Remembering the glory days of the DVD-by-mail service.
I loved Lovefilm. For several years, mostly in the ’00s, it was my main movie source. Before broadband connections improved enough for films to be streamed smoothly, the rental-by-post service sent millions of DVDs out to doormats across the nation. I found it slightly thrilling.
I looked upon my list on the Lovefilm website as something to be carefully crafted and sculpted. I knew it was the gateway to pleasure, a series of dopamine hits: first, finding that the title you wanted to see was in their database; second, seeing it added to the films that were about to be dispatched to your address; third, coming home to find the disc waiting for you when you opened the front door; and hopefully a fourth – watching the thing. Which could be good or bad or anywhere in between.
What seemed so brilliant at the time was that you had such an incredibly wide choice of films. Like much else, you should compare a period in time to the past rather than the future to understand its true value. So compared to these days, when you can find almost anything you want on the internet and stream it, Lovefilm seems like nothing special. But the proper comparison is to just a few years before when you’d walk all the way to your local video shop and browse their very limited selection, walk home with a film of your choice, watch it, and then walk back the next day to return it. Your average video shop would have, what, something like 1% of the films available in the UK? If you were lucky. Whereas Lovefilm’s claim was having every DVD legitimately released in our territory, an amazing thing.
The service was fantastic when you got the impulse to see a big block of films, say one director or one star’s entire output, or certain award winners, or movies in one genre. I remember when I got wind of what they called Section 3 Video Nasties, films that hadn’t appeared in Section 1 (titles withdrawn by the Director of Public Prosecutions) or Section 2 (titles that the DPP failed to get a prosecution on). By this point, around 2008, I’d managed to track down all 72 titles (not the original VHS tapes…) so it was the most obvious thing in the world to see those on the Section 3 list I hadn’t already seen. And so I took delight in adding the likes of The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein, The Toy Box and Zombie Lake to my list and gradually viewing them. Some of them were even quite good.
At that time you could prioritise your titles into low, medium and high priority. I used to take extreme care in slotting titles into each category, giving myself precise reasons for preference. At one point they announced that they were abolishing low priority (or was it medium, or high – whatever, they wanted to have two categories, not three) – and a virtual riot practically broke out. Or at least it felt like it. I among many made my feelings clear – and, as far as I remember, they went back on their decision (I think).
Sometimes I would be like an addict. If I had a day off work I would have a film delivered, watch it straight away that morning, and then make sure I got it in the postbox before the last post, ensuring that when I looked at my list the following morning they would have received the disc and another one would soon be dispatched. And if that sequence of events didn’t happen I would be distraught! I’d check my list and see that somehow they hadn’t received my returned disc (darned Royal Mail). Or they had received it but were being slack in processing another one to send out. Like some crazed alcoholic licking the Lino after spilling the last drops of vodka on it, I would check the webpage every few minutes to see if it had changed. Oh, the wonderful feeling when you saw that they were about to send out a title I really, really wanted to see. Oh, the slightly flat feeling when you noted the film about to be despatched was one you were less excited about seeing. Because sometimes the rotters would send out a medium priority title rather than a high priority title. Ooh, it used to get my goat when they did that.
Occasionally I wouldn’t have checked on the website what title it was that was being sent out. Which was fine, because then you’d have the excitement of peeling open the envelope slowly, to reveal the disc therein. It was like Christmas had come early.
It’s impossible to convey to a young person today how amazing it felt to have NO LATE FEES! (Or what ‘late fees’ were.) Egad, it was the wonder of the age. You could keep the bloody disc for six months if you wanted (but I believe they did start sending you nudging emails after a while if you hadn’t sent it back – I never got them, because I was always anxious to keep returning them to get new ones).
Sometimes bank holidays and other public holidays would mean that, agonisingly, titles turnaround would be much slowed. Even weekends could be a pain, although I think they used to operate on a Saturday. I guess one disadvantage of Lovefilm compared to the video shop days was sometimes not being able to 100% guarantee you’d have a new title to watch on, say, the Friday night you’d planned, with snacks and beer (and possibly friends) already enlisted. It was mostly okay, but if you got your timings wrong, or if something went amiss at the other end or en route, then you were stuffed.
As there always is, there was a finish. I eventually left Lovefilm. I can’t remember when, and I can’t remember exactly why, and I can’t remember what my last film from them was (damn!), but it was time to move on. I think it might have been that my list just got smaller and smaller because I couldn’t think of any more films I wanted to see. I’m like that: I’ll go mad and watch certain types of movies in bulk for a few months, and then I’ll run out. And then a while later I’ll realise there’s a whole new batch of movies that I desperately have to see. I guess my farewell to Lovefilm must have coincided with a fallow period where I thought I’d see all the films I needed and wanted to. The company itself finally ceased operations in 2017, probably something like six or seven years after I ceased operations with them.
And so Lovefilm has become yet another artefact of history, as dead as the high street video shop that it replaced. I wonder if there’s anywhere in the world where the DVD-through-the-post model lives on? Nowadays for me when it comes to watching films, I reckon it’s something like 50% over the Internet, 30% on normal TV, 15% on DVD and Blu-ray I own or borrow from mates, 5% cinema and other sources. And that’s fine – but a part of me wishes that Lovefilm still existed. I know I’d still get the dopamine hit from the envelope on the mat. Talking of which, for a few years after signing out of the service I did keep several of them for posterity. Maybe I’ve even still got one in my big bag of memorabilia. It’d be a tangible something; keepsake-wise I have all sorts of concert tickets, football tickets, exhibition brochures, trading cards and so on. With Lovefilm that was more difficult – it was a DVD rental service through the post. It was intrinsically ephemeral. Today’s youth, though, will have even fewer things to keep in their big bags of memorabilia because the world is now so digital, and I think that’s a shame. At least I still have a Lovefilm envelope. I think.
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