St Albans is a sedate sort of city. Sleepy, wealthy, suburban. There's a superb medieval abbey, which has doubled for Westminster Abbey on film (in the James Bond spoof Johnny English), and a few Roman remnants, which came from the original settlement being the first stop on the road north out of London. But, on the whole, it's run-of-the-mill commuter country.
Perhaps the genteel ambiance of the place has worn off on its population, because this city of 130,000 people – bigger than Cambridge or Carlisle – rents fewer action and adventure DVDs than any other conurbation in the country. They're missing the visceral thrills of Miami Vice, of Mission: Impossible, of Ocean's Eleven, the poor things. Maybe they should stay in more.
Can geography determine our taste in movies? A quirk of the online rental revolution is that next-door's DVDs often drop on to my doormat in error, and I have to rein in my curiosity before putting them through the correct letterbox, unopened. I'm fascinated to know whether I'm watching the same films as my neighbours. Would Bullet Boy have appealed to me if my flat weren't in London's East End? Am I surrounded by aspiring literary types renting Atonement instead of reading the book? Would I have watched London to Brighton if I were from Birmingham? And if I can find out about my fellow E1 neighbours, then why not ask about the whole country? Do they watch Billy Elliot in County Durham and Trainspotting in Edinburgh? Might the citizens of Hull harbour a secret fondness for Merchant Ivory movies? Who watches the porn?
Online film rental companies use databases to better predict their customers' tastes. In the US, the online rental firm Netflix is running a competition to build a film recommendation engine that can improve on its "Cinematch" system, with a $1m prize waiting for the winner. Netflix and its competitors grow their businesses using reams of customer data that, they hope, will continue to help them send the right films to the right film lovers.
If you're anything like me, it's some time since you last walked into a video store. Nowadays, the branches of the big video chains are a threadbare bunch, fading as the internet movie rental habit powers ahead. In the past six years, Blockbuster's New York share price has fallen from $30 to less than $3. And their specialist, independent equivalents are somewhat redundant in the face of the online search function.
So the best people to help satisfy my nosiness are the team at my own DVD subscription service Lovefilm, the UK's biggest online film rental company. It has 600,000 movie lovers on its books who rent more than three million films every month, from a catalogue of more than 65,000 titles. If those guys don't know who's watching what, where, then nobody does.
With Lovefilm's help, we've put together a movie-watching map of Britain. Some of it is surprising (Hull doesn't like Merchant Ivory, but Huddersfield does), some of it is predictable, but all of it is fascinating. London, as you might expect, dominates the market, but delve beyond the capital, and trends emerge. There is a tendency for people to pick films set in their own cities. Outside London, The Full Monty, about unemployed Sheffield steelworkers, is most rented in Sheffield; Hallam Foe, the tale of a troubled teen let loose in Edinburgh, is most rented in Edinburgh; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is particularly popular with the pirates of Penzance.
Nationwide, we demonstrate better developed critical faculties in our film renting than our cinema-going. Not all of 2007's biggest box office hits feature highly in the past 12 months' rental top 10. Spider-Man 3 and Transformers failed to make much of an impact on the Lovefilm membership. Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix – 2007's top-grossing UK cinema release – is nowhere to be seen, and nor is Shrek the Third.
Perhaps, then, when the children have been put to bed and we're weary of blockbuster spectacle, what we really want to cosy up with is a well-crafted drama – one that everyone who's seen it tells us is worth a watch. Thus the most popular rentals of the past 12 months have been Atonement and The Last King of Scotland, two fantastic British literary adaptations whose popularity spread by word of mouth. Hot on their heels in third and fourth place come The Bourne Ultimatum and Hot Fuzz.
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Statistics differ between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Die Hard 4.0 was big everywhere, but was the third most rented DVD of the year in Wales, one place behind Bourne Ultimatum. The Welsh, unlike St Albans residents, like action.
Turning to the statistics for the past three months alone, we see that the winner of this year's Oscar for Best Picture, the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men, has been beaten in the rental stakes by St Trinian's in every country but Scotland. Scottish cities, it turns out, are especially keen on watching Oscar winners.
As for all my neighbours in E1, their tastes are straight from the coffee table: over the past 12 months, the top five rented films in the area are The Last King of Scotland, Atonement, Blood Diamond, The Lives of Others and Babel. It's all a bit earnest, isn't it? Five dramas, two and a half of them set in Africa, one of them scripted in German, two of them adapted from literary novels. No comedy, only a smattering of action, and a lot of furrowed brows and stroked chins. I suppose I should've expected as much.
A tale of two towns
You'd think bookish Oxford and brash Blackpool couldn't be more different. Yet they are both cities of around 140,000 people, with large tourist populations and, indeed, a substantial crossover in their film tastes. Among their top 10 rentals of the past 12 months, both cities picked Blood Diamond, The Bourne Ultimatum, Hot Fuzz, and The Pursuit of Happyness. After that, however, their tastes diverge.
Oxford is big on literary adaptations: Atonement, The Last King of Scotland, and Notes on a Scandal. Oxford, along with Bath, Edinburgh and London, was keen on the Oscar-winning German film, The Lives of Others, the only foreign picture to make it into many such lists. It also picked Babel, the misery-fest by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, and Little Miss Sunshine, which most of the rest of us saw over a year ago. Blackpool, meanwhile, likes thrilling (Die Hard 4.0, 28 Weeks Later) and not-so-thrilling (Next, Spider-Man 3) action spectaculars. At the top of Blackpool's list is the DVD hit Déjà Vu. The Denzel Washington thriller received a mediocre critical rating of 56 per cent from the website Rotten Tomatoes, which analyses the views of reviewers from the US and UK. But renters on the Lovefilm website rate the film at 71 per cent. Perhaps it looks better on the small screen.
Top 10 films rented in Oxford in the past 12 months
1. The Last King of Scotland
3. The Lives of Others
4. Blood Diamond
5. Hot Fuzz
6. The Bourne Ultimatum
7. Notes on a Scandal
8. Babel9. Little Miss Sunshine
10. The Pursuit of Happyness
Top 10 films rented in Blackpool in the past 12 months
1. Déjà Vu
2. The Bourne Ultimatum
3. Die Hard 4.0
5. Knocked Up
6. Hot Fuzz
7. 28 Weeks Later
8. The Pursuit of Happyness
9. Blood Diamond
10. Spider-Man 3
Read more of Tim Walker's LOVEFilm findings on Watch It! , The Independent's film and television blog
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