in-laws get me a 6 month, two at a time Netflix subscription every year for Christmas and my birthday. So our entertainment needs are covered! I usually watch my movie or tv show the day/night it comes in and I return it the next day so I can get through 2 movies a week this way (my husband has his own queue and I let him use the second disc as long as he doesn’t hold on to it forever!)

  25. We LOVE Netflix. We actually bought a Roku box about a year ago and cancelled our cable. Most of the shows we want to watch are available on instant or via disc, and there is a HUGE selection of streaming content for our kids (ages 3 and 6). The Roku box allows us to watch it on our television rather than at the computer, so it doesn’t even feel any different. The box cost us about $100, and since we cancelled cable we’ve saved about $70 a month. $61 a month, really, since there’s the $9 a month cost for Netflix. So the box paid for itself in less than two months, and we’ve been VERY happy.

  26. friend says:

    Also Netflix lets you change your plan month by month, or even suspend service (for 3 months at a time, I think). We are billed on the 12th of each month, so early in the month we decide if we want to stick with one movie at a time plus streaming (our default), go up to 2 movies at a time or perhaps move down to just streaming… which is $5.

  27. Leah says:

    I’m another vote for the library — if your library is decent and has free movie rentals, it’s the way to go. we keep thinking about netflix but find lots of gems at the library. Typically, we go there and browse the shelves until we find one we like. We’ve been surprised at some of the great movies we’ve seen.

    Also, I don’t know why people get all hung up on new releases. Yes, it’s nice to see new releases. But there are plenty of older movies that are still awesome. I love going to our local video store (I still have credit there from some gift cards I received) and picking out movies I meant to go see 10 years ago. Since they’re not new, they are super cheap for a week long rental.

  28. Michael says:

    I’m not sure what Redbox kiosks you have been visiting,but the selection at ours is TERRIBLE. Direct to DVD sequels, oodles of crummy kids movies and a handful of latest releases.

    While I enjoy a good latest release from time to time, I would rather watch a good (based on reviews) old movie I haven’t seen than some johnny come lately.

    Netflix works great for us because I can IMDB everything before streaming or adding it to our DVD queue. The streaming selection can be eclectic, but that’s part of the fun.

  29. deRuiter says:

    Sell the contents of that shelf full of DVDs you’ve already watched, since they obviously don’t excite you. Why waste a shelf for storing movies which don’t interest you? Sell them to someone else who will let them occupy valuable storage space for something they don’t use either. Netflix sounds good, other options like library if they are convenient are great. Or read a book, clean out the junk drawer, load boxes full of those unwatched DVDs for a yard sale. Have an nice weekend no matter what you choose.

  30. Diane says:

    The library is the way to go, especially if you live Northern NJ. All current and past movies and even PBS specials can be found. If your local library does not have the DVD or BluRay you want, you can “order” it from other libraries. The movie will be delivered to your home library. (This also works for music, books, and books on tape.) I agree that the hours are limited. If I think we may have time to watch something, I stop at the library and choose a few movies. If we don’t watch them, then I return them.

  31. Briana @ GBR says:

    There’s also a digital video box called Roku where you can access Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand and other forms of renting movies/tv. I want to get it (especially since it’s not an additional charge) but I don’t know if that’s just an extra expense.

  32. kristine says:

    i love my library for movies. whenever we watch the previews, i sit at my laptop and request the ones we are interested in watching through the intraloan system so we always have lots on queue to be picked up weekly. we’re allowed to check out 20 at a time and series are loaned for 3 weeks at a time so we always have plenty of time to watch them before returning and always plenty on hand to watch whenever we feel like watching them.

  33. Christine says:

    I’m all about the library as well. I have a few movies on hold at my local library (they are new releases and do take some time to become available). However, on my way home from work on a Friday I have stopped by the library and browsed through their large selection of DVDs. I usually borrow 3 or 4 movies for my husband and I to choose from. I now refuse to pay for rentals -all I need is patience and I can see just about any movie I like for free!

  34. Ben says:

    Cant believe you did not even mention Blockbuster!! They offer online (like Netflix) with no extra charge for Blu-ray and also includes games (like Gamefly), in store, and kiosk (like Redbox) options!! I love my Blockbuster!

  35. Dori says:

    I’ve went all of these routes to rent movies.

    I’ve been a Netflix subscriber since 2006. I’ve changed my subscription a few times, suspended it a few times, stream to my TV through our Wii. I’m on the $9/month plan. It’s so convenient, living in a rural area, to just be able to walk out to my mailbox to retrieve or send back a movie. We usually get at least two a week. Also the selection is outstanding. I don’t know why anyone who rents movies would not use this service.

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