Film News

The Revival of the Mail Order Movie Club – Disney and Columbia House

Regular visitors to various pop culture websites across the internet have most likely noticed the creeping omnipresence of the Disney Movie Club ad, with two such examples included below:

Disney Movie Club Banner

DisneyMovieClub4MoviesOneLoon
Disney, 2013. Note: Not actual ads you can click or tap. Just pictures taken from a Google Images search.

That’s right – the Mail Order Movie Club, something anyone who remembers the 90s might recall with a mixture of fondness and bitterness, is back.    Or did it ever truly go away?

What the what?  What’s all this then?

Disney is offering an oddly familiar-sounding entrance fee of $1 plus free shipping & handling for four films of your choosing (selecting from a wide variety of live action and animated Disney titles) as part of membership in the Disney Movie Club.  In exchange for this introductory offer, you agree to buy five Disney DVDs (at a full price of $19.95) or Blu-Rays (at a full price of $29.95) plus shipping & handling within the ensuing 24 months.  For every month you are a member, Disney will select a premiere title which must be declined otherwise it will automatically ship to your address leaving you to either open and pay for it or leave unopened and return to the post office.

Where did this come from?

This promotion of four films for $1 dates back to August of 2012, if a cursory glance of Google search results for the phrase “Disney Movie Club” is any indication.  Prior to that, the entrance offer was the far less-enticing 3 movies for $1.99 each with free shipping.  Disney previously offered the Blu-Ray Movie Club in 2009, which was not nearly as financially enticing.  Around that same time, Disney offered coupons (one such example here) which could be used to upgrade to Blu-Ray versions of Disney films already owned on DVD.  This program was called DisneyUpgrade2Blu, and chances are if you purchased a Disney animated film on Blu-Ray or DVD over the past couple of years it probably came with an insert in the packaging directing you to the now-vacated DisneyUpgrade2Blu.com.

What did you mean when you described the $1 for 4 Movies as sounding “oddly familiar”? 

‘Twas a time in the days before discount giants like Amazon, Best-Buy, and Wal-Mart when the best deal for new movies and music at a discounted price was mail order clubs, most prominently Columbia House.  The introductory rates offered by clubs differed, but they were similarly dirt cheap.  One example would be 12 CDs for a penny or a dollar each in exchange to agreeing to a membership contract obliging you to purchase a select number of CDs at full price in a set number of months, a controversial business practice and bane of the Federal Trade Commission known as advanced-notice negative option billing.  During the life of your membership, you would receive monthly mail from the club which if ignored would result in you being shipped the premiere selection of the month and asked to pay for it.  After your introductory offer, the club would routinely offer further discounts, but not as steep as the initial discount and you were still on the hook to purchase the set amount of items at full price.

It was shockingly easy to fill out multiple application forms with bogus contact information and receive a crap ton of films or albums without ever paying for them, although they’d eventually catch on.  See, we were figuring out ways to steal movies and music well before Napster.

Wow.  How big of a deal were these mail order clubs?

I can’t say for certain how much they accounted for sales in the home video industry, but in the music industry services such as Columbia House reached a market share peak in 1994 when they accounted for 15.1% of all CD sales. Columbia House membership peaked at 16 million in 1996.

What happened to them?

In the same way that even the big box store that killed the shop around the corner are now being killed by Amazon (see: Borders & Circuit City among the dead, Best Buy & Barnes N’ Nobles among the dying) the clubs were beaten by better discounts and increased convenience. Columbia House’s primary competition (and brief owner after a 2005 buyout)  BMG Music Service (formerly known as RCA Records Club) ceased operations in 2009.  Columbia House closed its music club in 2005, but continues to operate its movie club, albeit under a completely different ownership group which has opted to retain the name Columbia House.  In truth, the Columbia House club has existed in some form consistently since 1955, at which time it specialized in records and survived transitions to 8-track, cassette, and CD and the transition of the VHS to DVD and Blu-Ray.

You’re going to tell us about your history with these things now, aren’t you?

I come from a family of BMG/Columbia House abusers. I get all nostalgic thinking about the old introductory film or music catalogs, which typically for me in the 90s consisted of a  long sheet of connected stamps featuring the movie/album cover and an identifying numerical code.  You were meant to remove the stamp and paste it to an order card, making sure to also print the selection’s unique identifying code on the space as well in case the stamp somehow fell off.  I owe a not insignificant number of the VHS films owned in my life to Columbia House.  This was among the initial VHS films I got when I joined Columbia House:

Forrest Gump VHS
Yep, that’s what a VHS tape looked like.  It seemed pretty awesome at the time.  We had no idea how much cooler DVDs and Blu-Rays were going to be.

I was a late music bloomer.  As a teenager, I knew about music that which I overheard my older brothers discuss, which is to say that grunge bands were apparently awesome.  However, when I finally got into music  BMG and Columbia House were incredibly efficient resources for jumping into the back catalogs of established artists.  This was among the initial CDs I got when I first joined Columbia House:

Pearl Jam Ten
Overly serious, bombastic rock with inscrutable lyrics? It’s all those things, yet to this day I still kind of love Pearl Jam

The clubs were a real mixed bag, as described here.  I recall with joy the thrill of getting the initial offerings for seemingly nothing and feeling as if I had gotten away with robbery.  I also remember the embarrassingly high number of CDs/films I had to write “REFUSED” on and place in the old mail box with the flag up, hoping that would solve the problem and being surprised that it actually always did.  By the end when you had fulfilled your obligation you might stop and do the math and wonder if it had actually been that great of a deal after all.

However, that’s all in the past.  Blu-Rays, DVDs, and cds are, for the most part, deeply discounted all over the place.  We don’t need Columbia House for that.  Plus, Netflix (for film/tv) and Spotify (for music) are the emerging distribution models –  access to unlimited streaming of a wide catalog of titles in exchange for a monthly fee.  If these things existed back then, the teenage version of myself wouldn’t have needed Columbia House, yet mail order clubs persist.

It seems like such a bizarre trip to pop culture distribution methods of the past.  It’s like with this and the deal Disney signed with Netflix last December (which only goes into full effect in 2016) they are both forward- and backward-thinking.   Disney has doggedly refused to allow deep discounting of their product at big box retailers which has resulted in a brand identity of a producer of premium content priced accordingly.  So, with discounts on Disney films hard to find this Disney Movie Club in which it is Disney doing the direct discounting makes more sense.  One can easily imagine an adult who grew up on Columbia House having kids now and looking at the Disney Movie Club as an attractive option for obtaining animated films for the kids (or for themselves, coming from one adult who still loves animation).  That being said, even though you would now have the option of handling all communication through email I’d be afraid I’d fall back into old habits and keep forgetting to decline the monthly selection.  Some habits die-hard, which is apparently also true for some distribution models.

What about you?  Are you similarly surprised by these retro-developments, or are you already a Mickey Mouse ear-wearing member of the Disney Movie Club?  Any funny stories of your own from film, music, or book clubs?

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