Update: Lovefilm will be closing down at the end of October 2017. This leaves Cinema Paradiso as the sole provider of DVD rental discs in the UK. If you want to try it out, help yourself to a 1 month free trial via this link (this is 2 weeks longer than their publicly offered trial).
Lovefilm's demise does also make this article largely redundant, but feel free to read on if you want to find out who won my coveted award for best DVD rental provider.
I watch an awful lot of movies. Some would say too many, but those people are wrong. As my season of movies about the movies comes to an end, I thought I’d go a little off-piste by reviewing the DVD rental providers I use to consume all the movies I get through each week, and hand a highly coveted Cuemarks award to the winner. I subscribe to just about every online streaming and DVD rental service that exists in the UK, so I feel well qualified to answer the questions about these services that literally no-one is asking. I cannot imagine there is a single person on this planet, dead or alive, who will find this article remotely useful, but that hasn’t stopped me before.
The DVD rental market should in theory still be dominated by Blockbuster, if only the people running the company had any clue what they were doing. Instead they went bust, leaving behind just two UK companies offering to send you films and TV series in the post in return for a monthly fee. Waiting for films to arrive in the mail, then again for them to be returned before the next ones are sent out, already seems a dated way of watching films. Except it's worth it because the range of titles on offer is vast compared to online streaming catalogues like Netflix, and is the only way to access the majority of titles without spending a fortune buying them. If you’re not familiar with how it works, you add titles to your watchlist, prioritising the ones you most want to see, and they send out whatever’s next available on your list. You can keep the discs for as long as you want, the days of late return fees are long gone, but it obviously makes sense to watch and return them quickly to keep the flow of titles coming. Netflix owns this market in the US, but is just an online platform here in the UK, so your choices are LOVEFILM (an Amazon company) and the less well-known CINEMA PARADISO. I subscribe to both, here’s how they compare:
£4.99 (limited to 2 discs p/m)
£8.99 (limited to 4 discs p/m)
£11.99 (unlimited, 2 discs at a time)
Amazon Prime members get a discount
£6.98 (limited to 4 discs p/m)
£9.98 (limited to 6 discs p/m)
£11.98 (unlimited, 2 discs at a time)
£19.98 (unlimited, 3 discs at a time)
£29.98 (unlimited, 4 discs at a time) (on request)
Who wins on price depends on your chosen level. If you’re only a very occasional film viewer, Lovefilm’s 2-discs-a-month option wins, though move up to 4-discs-a-month and Paradiso becomes cheaper. Personally the limited disc levels are too restrictive for me, so for unlimited rentals Lovefilm is comfortably the cheapest option, and an extra £2 discount for Amazon Prime members drops their top package below a tenner a month
Even though it’s more expensive, Paradiso’s 3-discs-at-a-time unlimited price level betters Lovefilm’s offering for movie-watching obsessives like me, and in fact there is yet another level (4-at-a-time unlimited) that they don’t advertise but will privately upgrade you to if you ask customer services nicely by email. And are willing to pay for it of course. Winner: for most options, especially the unlimited ones, Lovefilm is the cheapest way to rent, whether an Amazon Prime member or not. As discussed further below, even Lovefilm's most expensive package can work out as little as 62p-74p per film.
Both of these services house enormous collections, in fact almost every film and tv series you can buy new on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK can be rented on either site, as well as plenty that are now out-of-print. To put it in context, Netflix UK offers around 2000 titles, and Paradiso stocks over 90,000. Even just comparing the two rental firms, Cinema Paradiso is the better option as it stocks a large number of titles which are listed as “unavailable” over on Lovefilm. I have around 250 titles on my Paradiso watchlist at the moment, and I’d guess that around 50 of them are unavailable on Lovefilm, and plenty more are sat in Lovefilm’s limited availability pile. Additionally, if there’s a title you’d like that they don’t have, with Paradiso you can make a request and they’ll buy it for their catalogue if it’s available. Winner: for the volume of available titles, including obscure and out-of-print titles, plus their film request service, Cinema Paradiso easily wins best catalogue.
MANAGING YOUR WATCHLIST
Both services recommend having a minimum of 10 titles on your watchlist, to ensure they always have something available to send to you. As my list runs into the hundreds, I’ve never had any problem with delays, but the downside is you don’t always get sent what you’d most wanted to see next. Lovefilm allows you to prioritise your list into High/Normal/Low priority, yet you can’t prioritise within each level (so for example you can put titles into High priority but not then say which you want first). Paradiso uses a different setup in which you can rank every title on your list in order of preference, and plonk at no.1 the film you most want to see next. When renting a TV series and planning a binge-watch, this also carries the benefit of prioritising and receiving all the discs in a series in one go (i.e. place a 3-disc set at No.1, 2, 3), whereas in my experience Lovefilm usually only sends 1 series disc at a time. Lovefilm has an app for iPad etc which is quite useful, but both sites are easy enough to use from a browser so it’s not really a negative that Paradiso doesn’t offer one. Winner: Cinema Paradiso, purely because the ability to rank your list in preference order does make it more likely that the next disc you’re sent is your first choice.
TURNAROUND & DELIVERY
I’ve been with Lovefilm for a couple of years now, and Paradiso since the start of the year, and have always found the speed of turnaround on both sites to be excellent. For example, if they send you 2 films on Monday, they arrive Tuesday by 1st class Royal Mail. You watch them on Tuesday night, send back on Wednesday (for free in the same envelope they arrived in). They receive the returned discs on Thursday, and immediately send out the next two, which arrive at your home on Friday. If you watch the 2 films on the day they arrive and send them straight back (which I always try to do), you can easily get through 4 a week, 16 a month. On Lovefilm’s £11.99 a month unlimited package that works out at 74p per film (or for Prime members, that’s 62p per film). Compared to streaming a rental film for a fiver or buying the DVD/Blu-ray for up to £10-15, the savings are huge. And as yet I’ve never had anything go missing in the mail, or any faulty discs. Winner: a tie, for me they have both always sent out discs really quickly, even major new releases, and with 1st class postage I always get them next day unless Royal Mail are playing silly buggers.
The good news is that both offer a no-obligation free trial. Lovefilm’s trial is 1 month, Cinema Paradiso’s is 2 weeks.
You can however get an extended 1 month free trial to Paradiso by signing up via this link (and if you then choose to become a paying member after the trial, I also get a bonus so everybody wins). It's worth trying both seeing as it's free and easy to cancel on their websites before the trial ends, no phoning up call centres required.
Lovefilm wins on price, Cinema Paradiso wins on catalogue and prioritisation system, and turnaround/delivery is a tie. Both offer an excellent level of service for the money, if you’re into films or tv series in a big way then signing up to at least one of them is a no-brainer. With little to choose between them, for me it all comes down to their catalogues and how many films I can rent from them, and there’s one that’s just a bit better than the other.