Monday, 14 August 2017

Cinema Paradiso: The Lovefilm alternative for UK DVD rentals (and 1 month free trial)

Once upon a time, I wrote an article comparing my experiences renting DVDs through the post from both Lovefilm and Cinema Paradiso. With Lovefilm now going the way of the dodo, there's only one DVD/Blu-Ray rental provider left in the UK. As they're not nearly as well known, I thought I'd write an updated post for anyone wondering what Paradiso's service is actually like.

Firstly I'll mention that you can try Cinema Paradiso's service entirely free for a month, no catch, via this link. Their public trial offer is for 2 weeks, but if you go through that link you get it extended to a month (and I get a little bonus too if you decide to become a paying subscriber at the end of the trial, so everybody wins).

And if all you want is the trial, you can ignore the rest of this article. In fact, having read it back, I encourage you to do so.

I watch an awful lot of movies. So many in fact that I've seen every single film in the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" list, and "The New York Times 1000 Best Movies Ever Made", amongst a host of other movie lists. And without DVD rentals, there's no way I could have completed all of this (legally) without bankrupting myself.

The DVD rental market should in theory still be dominated by Blockbuster, if only the people running the company hadn't been incompetent buffoons. Amazon took over as the big player when it hoovered up Lovefilm by Post, but now after a few good years has announced that it will be shutting the service down at the end of October 2017. They're suggesting we use Prime Video, but that only covers a tiny selection of movies and most of those offerings are mainstream and/or terrible.

That leaves us with Cinema Paradiso, an independent company who've been around for a decade whilst staying fairly under the radar. They're named after the film Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, a heartbreaking story about a man returning home to the Italian cinema of his childhood (and if you haven't seen it, make that the first title on your list).

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.

Just like Lovefilm, you add film and TV 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. Everything is sent and returned by 1st class post in a card envelope.

Paradiso has a whole range of pricing options depending on your budget and how many discs you can get through. Here's the current breakdown:

£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)

Former Lovefilm subscribers are probably going to find it a little more expensive moving over to Paradiso, but for me if it's a choice between that or nothing then I'm happy to pay a bit extra.

Secret tip: their top advertised package is unlimited 3 at a time, but if you're a real movie / TV boxset obsessive with money to burn, email customer services and ask to be put on the 4 at a time package. I did this for a while when I was hammering through the 1001 Movies list. Ridiculous! (Update: this price level is now available within your account. Don't all rush at once).

Price per disc: if I watch and return discs quickly enough, I've worked out that on the £12 a month unlimited tier, I can get the price-per-disc down to as little as 75p. My workings on this are further down.

Paradiso stocks an enormous collection, in fact almost every film and tv series you can buy new on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK can be rented from them, as well as plenty that are now rare or out-of-print. To put it in context, Netflix UK offers around 2000 titles, and Paradiso stocks over 90,000.

Even when Lovefilm was around, Paradiso beat it hands down when it came to the catalogue. For some reason, they tend to get new releases at the same time they become available to buy or rent on demand. Often Lovefilm's rental agreements led to a lengthy wait before they were allowed to offer particular titles, so Paradiso must have a different arrangement in place.

Their stock of classic, independent, arthouse, foreign language and obscure films is fantastic. Additionally, if there’s a title you’d like that they don’t have, there's an option to make a request and they’ll buy it for their catalogue if it’s available. This actually works too: I requested a really obscure release and right enough they bought it in, even though I'll probably be the only person ever to rent it.

Another film I rented from them recently is long out of print, and used copies are priced around £200 on Amazon/eBay, so again you can see where disc rentals have the advantage. This will die off if the options in future are limited to online streaming.

They recommend you have 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. Unlike Lovefilm, Paradiso allows you to rank every title on your list in order of preference, and plonk at no.1 the film you most want to see next. I prefer this to the more general high/normal/low priority system Lovefilm used.

When renting a TV series and planning a binge-watch, this also carries the benefit of prioritising all the discs in a series in one go (i.e. place a 3-disc set at No.1, 2, 3).

Unfortunately Paradiso doesn't yet have an app for managing your list, but their website had an extensive upgrade recently and now offers drag-and-drop functionality and a decent search function. There's also curated lists to help you find new films to watch, and you can add reviews.

I’ve been with Paradiso for a couple of years, and have always found the speed of turnaround to be excellent. They almost always post your next titles on the same day they receive your last ones, but the big question will be whether they can keep that up now they're being swamped by ex-Lovefilm customers. And of course their stock levels will be based on subscriber numbers up to this point, so I'd hope they will invest to keep up with the new demand.

On the unlimited 2 at a time package, if you watch your 2 films on the day they arrive and send them straight back (which I try to do), you can easily get through 4 a week, 16 a month (16 films for £12 = 75p each). This is of course dependent on the posties keeping their side of the bargain, and for me they usually oblige. Doing this can in theory work out as little as 75p per disc. Example:

They send you 2 films on Monday.
The discs arrive Tuesday by 1st class Royal Mail.
You watch both films on Tuesday night.
Post them back on Wednesday (for free in the same 1st class envelope they arrived in).
They receive the returned discs on Thursday, and immediately send out the next two.
Those next discs arrive at your home on Friday.

Now I realise not everyone has time for this, with families and lives etc (I have neither of these, the TV is my best friend), but it just shows how cheap it can be compared to streaming a rental film for a fiver or buying the DVD/blu-ray for £10-15. And as yet I’ve never had anything go missing in the mail, or any faulty discs.

Another thing I like is the option to freeze your account for up to 13 weeks each year. So if you want a break for a while you can pause your account, and then unfreeze it again when you're ready, without having to close the account and reopen it later.

Also they recently added an option to add one-off top-ups, which you might want to do if you're binge-watching a series on a limited package and can't face waiting for the next month to roll around when you run out of rental credits.

I hope this doesn't seem too much like an advert, but I would genuinely recommend giving Paradiso a go. The free trial link's at the top and you can cancel it easily enough online if it's not for you, no call centre calling required. Also I think it's great that there's still an independent rental company left in the UK, it would be a real shame if they disappeared too, so am keen to support them.

Thanks for reading, and happy watching.