For independent and arthouse films, San Francisco based CafeDVD provides a unique alternative to the main rental services. The company was founded in 1999 by a group of indie film directors, and other movie industry professionals who were passionate about sharing their love for the big screen with others. They've since built a solid reputation amongst cinephiles as a place to turn for hard-to-find films that the others don't carry.
Similar to another California based rental company Greencine, CafeDVD focuses hard on finding films that Blockbuster and Netflix would never carry. They carry an excessive amount of independent, artistic, foreign, and classic DVDs that are handpicked by their staff. They skip over newer releases of questionable quality to focus on higher quality films that true fans of the cinema can enjoy. The selection is massive and carries over 60,000 DVDs. We highly recommend you take a look for yourself at just how diverse their inventory is.
The inventory is also surprisingly available, even on newer and more popular films. This may be in part to their unique pricing structure, but it nonetheless ensures that at least something on your queue will be mailed to you.
As a smaller rental company, CafeDVD doesn't boast the same fancy features you'd find at some of the other services. They offer a simple layout that allows you to search by title, director, cast, or synopsis, as well as browse one of their 22 genres.
One of the more positive features on their site is the myriad of lists put together by their staff. They include categories such as AFI 100, Best of Avant Garde, Meryl Street Musts, and Top Shakespeare Adaptations. Tons of best of categories including Cannes Winners and Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. Our favorite though is titled 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. This is the adapted list from the popular book by Steven Jay Schneider. This alone will keep you busy for years (at last check Roger Ebert himself has seen over 900 of these films).
CafeDVD provides members with a simple information page that shows the rating, stars, director, studio, subtitles, and length. Each movie has a short synopsis that is about a paragraph in length. They do link to external reviews from major film critics to pages on sites like epinions.com. There is also a button to take users to the Google reviews page that shows all the available reviews for a particular movie.
CafeDVD is located in San Francisco, California and ships all their rentals from that location. As with other companies with one shipping center, your time relies heavily on where you are in the country. West Coast residents will see 1-2 day delivery times, while East Coast should see 2-4. We have not had results given to us by anyone outside the Pacific time zone so we can't vouch for how well delivery is to areas outside it.
One of the nicer features with CafeDVD is the ability to mark an item as returned and give a quick start for the next batch (this is something no major competitors are doing at the moment). DVDs are mailed in a tyvek foam pouch mailer that ensures less scratching. Shipping is free and DVDs are shipped and returned in pairs.
Overall, the addition of the advanced shipping feature speeds up delivery and helps alleviate the gap that would occur for subscribers in the Midwest and East Coast.
Here is the part where things get downright tricky. CafeDVD does not offer an unlimited package or a free trial at the moment. There are two ways to rent from them.
The first and most popular is selecting a fixed amount of DVDs to rent a month. They are available in the following plans:
Small (6 rentals a month) - $14.95
Medium (8 rentals a month) - $19.95
Large (10 rentals a month) - $23.95
The other option is ala cart which allows individuals to rent movies for $3.00 per title (plus shipping) with no monthly subscription fees. Shipping fees range from $2.49-$3.49 for first class depending on the number of DVDs ordered, and a standard $4.75 for priority mail. You can cut down the cost of shipping when purchasing their SaverPak which is prepaid rental credits. Movies can be held for eight full days before you're charged a $3 per DVD per week late fee. Members with a strong rental history may have their late fees waived by the staff.
Either way, the lack of an unlimited plan puts them at a major disadvantage compared to their competitors. The average price per disc with Netflix is half that of CafeDVD.
CafeDVD is small but offers something unique. Their selection is strong and the focus on quality is apparent. Their plans are a bit different than other companies, and you will pay more for every rental. Having to ship back two movies at a time also slows down overall turnaround time of getting rid of old movies and bringing in new ones.
Despite some of their flaws, they can make a good supplement for your rental collection. If you're a diehard movie fan who doesn't mind spending money on keeping yourself entertained at home, we suggest giving CafeDVD a try alongside your main rental company (Netflix or Blockbuster). You'll find DVDs that are not available on those sites. If you're a light renter with a passion for artistic films, joining the medium rental plan will get you two movies a week and may be right up your alley. Otherwise, you just don't get a great value from CafeDVD.