I’m sitting here waiting for a file to download to my computer right now. Based on last night’s experience, it’ll probably take around 5 hours. What I’m downloading is a DVD-quality WMV file of Blood Diamond, at no charge, perfectly legally. I downloaded Sherlock Holmes last night. Best Buy, and their CinemaNow website, started an 8-day promotion yesterday in which they’re giving away purchases (not rentals) of digital copies of select movies each day. Being a movie fan with the most meager of budgets, I should be pretty happy about this, but I’m honestly just a bit irritated. I know it’s not polite to look a gift horse in the mouth, but having some experience with horses, I know that’s precisely what you need to do; you don’t want the trouble and cost of the upkeep of an unwell horse, after all. Best Buy’s promotion needed to be thought through better before they did it. They’re putting up one coupon code a day, and limiting it to the first 5,000 people. There are currently 5,443,084 people “liking” Best Buy’s page. Which means that a little less than 0.1% are actually going to get to use the code on any given day. That’s great for those people, and on the first two days I’ve been lucky enough to be one of them, but I’m sure my luck won’t hold forever, and it’s not so great for the 99.9%+ who miss out. Best Buy doesn’t owe anybody anything with this, but it’s hard for people not to resent being told “sorry, you’re out of luck” when they miss a window of opportunity that is literally only a few minutes long. You don’t want your freebie promotion to generate more ill-will than good. Plus, all those people trying it is resulting in “server too busy” errors; it took me 10 minutes to “purchase” the item, and another 50 to actually succeed in initiating the download. So, while I am grateful — free movies! — I can’t help but think it could have been handled better.
But while I was waiting for RoxioNow to initiate my download, I got to thinking about the various ways I watch movies. I currently make my living off of eBay and flea markets, because in this economy it’s hard to find a job as a programmer. So I don’t have enough to always go to the first-run movie theatre or buy a full price DVD (and I don’t have a Blu-Ray player yet). But even if I only see the latest-and-greatest when I can occasionally scrape together a bit of money, I still see a fair amount of movies, and as noted in my “About” page, if it’s new to me, that’s all that counts. So here’s the Cheapskate’s Guide to Cinema: the best ways to watch movies without breaking the budget.
Matinees: I’m going to start off with the obvious, here. Just because you can’t justify spending money on a full-price ticket doesn’t mean you can’t go to the theatre at all. Pretty much every major theatre has matinee times during which the price of a ticket is substantially reduced. Some of them even have particular days of the week — usually slow days for them — in which they discount the prices even further. Pay attention and you can see a new movie for anywhere from a few dollars off to as much as half off. Plus, if you have a flexible schedule (i.e., if you’re underemployed like myself), adjusting your movie-going time has another fringe benefit in that you can essentially custom-order the crowd you want. A Friday night debut will be loaded; a Saturday matinee will be full of kids. A Tuesday school hours matinee of a movie in its third week will usually be deserted. I love to hit the theatre at that time. I get to see a fairly new movie, get any seat I want, no crying kids, no obnoxious chatterboxes, no cell phones going off. It’s like reserving a private screening for only $4. Sure, once in a while other people do wander in, but they’re almost always like-minded people or tired theatre staff catching a break, and neither pose a problem.
Second Run Theatres: Do you always hit the same theatre in your town? Check out some of the others in your area (if you do in fact have more than one, that is.) A lot of medium-to-large cities will have at least one “second run” theatre. Second run theatres get the same movies the first run theatres do, once the first run theatre is done with them. They’re often run by the same company, and usually used to be a first run theatre until the company built a new, larger one. The ticket prices will be substantially lower — usually a few bucks cheaper than the first run theatre’s matinee prices, even for a weekend evening. Sure, if they’re far enough away that you have to spend a lot of gas/money to get there it isn’t worth it, but if it’s just a bit farther than the regular theatre (or no farther at all) it can be a great way to watch movies on the cheap.
Television: Another obvious one, but don’t limit yourself to just the premium movie channels. Back in the 80s, network television used to regularly air feature films once a week — not just the made-for-TV stuff either, but films that had been in the theatre first. That went away some with home video and cable channels, but with the advent of digital broadcast signals, a lot of local stations are finding themselves with the ability to air multiple channels and a lack of sufficient network content. The secondary channels are often used to air the same kinds of movies you find on any cable network (as well as other older programming). Also, you can sometimes find movies in unexpected places; when I watched Teen Wolf it was on the NBA channel, of all places. Depending on where you watch, you might have to deal with annoyances such as commercial interruptions, screen icons, and so on, but if you’re flipping through channels, it’s worth checking out all the channels.
Used DVDs: I used to be pretty leery of buying used DVDs, since any scratches meant it wouldn’t play. But error correction on players has gotten better, and a DVD repair kit can — sometimes — restore a lightly damaged disc to working order. Your town might have a used CD/DVD store; if so, check out what their prices are, because it can be a great way to save money. I bought the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and The Matrix Reloaded for a dollar, total, about a month back. (Granted, I only bought Reloaded to take advantage of the 2-for-1 offer, but still.) Your town almost certainly has thrift stores and pawn shops. Both typically have a selection of DVDs at cheap prices — the pawn shops are, in my observation, the better option. They tend to have more selection (with a higher turnover rate), lower prices, and the discs haven’t had a lamp sitting on them. My brother and a friend have amassed hundreds of DVDs this way.
Bargain Bins: Just because the store has put it in a $5 or less bargain bin doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. Sure, a lot of them are unpopular, but it’s also the default dumping ground for a lot of good stuff. Already-cheap DVDs that are going on clearance tend to go here (and those 10-films-on-one DVDs often have at least one semi-worthwhile flick). So do seasonal favorites that are have or are just about to become out-of-season (I saw a lot of the Halloween series in Walmart’s bins on October 25th). And, just occasionally, DVDs that have managed to stay on their shelves long enough for a newer version of the DVD to come out. It’s also worth a look to see if there’s anything that most people bought on release day has come down to a reasonable price. $15 in May can become $5 in September.
Hulu.com: Now we’re getting into the bread-and-butter of my personal movie viewing. On the sidebar of my blog I list a few online movie viewing sites. There are several sites you can go to to rent movies, or to pay a monthly fee for premium viewings. I haven’t tried Netflix’s service — I’ve shied away from monthly fees so far — so for my money (or rather, the lack thereof), the best of the bunch seems to be Hulu. There’s a premium service, Hulu Plus, which costs about $8 a month and gives you access to a very large selection of films, but for us cheapskates there’s also a free service. It doesn’t have quite as much selection, but even so, it’s still enough that just based on what I know I want to watch I’m usually looking at 60 movies in my queue. Every time I get a few watched and removed, they add more movies (about once a week they add about a dozen free movies), and sooner or later I’m back up to 60 again. The queue is a nice feature, lets you keep track of what you want to watch, and also when its availability will (supposedly) expire. Careful with that date, though; sometimes it changes. Usually it’s for the better — a lot of times things will be set to expire on the first of the year, and then they’ll renew it for another year — but once in a while I’ve had stuff surprise me by moving up. Also, like television, you do have to put up with commercial interruptions; usually about a minute’s worth six or seven times a film. I use the time to adjust the screenshot collection I’ve amassed for my reviews, personally. Besides its queue, Hulu also has a recommendation feature based on how you’ve rated films and TV shows you’ve watched. This can be fun, partly by finding good recommendations and partly by finding ludicrously bad ones. Based on my thinking that the American Civil War drama Glory was a great film, Hulu’s program thought I should check out the Chris Farley/David Spade comedy Black Sheep. That recommendation was probably funnier than anything in the film.
Crackle.com: Crackle also has a pretty good selection of films (in fact, some of them are shared with other sites on the list, so even if you go elsewhere, you might see that Crackle logo.) Unlike Hulu, I don’t think they have a premium service. Like Hulu, they also interrupt the show with periodic commercials, though the last few times I’ve watched, it’s just been a blank screen for a few seconds. I’m not going to complain about that. I did quit using Crackle for a while because of ads that they had showing up actually during the movie, obscuring the bottom of the screen, but it appears they’ve stopped doing that (or whatever is stopping me from seeing the commercials is stopping that, whichever.) They also have a queue service, but at least when I used it, it didn’t tell you when the videos were going to expire.
YouTube: No, I’m not talking about going and looking at some schmuck’s grainy VHS copy that he’s split into 20 YouTube videos. YouTube has an actual movie section, with some movies you can pay a few bucks to watch, and some you can watch for free. This includes older films, newer films, and for some reason a metric ton of Nigerian cinema. I don’t know why you’d want to watch films that dream of one day being as well-regarded as Bollywood, but if you do, there you are.
The Internet Archive: Archive.org has a selection of older public-domain films available for viewing. I haven’t really tried their system yet — I’ve generally been able to find what I want on the other sites — but I mention it as another avenue for the oldest of the classics.
Other Services: There are a lot of services out there for cheap rentals, both in the physical world and online. Blockbuster video is still around and still pretty good if it’s convenient for you, as is Redbox. (I live in a rural area, so the distance is prohibitive for a one-day rental.) I haven’t tried renting a movie off of iTunes, but the option is there, and since I haven’t heard thousands of Apple fanboys gnashing their teeth about it, it probably works reasonably well. I have used Amazon.com’s movie-viewing on occasion, and I haven’t had any trouble. You can generally assume most major films will be available for a one-day rental for a few bucks. And while I’m currently griping about the difficulties of getting those promotional freebies from CinemaNow, the fact is that they’re there, their prices seem in line with everybody else, and the downloads appear to be DVD quality.
Dealnews.com: One last thing. This isn’t a site that provides movies, but it can be helpful to a cinematic cheapskate. Dealnews hunts up and publishes lists of bargains and deals on all sorts of things. They have a section for movies, books, and music here. Every so often somebody will offer coupons or vouchers for a rental or purchase, and Dealnews will turn them up. A couple of Amazon.com rentals (Iron Man 2 and The Usual Suspects) were paid for with a $5 voucher I found there a few months before I started blogging. Coupons for Blockbuster’s kiosks seem to turn up pretty often. The online freebies may not turn up super-often, but it’s been enough of a help that I don’t mind taking a few seconds to check in every day, just in case.
It’s not easy being a movie fan on a tight budget, but with some willingness to explore different options, it’s possible to keep yourself well entertained. You do kind of have to take what’s offered, but there’s usually enough offered to find something worthwhile.