Apple should fix online movie rentals — here's how

Movie rentals at iTunes
(Image credit: Apple)

The other day, I rented Confess, Fletch through Apple's online store, so that my wife and I could stream a movie through our Apple TV. I'm a fan of Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch books, but I care much less for Chevy Chase's Fletch films, so I was hoping that the new version starring Jon Hamm would be more faithful to the original novel.

It costs $19.99 to rent Confess, Fletch, because the movie is available to stream at the same time it's been released to theaters. Paying $20 just to rent a movie cuts me to my very core, as I am both a cheapskate and a fellow who grew up in the home video rental era when $20 would allow you to walk out of a Blockbuster Video store with an armful of VHS cassettes. But Confess, Fletch wasn't playing at a theater we cared to drive to, and I figured that the $19.99 fee would cost less than full-price movie tickets for me and the missus. So we went ahead and rented it.

And you know what? A good time was had by all. Jon Hamm comes across as a very likable Fletch, the supporting cast is solid and the mystery plot is peppy and moves right along. In fact, I enjoyed Confess, Fletch so much, that by the time the closing credits rolled, I wished I had paid the extra $5 to buy the movie outright.

Which is when it hit me: Why can't I pay a few extra dollars to buy the movie I just rented?

Jon Hamm in Confess, Fletch

Confess, Fletch is a movie so nice, I'd like to pay for it... well, not twice, exactly. (Image credit: Miramax)

If you've spent any time streaming movies available through iTunes or Amazon, you know that there are two kinds of ways to enjoy a flick digitally — you can rent it, which gives you a predetermined window in which to watch the movie from the moment you hit play, or you can buy it. Buying a movie usually costs more than renting it, with that cost depending on how new the movie is and whether the likes of Apple or Amazon are running a promotion.

Deciding whether to buy or rent a movie is a pretty easy decision most of the time, particularly when you're renting something from the back catalogue. My daughter wants to see The Phantom of the Opera so that she can marvel at Gerard Butler speak-singing? That's a rental, friends. Apple's selling The Right Stuff, one of my favorite movies from the 1980s at a sizable discount? Buy, buy, buy.

But the decision gets much harder now that Apple and Amazon are able to sell and rent movies at the same time as their theatrical release. In the case of Confess, Fletch, I had a pretty good feeling that this was going to be my kind of movie. But was that a $25 bet I wanted to make at the time, when a more affordable rental option was available? It really wasn't.

Now that I've seen the movie, though, I'm ready to rethink that "Rent, Not Buy" stance, but not if it means paying for the same motion picture twice. But just tacking on an extra $5 to my bill — that's the difference between what it costs to buy Confess, Fletch versus the rental fee — and I might be more easily persuaded to give Apple and the studios that make a movie more of my money. Especially for a movie I enjoyed as much as Confess, Fletch.

(And just as an aside here, in case it's not absolutely clear — you really should block out some time to watch Confess, Fletch, whether it's in a local theater or from the comfort of your catch. Miramax seems to have put next to no money into promoting the movie, which is a crying shame, because it's the sort of zippy, quippy affair that's perfect entertainment at the end of a long week. We used to get a lot of movies like this before studios before studios adopted their "Comic Book Blockbuster or Obvious Oscar Bait or It's Not Getting Made" strategy, and perhaps tossing some money Confess, Fletch's way convinces someone there's a market for this sort of thing. Plus, I'd love to see Jon Hamm in Fletch's Fortune or Fletch's Moxie.)

Apple already does this with music downloads at its online store. The Complete My Album feature lets you buy full albums at reduced rates when you've already downloaded individual tracks via iTunes. That way, you're not paying for the same song twice, and you're more inclined to pay up for the complete album if you like what you've already heard. For example, because I've already paid for Ring of Fire and It Ain't Me Babe, Apple would only charge me $13.01 for the rest of The Essential Johnny Cash instead of the usual $14.99. That's a fair deal, and it's something Apple should do with movies, too.

Complete My Album in iTunes

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Of course, there's a large gap between "should" and "will," and I imagine that somewhere in between is a gaggle of movie executives shaking their heads. Apple can't unilaterally decide to impose my rather excellent idea about letting movie renters buy the title they just watched at a discount without studio sign-on. And if you've ever tried to navigate the web of online streaming agreements that studios strike with different services, you'll know that there's nothing straightforward and simple about how that industry goes about its business.

Nevertheless, I hope this is something Apple or Amazon or anyone else who offers streaming movie rentals can eventually offer. I don't ask much in the way of compensation for this idea — just let me have Confess, Fletch for an extra fiver.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.