Shirt Of Tomorrow - 211/365
A human being's ability to understand a foreign language is always greater than his ability to speak it.

- Walter Murch, "In The Blink Of An Eye"

Netflix Yes; LOVEFiLM nO

It was a no-brainer to put Netflix in my 2005 list, “10 Things I Love About The Film Industry”.

Netflix really has been revolutionary. By making virtually any DVD available on demand to anyone in the entire USA, it has smashed the local brick & mortar video store irrevocably, and it has altered the way people watch TV and movies as much as TIVO and digital video recorders have changed viewers’ relationship with the broadcast industry.

In the U.K. the most popular DVD-by-mail service is a company called LOVEFiLM.

LOVEFiLM is not Netflix.

The main thing that makes Netflix great is its genuine “on-demand” aspect. If I want to watch “Down By Law” (1986), “Gladiator” (2000), the entire series of “Freaks and Geeks” (1999), and “Andrei Rublev” (1969) – in that order – I will be sent “Down By Law”, “Gladiator”, the entire series of “Freaks and Geeks”, and “Andrei Rublev” – in that order. Rarely, and usually only in the case of extremely popular titles just after release, Netflix will be unable to provide a requested title. This is usually accompanied by ample warning from the company, and a reliable promise that the title will be sent as soon as it is available.

The other key to Netflix’s success – and it is a thing of beauty – is the Rental Queue. The Netflix Rental Queue allows you to fine-tune the order in which you want your movies to arrive. If you want to see Andrei Rublev first, and then “Down By Law”, then split up the discs which comprise “Freaks and Geeks”, maybe with 3 before “Gladiator” and 3 after, well, then no one’s going to stop you. In fact, to us morbidly incurably cinemonks, the populating and ordering and massaging of the queue is an end in itself. It’s a real pleasure to add movie after movie and then try to prioritize them, plan your viewing, create for yourself a 1st rate cinema education for the next year and a half. And of course there’s the maxing out of the queue and having to decide which individual title you will have to remove from the list in order to add another title that you want to watch.

And Netflix also has a good engine that encourages you to rate movies and then gives you solid recommendations based on those ratings.

If I were to make another list, a “List Of Reasons To Return To The USA”, Netflix access would go on it.

But, as I indicated, here in Britain, there is no Netflix. There is LOVEFiLM.

LOVEFiLM is very much like Netflix – up to the bright red envelopes in which the DVD’s are mailed and the white-on-red, black-bordered logo.

In the same way that minority ethnic groups can make jokes about themselves that no one else can, I being officially – and actually – British have to say that it’s a sad and wretched thing to see, over and over, Britain taking on ideas introduced from the outside and with the enthusiasm of an over-praised child, apply those ideas slap-dash to its own local situation while missing the core of what made the idea good in the first place.

Exhibit A: Mexican Food. What is Mexican food? Well, it’s – generally speaking – simple, meat and vegetables with spices often wrapped in a flour or corn tortilla, etc. I have eaten British-made Mexican food – I kid you not – which has been tuna and peas with chili powder wrapped in a pita. With cheddar cheese sauce.

Exhibit B: Sweet Potatoes. At University of Kent, a Thanksgiving dinner was arranged for the American students. Sweet, no? No. Traditionally, sweet potatoes are served at Thanksgiving. The American students were served sweet … potatoes. Yes, mashed potatoes … sweetened with sugar. There was weeping.

Exhibit C: British rap music and hip-hop. All I have to say is that if you don’t have genuine actual gangsters actually shooting each other with military-issue automatic weapons on a daily basis in your city streets, please, please, please avoid attempting rap music of any kind. It’s embarrassing for all of us.

And so, LOVEFiLM:

LOVEFiLM bills itself as “Europe’s NO. 1 Online DVD Rental Service”, but it offers relatively few continental titles, so I don’t know how seriously to take that assertion.

First off, LOVEFiLM is not a good name. I know some marketing person somewhere really worked hard on it and I appreciate that. But just step back and listen to the word: “Luvfilm”. The fricative “V” and “F” disappear into each other – and they are not helped by that disintegrating “ILM” sound at the end. “Lovfilm” sounds like the last thing a drunk might say before passing out cold on top of his girlfriend. Could we just have one hard consonant, please? Or an “S”? “LOVESFiLM” maybe?

And with the name “LOVEFiLM” you’ve already alienated half of your user base. Because no self-respecting macho-man-with-an-inferiority-complex is going to want to say to his colleagues on a Monday morning: “Hey guys, I joined LOVE-FiLM!” He would be shunned. Even I, who get weepy when Judy Garland sings “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, am loathe to say “LOVEFiLM” in mixed company.

But that’s nitpicking. LOVEFiLM has a similar engine as Netflix for rating movies, and then getting recommendations back. But it’s vague. And the accuracy of the recommendations doesn’t seem to improve much after a certain amount of rating. Whereas it is a pleasure to rate movies on Netflix and watch your recommendations gaining more and more focus, it’s depressing to rate film after film on LOVEFiLM and get back repeatedly “If you loved ‘The Seventh Seal’, you’ll love ‘Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves’”.

The LOVEFiLM rental queue – called, ironically, a “list” by LOVEFiLM, not a “queue” – is really not much of a queue at all. Whereas Netflix allows you to fine-tune your queued movies via an interface that allows you to assign an ordinal number to each, LOVEFiLM offers you the opportunity to put movies in one of three categories: “HIGH”, “MED”, “LOW” priorities. And that’s it.

The obvious – and typically British – problem this introduces is that it entirely removes the “on demand” aspect that makes DVD-by-mail appealing. The very point of having a rental queue is to be able to watch the movies I want to see exactly when I want to see them.

If I want to see “Down By Law”, “Gladiator”, the entire series of “Freaks and Geeks”, and “Andrei Rublev” – in that order (well, I’m not going to be able to get “Freaks and Geeks” because that is a particularly American tv series that executives somewhere have decided will not translate to the other side of the Atlantic and they are very wrong about that but you may insert your own imagined tv series) – the only way I’m going to have any chance of watching them in the order will be to put the one I want to see next in my HIGH priority list and put all the rest on the MED or LOW priority list. Because if they all go into the HIGH priority bin, they will be sent to me in an unpredictable order selected by some oily fingered worker at the LOVEFiLM distribution plant.

And that, if I’m lucky.

In a recent LOVEFiLM experience, my household received not a single one of the films in our HIGH priority list. We were told, after sending an email query, that none of the half dozen films tagged HIGH were available at present. And so, we were sent randomly selected titles from our very long MED priority list – one of these titles was a dull reality tv show about families building their new houses. That MED priority section can be a real quagmire of impulse clicks. We did watch the show. But our weekend was ruined. A queue that allowed you to put a title like that at the bottom of a long list would easily prevent such tragedies.

There is too the LOW priority section. But, let’s face it, the idea that you would select a bunch of movies so that you could put them in a list marked “Low Priority” – well, it’s kind of idiotic.

In LOVEFiLM’s defense, they do have a system to warn users that there might be a wait for a film. A gray, half-full hour-glass icon indicates: “It is likely there will be a short wait for this title.” A red, full hour-glass icon indicates: “It is likely there will be a long wait for this title.” However, I have yet to see the icon next to any of the HIGH priority movies we have requested that we have been refused.

The impression one gets, as a user of the service, is that LOVEFiLM wants to make it as easy on themselves as possible, but still get you to give them money. Apparently, it’s working because we continue to give them money.

I want to make clear that LOVEFiLM is not lousy. The service is perfectly adequate. But given the technology, expertise, and creative fire so readily available in this wide wired world of the 21st century, “adequate” is now synonymous with “insulting”.

If you want to become a multi-millionaire in Britain, you can – as I’ve said before – open a good, authentic Mexican restaurant. Or you can offer us the DVD-by-mail service that we deserve.

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8 comments to Netflix Yes; LOVEFiLM nO

  • William

    I am one of the founders of LOVEFiLM and found this blog very interesting and useful.

    I was surprised to see that you didn’t get any of ‘half dozen HIGH titles’. This is not good and not at all typical. If you email me at wreeve-netflixno@videoisland.com with your account details I would love to look into this personally.

    In defense of our system, I would love to point out that the HIGH/MEDIUM/LOW system is much more flexible for customers. Many of our customers do not want to see just one movie next, they are ambivalent about 2-3 movies, and our system lets them tell us this in a way that simple ordinal rankings doesn’t. You may disagree, and we hope to find a way to keep you happy too. Please bear with us.

    As to recommendations, we accept that the refinement as you add more and more ratings isn’t as powerful as we would like. We have several projects underway at the moment which we believe will help this. Please don’t give up on recommendations entirely!

    And at risk of being entirely defensive, you have measured LOVEFiLM against Netflix. If you measured the other way around, you would have noticed that
    - we let you rent Games as well as DVDs
    - we let you select movies the moment they hit the cinema. We do not bury or hide cinematic releases and new DVD releases to stop you picking them.
    - we have a variety of exclusive promotions and competitions that prove very popular
    - we have (new this month) a new feature which lets accounts have multiple lists. This helps you prioritise your deliveries if you have more than one DVD at a time.

    But in any case your opinions are entirely valid and are fascinating for us working hard at LOVEFiLM to overtake Netflix in every respect.

  • Neal Romanek

    Many, many thanks, William for your great and thorough comments.

    May these trials by internet combat help evolve a better entertainment industry for us all!

  • Neal Romanek

    And having consulted with the proper authorities (wife), I have confirmed that indeed the number of titles passed over on our HIGH list was not a half-dozen (6), but a quarter-dozen (3).

  • GenerallyGemma

    I ran across this whilst trying to search for how people were finding the LoveFilm multiple facility. I have to say if the most you’ve had passed over on your high priority is three you are an incredibly lucky man. I didn’t recieve a high priority disc for three months and what passes for customer is laughable.

    Glad your problem was resolved though!

  • Anonymous

    I have been been a member of lovefilm for a few months now.Great service for sending out dvd’s,but the order they send them out is always at the bottom of my low list!They seem to pick up any dvd that’s on the list and send it (which makes a mockery of the system).

  • Anonymous

    The biggest problem with Lovefilm is the downloads service. In America you can get a tiny set top box that will download films on demand straight from Netflix. Where is our comparible service? Until this comes I won’t be signing up…

  • J.J.Jones

    Glad to see my friends and I are not the only ones that think the Priority method is absurd. Having been a member of Netflix for many years I was happy to find a similar service here in the UK. But when I learned that you couldn’t simply list your movies in order you desire to see them, I was baffled. I’ve been trying for ages to figure out a clever way of arranging my list so that I get the films I really want to see, but no luck. And I, too, have had my High priority films passed over for many months now. I completely disagree with the founder of Lovefilm’s comments regarding customers’ ambivalence over what film is sent to them next. When I walk into a brick and mortar video shop I don’t simply grab the first movie that looks somewhat interesting to me. I either go in for a specific title or two or, if I do find a few titles that look interesting, I will make a priority decision on the spot, not just close my eyes and pick one. I suggest Lovefilm put more thought into this…present both options to your customers and let them explain why “1-10″ is better than “1 or 4 or 2 or 9 or 7…”

  • Neal Romanek

    Thanks J.J. for the comments.

    Sounds like your having the same experience I had…when this piece was first written. Amazing that Lovefilm hasn’t bothered to make any changes since then. It just feels, generally, like they have a real lack of caring – or even contempt? – for their users. Which is not very smart. There are so many media options today, customer service, really listening to what your customer wants and needs has to be THE top priority.

    For a number of reasons, we have canceled our Lovefilm subscription. Hearing about your experience – which I assume must be fairly recent – makes it less likely we will start it up again.

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