I recently wrote about trying out GreenCine, an online DVD rental site, and concerns people have about NetFlix. I’ve now had some GreenCine experience, and can write a more detailed review. Click below for the (detailed, long, multi-page) review. Everything you need to know about GreenCine (and some dirt on Netflix) with one simple click of the rodent! What could be better? :-)
For the most part, this section applies to not just GreenCine but other online rental places as well.
When you sign up for an online rental service, you pay a flat monthly fee. That fee entitles you to rent as many things as you like and keep them as long as you want. There are no late fees. The company will send things out to you, and you just drop them in the postage-paid envelope and drop them in a mailbox when you’re done.
Instead of limiting how long you can hang on to things, these places instead limit how many things you can have out at once. Typically, there are different plans. Ones that let you have more things out at once are more expensive, of course.
Effectively, having a plan where you can only have a few things out at a time limits how many movies you can get in a month, since there is postal service transit time.
I signed up for GreenCine’s cheapest plan, the 2-out $15/mo plan. Unlike Netflix, GreenCine does not place any hard limits on number of rentals on this plan. (NetFlix users on their 2-out $15/mo plan may not rent more than 4 movies in a given month.)
In all these services, you maintain a queue. The queue is the list of movies you want to see. It can grow quite large — hundreds of titles in queue is not at all uncommon. It’s easy to say, “Hey, that sounds interesting”, click a button, and know that you’ll get it sometime down the road to watch. It’s a really nice feature. When we go to a rental store, 2/3 of the time is spent trying to figure out just what it is that we want to see, and trying to remember what it was that we read about recently and wanted to watch. The queue solves that problem.
The first thing you notice about GreenCine is that it’s highly interactive. To me, this is one of the most refreshingly unique aspects of it. Not only do they support user reviews of movies like Amazon, but there are other ways to interact with the user community too. One of the most fun is Member Lists. You can create lists of films centered around a various theme. I’ve seen themes such as “Films I use in my intro to film class”, “Marlon Brando”, “Films Mocked by The Simpsons”, “Movies I Own”, “Why 1974 Was the Best Year Ever for Cinema”, etc. Members can, of course, rate the lists themselves. The lists also are a way for the list creators to comment about films. It’s interesting to read why people choose certain movies, and the lists provide a way to find out about some hidden gems out there.
The GreenCine staff clearly enjoy what they are doing. They write articles and interviews on various subjects. They have primers describing various genres for those that are new to them (and if you’re like me, you’ve never even heard of several of them.) Hyperlinks abound; whenever a particular movie is mentioned, there’s a link to its GreenCine page — and often, the same goes for actors and directors. GreenCine staff also blog and have “staff top lists” — similar to member lists, and just a rotating feature on the site.
There are also GreenCine public forums, and the community seems to be an engaged, interesting, and civil one. In discussions about GreenCine itself, staff members are often seen providing helpful information, asking questions, or even simply resolving a problem on the spot. However, they are not heavy-handed moderators; criticism about GreenCine is not banned, and people feel free to express their true feelings on the forums.
Overall, I’d say that interactivity is GreenCine’s most powerful and unique asset.
I’m going to split finding things to rent into two categories: finding movies and browsing. For finding movies, I’m talking about situations when you already have a specific title in mind, or at least a specific director or actor.
It’s pretty easy to find movies on GreenCine. Just type the movie, actress, director, whatever name into the search bar, hit Enter. The search takes about 5 seconds but what I’m looking for has always been at the top of the list.
There are lots of ways to browse on Greencine. Here are some of the basics:
- By Genre. Note, Greencine has a lot of subgenres; click the arrow next to “genre” to see the full list. This is a nice way to browse.
- Member lists (see above)
- Staff lists (see above)
- Critics lists (winners at the Oscars, Sundance, Cannes, etc.)
GreenCine also has a recommendations feature. This feature examines how you have rated movies and what you have put in your queue and compares the data with what other customers have done. It finds other customers that have behaved similarly to you and suggests things they’ve rated highly. It’s a really neat idea, and has led me to some movies I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Once you have the list, you can rate movies that are on it (if you’ve already seen something, you can just rate it on the spot). Or, you can hit a “not interested” button, which means “I haven’t seen it so I can’t rate it, but I don’t want to see it.” Either action will take the movie off your recommendations list.
I’ve found that the list works pretty well, though it tends a bit to the “dark” side (ie, more violent or weird films than I’d normally enjoy). Perhaps most Babylon 5 fans do not also tend to link the Marx Brothers? :-)
As you’re browsing, you can always go straight to a movie’s main page. That page will have a canned description of the film. Users can write reviews (which can, of course, be rated by other users), which show up there. If the film is in any user list, you’ll get a link to the top lists that have it (and another link to a list of all lists that include the film).
In all, I’ve found browsing on GreenCine to be far better than in a bricks and mortar store. I know a lot more about what I’m about to rent before I do so, and have many more ways of browsing.
As you are browsing through genres or many other areas, various sort options are available. I like sorting by member reviews, so you see the things most liked at GreenCine in a particular genre (or whatever) listed first. You can also sort by MPAA ratings (if you’re looking for kid-friendly stuff, for instance) or alphabetically.
Selection (how many different movies are available) is an important criteria for many when choosing an online rental site. In terms of actual numbers, GreenCine appears to be about #2 behind only Netflix. However, those numbers are rather misleading. GreenCine has many, many different movies that are simply not carried on Netflix or anywhere else. They make a conscious effort to find independent and foreign films that are hard to find in the US and make them available for rent. And GreenCine is popular precisely because of that.
That’s not to say that they don’t carry mainstream realeases. They carry all the standard Hollywood fare, too. I frankly haven’t figured out what Netflix has that GreenCine doesn’t.
There are actually six different levels of listings at GreenCine:
- We have it
- It will be releasing soon
- We don’t have it, but know about it
- We know of the film, no DVD plans have been announced, but we suspect it will be on DVD eventually
- We don’t have it, and can’t order it because it’s out of print
- We don’t know about it
Generally, when you speak of selection, you are talking about #1 here. And that is by far the majority of things you’ll see at GreenCine.
But the other categories are interesting too. Items in #2 can be added to your queue like anything else; they simply won’t be available to ship until the official release date. Items in #3 can be added to your request list. This list has a dual purpose: first, it helps GreenCine track interest in things that they don’t already have (so they can make intelligent purchasing decisions). Secondly, when one of those movies does show up at GreenCine, it’ll automatically be added to the end of your queue and you’ll be e-mailed that this has happened. In the week or so that I’ve been a GreenCine member, that’s already happened for me.
Category #4 is apparently new at GreenCine. They are using it for things such as films that are in theaters now. A recent example was Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s in theaters, and no official DVD plans have been announced, but everybody knows it’ll be on DVD eventually. For things like this, you can sign up for a Notify. That basically means that when GreenCine knows something solid about the DVD, they’ll e-mail you. It doesn’t add it to your queue automatically like the request list does (I wish it did, really.)
There are only a few #5 items at GreenCine. These tend to be very obscure films that are simply not sold on DVD anymore (or maybe once were, or maybe will be again). There’s no request or queue option here because GreenCine doesn’t know if they’ll ever be able to get them in again.
Finally, #6 is for items that are not on GreenCine’s site at all. For those, you e-mail your request to them. I did that last week, and a few days later, all half-dozen of those things were added to the catalog (and I could then put them on my request list). Great service. I’ve read in the forums that sometimes they’ll just order things when people ask.
GreenCine doesn’t censor their selections. They’ll have things that NetFlix won’t carry because of political message or content. One of the most interesting member lists is of things GreenCine carries that are banned in various countries. There are a number of films banned in Germany, China, and UK that are in GreenCine’s catalog. There’s even one that’s banned in the United States, but only in Georgia. Some of these are banned because their political message is unpopular to the society or government in a particular country. Others are banned for graphic sex or violence. As an example, GreenCine stocks one or two (completely tame) old Nazi propoganda films. While I’m as anti-Nazi as everyone else, these have an important place. Historians can learn about what was going on in Germany at that time, and how we can prevent these things from happening again. And, despite the despicable nature of what they show, like it or not, some of these films demonstrated some breakthrough cinematography that still influences us today.
For those concerned about their kids browsing GreenCine, you can restrict your account to not show or allow rental of adult items. Though this won’t satisfy the ultra-conservative out there, since sometimes member reviews contain, ahem, four-letter words for really bad movies.
Queue management tools
This is another area where, I gather, GreenCine is pretty advanced compared to others. Just about every site lets you prioritize your queue — set which things you want to see first. When you send back a DVD, the company will send you the highest-priority items from your list that they have in stock.
GreenCine provides several useful tools to augment that. The most useful is the “personal series”. A series lets you define things that you only want to receive in a pariticular order. This is great for things like multi-season TV shows on DVD, miniseries, or even just watching all the Star Trek movies in order. As a recent Stargate fan, I have added about two dozen Stargate discs to my queue. I want to see them in order, so I add them all to my personal series. What this means is that GreenCine won’t send me something from season 2 even if all the season 1 discs at the top of my queue aren’t in stock. Personal series items can be prioritized along with everything else, but they will only ever be sent out in order. It’s a great tool.
As a more blunt instrument, you can also “lock” your queue. That means that GreenCine will ship things only in absolute order of priority. I can’t really imagine why this would be useful, given the personal series features, but there it is anyway.
Turnaround time is how long it takes you to get your next DVD from the time you drop a viewed one in a mailbox. This is probably the single most frequently discussed metric for online rental sites of all shapes and sizes.
Let’s start by defining an analysis of turnaround time. Here are the main things that impact it:
- Processing and transit time with the Postal Service
- Number of distribution centers and distance from you
- Efficiency of distribution center(s)
- 6-day operations at distribution center(s)
- Number of copies on-hand of popular DVDs
- Intentional shipping delays to improve a company’s profits
Turnaround time is the most oft-cited complaint with GreenCine (and probably every other rental place, for that matter.) To give you a quick background, GreenCine has one distribution center located in San Francisco, so people on the east coast are the most frequent complainers. Though there are some oddities; some people in Alabama tend to consistently receive DVDs faster than some in Los Angeles, for reasons that nobody is able to figure out (aside from that they are related to the Postal Service in some way).
Now then, let’s look at these six items. The first two are obviously closely related; if a company has many distribution centers, things won’t take as long to reach you since they tend to start out closer. Netflix is well-known for having many distribution centers, so if this is the most important criteria for you, they may be a better choice than GreenCine. GreenCine is aware of the problem, but they are not as flush with cash as NetFlix is and can’t afford to open new distribution centers just yet.
#3 is also important. GreenCine is known to be very good in this regard. Apparently is is almost unheard-of for them to not send out your next DVD the same day that they receive one back. The forums even have anecdotes from people that live in San Francisco that have even experienced same-day turnaround on occasion. In contrast, there are a lot of complains about Netflix in this regard, and they seem to have, well, uneven performance, and some of their distribution centers seem to be much better than others.
#4 also plays a role. The postal service handles mail on Saturdays, so if your rental company’s distribution centers aren’t open Saturday, you get delayed two days if they happen to receive your return DVD on a Saturday. GreenCine’s fulfillment center dose run 6 days a week.
If a company is short on stocks of a popular DVD, #5 will come into play. In the past, this was a complaint with GreenCine, but it seems to have dramatically improved recently, and I certainly don’t have anything to complain about. They are expected to put most of the revenues from the recent price increase into this and other turnaround issues, so it should continue to improve.
Finally, #6 refers mostly to NetFlix. If you are a frequent user of their service, they will intentionally delay shipments to you. GreenCine has come right out and said that they do not do this, and all the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen backs them up on that.
My own experiences from Kansas showed a four mailing-day trip from my house to GreenCine, and a 3- to 4-mailing-day trip from GreenCine to my house. (They sent out two items to me at the same time on the same day, but one took a day longer than the other to arrive. Go figure.) So, I figure I’d receive things in about 6-8 real days. That actually puts me on par with experiences reported by many people on the east coast; perhaps the USPS is less efficient in my region.
Quality of DVDs
Here I am referring to the physical condition of DVDs you receive in the mail. I’ve heard a lot of bad things about NetFlix repeatedly sending out cracked, broken, or seriously scratched DVDs. My GreenCine DVDs obviously were scratched (though no more than ones I’ve seen from Blockbuster), but played fine even on my ultra-finicky DVD player. In other words, GreenCine seems to be as good as it gets in this department.
One reason appears to be their mailers. They have a thick cardboard packaging that goes outside the DVD sleeve. It protects it much better than just a paper packaging. More below.
I was originally going to sign up with Netflix. I knew early on that people didn’t like their customer service, but I figured “what do I care? I just order things online and never have to speak to someone.” Well, I do care.
GreenCine is obviously run by people that love movies. They aren’t working with GreenCine just to make money (like Netflix happens to be). They are working with GreenCine because they love what they’re doing and having fun on the job. (Example: I saw a DVD in the “released to shipping monkeys” state on their shipping status screen today.) They fill the site with interesting content, participate in forum discussions, and generally pay attention to what is going on. Here’s an example:
GreenCine has found that certain DVDs are prone to break even though they have cardboard packaging. They ship those with an additional foam insert for yet more protection. They have found out which DVDs are problematic and worked out a system to apply the more expensive protection to only those. That’s as opposed to NetFlix, which sends out known bad DVDs to people.
If you do have a question, they answer e-mail promptly and knowledgably. One gets the impression that they like hearing from their customers, rather than trying to make it hard for customers to reach them.
GreenCine does have some trouble with turnaround time, but it’s the only real problem I found. The sense of community, combined with their service, selection, and interactivity makes GreenCine worth checking out — and keeps many easterners as customers, despite the slower turnaround times.
They’ve discovered something that all to many companies have forgotten: a sure way to attract customers is to provide them with good service and value them as people. The fact that they keep many customers that have switched from Netflix — even on the east coast — shows that they’re doing things right. I’m going to stay with GreenCine for the forseeable future. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had renting movies. My queue has enough to last me for three years at my current rate :-)
For more information…
Some helpful links:
- Official GreenCine sites: (all links are publically-accessible unless otherwise noted)
- Previous related ChangeLog articles:
- Other GreenCine reviews