“Just Like Buying a Bag of M&Ms”

In doing some research on digital movie distribution, I have become fascinated by the role of movie kiosks as tools for renting, and in some cases selling, movies. Probably the most visible–and most disruptive–version of the use of kiosks has been Redbox, which now has over 35,000 DVD vending machines in retailers, fast food restaurants, and airports across the United States and Canada. I’ve discussed Redbox in some detail in an article I published in the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, where I linked Redbox’s success, in part, to its ability to cater to families, especially those with young children, while also attempting to map out how Redbox’s cheap rentals (along wit Netflix’s streaming service) were changing the “value” of a copy of a movie. When consumers learn that they can pay a dollar or so for a night’s movie rental, there is little incentive to pay $15-20 for a copy of the film.

But this focus on Redbox’s role in shaping the value of cinematic texts (recall David Bordwell’s argument that “films have become files”) placed too much emphasis on the novelty of that particular company and ignored a number of other past precedents and new practices in automated video vending. Many of the origin stories about Redbox discuss Mitch Lowe’s past failed attempt to create a VHS vending service in the 1980s called Video Droid, but since then, I have been running into a number of other examples of services that have a longish history in both Europe and East Asia. Currently, I am still learning more about some of these services, and if you have any experience with them, I’d appreciate any guidance (in the comments, on Facebook, Twitter, or by email). One of the more dominant services appears to be Cinebank, a video vending machine (some locations called it a “video vestibule”) company operating in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Oddly, it appears that although the machines operate 24 hours a day, you must register in advance and can only do so during certain hours of the day, and in order to register users must provide their finger print. But from what I have been able to tell, Cinebank–or at least the company that manufactures their kiosks–has been in operation since the 1990s.

In other sites, video kiosks appear to be having less success. The British service Rent it Here has been in and out of administration in the last month or so, and from what I can gather, despite some early enthusiasm, another service, The Movie Booth, has also been relatively unsuccessful, but I am still trying to sort out some details there. These also appear to have disappeared, but there were a couple of predecessors to Redbox here in the United States. The most prominent one that I could find was MovieBankUSA, an off-shoot of Cinebank, the European automated video vendor, but unlike Redbox, MovieBank charged $3.50 per rental, and stories about this service also disappear sometime around 2008 or 2009, but like Redbox, the service was promoted as a convenience to consumers, one that was available 24 hours a day. Unlike Redbox, the service gave each member a PIN that could be used to access movies, and the service encouraged parents to create unique PINs for each family member so that their children couldn’t rent inappropriate movie titles. The service also used a “block” system, in which users could pre-pay $50 to get seventy dollars’ worth of rentals. Interestingly, MovieBank targeted not only retail locations but office complexes and apartment buildings. There was also a service in Singapore that also shut down, and like Cinebank, it required a thumbprint, but in the limited discussion I have seen (and much of this is only on Lexis-Nexis, so I can’t link), it sounds like Singapore’s small size, its later business hours, and the vaster selection at video stores (and online) made those options more attractive than kiosks.

There was also an attempt back in 2008 to rent or sell movies using flash drives pioneered by a service called Porto Media. At the time, there was a lot of skepticism regarding the service, and I don’t see any indication that the service ever took off. But in the last few weeks, another service, Digiboo, is attempting to try flash drives again, this time by targeting travelers in airports. I’ve seen a few Redbox kiosks in airports, and it seems that sites of enforced waiting (often without access to wi-fi) such as airports serve as ideal locations for cheap video rentals. Digiboo is quite a bit more expensive for rentals than Redbox, but it allows users the option to purchase, and unlike Porto Media, it benefits from increased processing power, with some downloads taking only about 30 seconds, with Digiboo’s chief marketing officer frequently comparing video vending to buying a bag of M&Ms.

It’s obviously too early to make any predictions about whether Digiboo will function as a useful alternative to Redbox. I know that I don’t often travel with a spare flash drive (although I probably should), but by contrast, I also plan my in-flight reading activity well in advance of any trip that I take, so I am likely not the best judge. What I am trying to uncover is why certain models (Redbox, Cinebank) seem successful while others disappear, often without any media attention whatsoever. Why might some locations and populations be more prepared to embrace kiosks while others are not? It’s easy to dismiss Redbox (and probably other kiosk services) as feeding into “lowest common denominator” entertainment, but rather than seeing kiosks merely as reinforcing the popular, it’s worth asking how they fit into a wider everyday media culture.

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