Rethinking Redbox

In the new issue of Flow TV, Wheeler Winston Dixon considers the Redbox phenomenon, a topic that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time now (here, I mention my SCMS talk about Redbox, and a quick search of my archives showed at least 30 posts mentioning it). As Dixon points out, Redbox seems to present some unexpected challenges to simplified narratives about digital delivery–streaming, VOD, etc–as the future of movie consumption. Unlike Netflix, Redbox retains some qualities of a bricks-and-mortar video store, in that you have to go physically to the kiosk to obtain a movie. Even more complicated for digital enthusiasts, Redbox offers a narrow selection of movies, usually about 200 per kiosk, compared to the tens of thousands available on Netflix and other streaming or VOD services. As Dixon asks, “But the curious thing about Redbox machines is that they exist at all; why are people still renting DVDs when they can so easily stream films, or download them to their computers?”

No doubt, Dixon is correct to identify price as a key factor in Redbox’s emergence. $1 per day is comparatively cheap, especially against VOD and even arguably Netflix, and this is where Redbox is actually quite a bit different than typical bricks and mortar stores that have to pay rent for comparatively large retail spaces, as well as wages for multiple employees per store. But even this pricing logic is part of the logic of digital delivery, in which consumers are increasingly being condition to view content as cheap and even to view temporary access (rentals, windows, etc) as a viable alternative to ownership. In other words, Redbox is part of the same trend in which DVD sales, regardless of format, are plummeting (side note: this is why I think UltraViolet will struggle to find a viable niche).

Dixon also surmises that Redbox users may also be unable to afford cable and may be less likely to be frequent computer users. There is potentially some truth to the latter (especially when it comes to broadband access), but with estimates that nearly 90% of homes have some form of pay television, I would need a little more hard data to conclude that most Redbox users have limited access to other forms of entertainment. And here is where some of Dixon’s biases toward art house (or at least non-commercial) forms of cinema seem to limit his approach and where I had some reservations about his arguments. Dixon starts with a pretty surprising assumption, commenting that Flow readers have likely seen a Redbox kiosk and “perhaps you’ve had occasion to even use one, too, although given Flow’s readership, this latter prospect is somewhat unlikely.” Dixon goes on to dismiss the typical Redbox customer as a “ lowest common denominator viewer,” one who is interested solely in “Top 40 hits,” enthralled by (or perhaps dupes of) gossip magazines.

There are a number of issues here. On the one hand, Dixon’s comments seem to ignore the fact that Flow offers some of the best criticism out there of popular texts (reality television, Glee, blockbuster films). And while Dixon is no doubt correct to point out that Redbox likely won’t have the latest Criterion title–you can go to Hulu for that–we’ve recently rented Black Swan, Barney’s Version, and several other films that might be popular but that are, I would argue challenging, engaging, and (in the case of Black Swan), even difficult films. Redbox does cater to families with children, often in rural, suburban, or exurban areas, so that will no doubt shape the available choices, but as an inexpensive complement to other forms of digital delivery, one that can encourage relatively spontaneous movie rental decisions. We sometimes stop off and grab movies from Redbox on our way home from the gym, especially when those titles aren’t yet streaming on Netflix, and usually return the movies the following day.

My point here is that it’s difficult to extrapolate how a technology or service is being used merely from a quick glance at movie titles or even from other features of the service. We have cable, broadband, and Netflix (streaming and DVD), and yet there are occasions where grabbing a movie from a kiosk is preferable, especially now that there are no independent video stores within 20 or 30 miles. I’d also argue that it’s probably somewhat rare to have an individual or family that consumes movies through a single platform given the diversity of choices out there. Finally, despite the changes in access enabled by cloud computing, it seems likely that the physical presence of the DVD will continue to play a role in digital delivery much longer than many of us might expect, even if we are getting discs out of a kiosk rather than buying them at Wal-Mart.

Update: I forgot to mention in this post that Redbox president, Mitch Lowe, who attempted to create a kiosk rental system as early as the 1980s using VHS tapes, has stated that he will be stepping down to pursue other opportunities. It will be interesting to see how that affects Redbox’s practices as a company and whether they will move more aggressively into streaming video in the near future.

1 Comment

  1. Underground Film Links: July 24, 2011 | Bad Lit Said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    […] the film Palace of Stains, and isn’t quite sure what to make of it.Professor Chutry analyzes what might be fueling Redbox’s business model and challenges the theories of fellow theorist, Wheeler Winston Dixon.Tags: Underground Film […]

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