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Movie night? So many choices (of how to watch)

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Brad Schwarz, 29, and Mary Maynard, 27, signed up for a Netflix account six months ago so they can stream movies at their apartment in Hoboken, N.J. (Photo by Candy Cheng/CNS)

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Brad Schwarz, 29, and his fiancee, Mary Maynard, 27, picking out a Netflix movie to stream on March 18, 2009, in Hoboken, N.J. (Photo by Candy Cheng/CNS)

Movie nights for Nan Varoga, co-owner of Varoga & Associates, and her husband Craig Varoga, a political consultant, used to be a lot more complicated. They would go to the movies at the same time on Saturday nights, he in Washington, D.C., and she in New Orleans. After the credits rolled, they would drive home to call each other and discuss the plot of movies such as “All American Hero” and “Mississippi Burning.”

“There are plenty of ways to have that common experience now,” said Craig Varoga, who had taken a job in Washington before his wife could join him. “It’s just a different world now.”

Different media options have indeed made movie watching easier, but with so many to choose from, how does one decide whether to rent, stream or just leave it up to TV Guide? With varying costs and levels of quality, choosing how to watch a movie today can be more complicated than a “Mission Impossible” plot. It can also reveal something about your movie watching personality.

The Fast & Furious Movie Watcher

Luke Groskin, 26, in New York City, prefers streaming movies on his Xbox because he is always on the hunt for the next new thing. A young and hip videographer, Groskin stays on top of the latest hits by checking his Netflix account every Tuesday, the date when the movie and music industries traditionally release their latest titles.

“The video store doesn’t always carry the movies you want and with regular Netflix, there is sometimes a waiting list for movies,” he said. Recently, Groskin and his girlfriend wanted to see “Man On Wire,” an Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit’s tightrope between the Twin Towers. There was a waiting list for it on Netflix. He ended up streaming it.

An Xbox 360 console costs about $299. In order to activate streaming capabilities, a $50 a year Xbox Live gold subscription is required. Topped with a Netflix membership at $8.99 a month, the service can add up to over $150 a year. But for a guy like Groskin, convenience outweighs the cost. “It’s cool to get what you want, when you want it, without having to wait for the DVD to arrive.”

The Gadget Geek

Brad Schwarz, 29, and his fiancée, Mary Maynard, 27, love to watch videos. “I won’t start dinner until I’ve selected a video to watch later,” said Schwarz, an information technology manager.

They stream movies through their Xbox, but they also have a Blu-ray player (which plays high-definition videos), a Roku (a digital streaming player) and a collection of over 200 DVDs.

The cost of all this gadgetry is substantial. The Xbox has the same streaming capability as the Roku, except the latter, at $99, is far less expensive. Schwarz, an admitted technogeek, acknowledges that having both devices is unnecessary, but he bought the Roku before Microsoft and Netflix joined forces last November to make it possible to watch movies on the Xbox .

“The Roku is a little easier to use and offers a slightly different variety of movies,” said Schwarz. Having an Xbox as well gives him access to the Xbox Live community, where members can play video games, chat, stream movies and even share photos.

After a steak and potatoes dinner on a recent Wednesday night at home in Hoboken, N.J., Schwarz and Maynard cozied up on the couch and streamed the 1986 film “Back to the Future” through their Xbox console. “This is like my parent’s version of pay-per-view, except with more options,” said Maynard.

There are 92 million households with DVD players, but 64 percent of DVD owners have more than one player, according to Digital Entertainment Group, a nonprofit industry group dedicated to promoting DVDs.

The Streamer vs. the Renter

The debate over video vs. streaming could have more sequels then a Bond movie, but if the experience of A.J. Maioran is any guide, streaming will eventually beat out video.

“There are no other instant gratifications I know of, other than iTunes, that has this ability,” said Maioranon, 27, a graphics designer for Apple in San Francisco. He usually instant streams movies from Netflix at 9 or 10 p.m. with his roommates after work, which costs him $8.99 for a monthly membership.

But at such a high cost, why not get a free Blockbuster membership and rent a movie for $4.32 to $5.41 a week?

On recent Friday night in Astoria, Queens, 15 people waited in line at the local Blockbuster to rent movies; a dozen more were browsing the aisles.

“We grew up going to the video store so we still prefer to come to the store and pick out a movie,” said Jennifer Lord, 30, a research scientist, who was in the comedy aisle picking out a movie with her boyfriend. “Plus, there was nothing good on TV tonight.”

Lord added that she never uses pay per view because it does not offer the movies she wants to watch. DIRECTV, for example, currently offers 51 movies available on pay per view. By contrast, her local Blockbuster had more than 10,000 movies available, at the price of $5.41 for a new release and $4.32 for regular movies. For a similar price, Netflix has some 12,000 movies available for instant viewing.

For another customer, frustration with new technology brought her to the video store. “I would actually rather stream a movie online if I could, but I always takes forever to download or I get an error message,” said Michelle Sheetz, 30, a psychologist.

“In the end, it’s just easier to walk the 10 blocks to the video store and physically hold the DVD so you know you have it and it will work when you go home,” said Sheetz. “I guess I consider myself pretty low tech.”

Of course, there’s another option that’s tech free and cost effective: your local public library. The Los Angeles Public Library, for example, has 15,562 DVDs available for borrowers, absolutely free. Only for two days, though.

E-mail: cyc2119@columbia.edu