2021, Movies, Personal

Zip.ca: In Remembrance

I don’t have any idea if I was one of the first Zip.ca customers, but I was certainly an early one. The company was founded in 2004 and I was renting movies from them the autumn of that same year, which happened to be when I started my Master’s degree.

If you’re unfamiliar with Zip.ca, it was Canada’s Netflix: it shipped rental DVDs to you through the mail complete with return labels. In 2010 it introduced a Redbox-style kiosk too, though I never used them.

During the summer of 1998, I set myself a ridiculous task: I would watch every movie I hadn’t yet seen on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list.

As a child and teen, I had watched plenty of old movies. But still, that spring, I had seen maybe 30 or 40 of the movies on this supposedly definitive list of American cinema. So I was looking at watching somewhere between 60 and 70 movies in the few months I had off school.

Fortunately, Blockbuster came to the rescue; that summer they had a deal: 6 old movies for 6 days for CAD$9.99. Moreover, they had an 100 Years…100 Movies section.

I worked a city job with weird hours that let me stay up watching movies into the middle of the night 2/3rds of my time. And CAD$9.99 was only slightly more than one hour of my salary.

I didn’t quite make it though: neither the Blockbuster near my mother’s house nor the one near my father’s house had a copy of The Jazz Singer. And so I finished my quest having seen 99 of the 100.

(Some notes: Some of the first 30 or 40 movies I’d seen as a child, and so I don’t even know if it’s fair to say I’ve “seen them.” If you’re wondering, I have since seen The Jazz Singer and it’s as overrated as you’ve heard.)

But I loved the experience and it set me on a life long quest to see as many movies as I possibly could. I’m at approximately 4,500 movies and TV shows at the moment, not including a host of movies (and shows) I saw as a child and haven’t remembered enough to rate on IMDB.

Since that summer, my drive to see All The Movies has been informed by critics’ lists and film festivals, more than anything else.

And I’ve kept track of those in a Word document, that got worse and worse over the last 20 years. That document is 88 pages long, with one movie or show per line, Times New Roman size 10.

For the last 20+ years I’ve been adding movies to it often far faster than I was taking them off. The one time that wasn’t true was when I was in my full Zip.ca glory.

When 2021 began, I realized what my friends had been telling me for years was true: I would never get anywhere with this list.

From the last time I restarted I was only at Cli on an 88 page alphabetical list. Nearing 40, the odds of me making it to Z, let alone N, seemed very unlikely.

And so I decided to change the way chose what next to watch.

No longer would I use the arbitrary alphabet! Instead, I would use crowd-sourced rankings to choose films and shows: IMDB, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.

And so I spent a few months rearranging my list in a Google Sheet and now I have a ranking by quality, rather than alphabet.

And so, though I will never get through the 4,500 movies on that list before I die. I will at least watch the better ones.

At least, that’s the plan.

The first problem I’ve noticed is a problem we’ve all been experiencing since Netflix first started having competition: content is spread all over the damn place.

(Hat tip to my girlfriend, who predicted this eventuality.)

I can get the first title on my list at my library but the next title is only on Prime. (Fortunately we currently have Prime.) I’m dreading seeking out all these movies on different streaming platforms.

And so I thought of Zip and how, for a brief, shining moment, it solved my movie problem.

I was a customer of Zip for nearly its entire existence. For most of that time I was on the “1 DVD at a time” plan which, if memory serves, cost approximately CAD$24.99 per month.

Now, many of the people I recommended Zip to thought this price was outrageous. But its’ because they didn’t use Zip like I did.

For much of my time as a customer, I would watch a movie the night I got it and mail it back the next morning. This way I could get 5-10 movies a month, depending on the breaks.

I was able to do this because, from October 2006 to October 2011, I lived by myself, without cable and without internet. (Well, I had cable for 10 months to start, because the previous tenant forgot to turn it off. And I had internet at the end.) I lived like this because I was writing my first book and I thought that’s how I would have to do it.

So I found every movie I could on my list on Zip.ca. They claimed to have most of them.

Now, as any customer of Zip knows, they didn’t actually have all the movies they claimed. Some of them they never had but some of them had been damaged and they were waiting to replace, some were stolen as a cost of doing business.

But they had a lot of them.

And, particularly for those five years from 2006 to 2011, I watched as many movies as I could.

Far from all of them were classics but it was better than my local video store and, at this moment, it sure seems like it was better than these streaming wars.

Because Zip had movies that not a lot of people wanted to see but I did. And they had movies from seemingly every genre, many different countries and spanning all film budgets. I could watch a blockbuster, if I had to, and I could find many of the classics. I could also find many of the All Time Worst Movies that I also wanted to watch.

But now, in 2021, Netflix’s decision to focus on original content, and the big studios’ and telecoms’ decisions to wade into streaming have created a new version of the old video store/cable problem.

The movies I want to watch are no longer located in one place (which conveniently mails them to me). Many of them were on Netflix but most are now gone. They’re spread across numerous streaming services and, worse, in way too many cases they haven’t been licensed for streaming. So if my library doesn’t have a DVD, I’m out of luck.

Zip.ca wasn’t perfect, by any means. And I don’t think it was just streaming that killed them. It was also the very thing I loved about them: for Zip to make sense, you needed to watch a ton of movies with a ruthless devotion to watching whatever was in the mailbox that day. There are not enough of us out there.

But they provided a valuable service to film nerds like me: they assembled many of the movies I wanted to see in one place, where I could easily request them or, at the very least, know that they were aware of a title and trying to acquire/replace it.

I don’t have that option right now. And it makes me sad.

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