Our red-letter days are over.
If you were an early Netflix subscriber — before it became a streamer, before it started making its own series and features — you knew it by those distinctive, thin, crimson-hued envelopes.
Getting them was easy. You went online and browsed through a list of old and recent movies and TV series. You checked off the ones you were interested in, adding them to your “queue” — the British-ism adding a touch of elegance to this new bit of digital shopping.
Then, a few days later, that paper mailer arrived, with your DVD inside. You watched it — take as long as you like! — and then sent it back. And once you did, the Netflix machine moved down your wish list and sent you another one.
No late fees, no trips to the video store, no hassle. It was lovely.
Well, goodbye to all that.
After a quarter-of-a-century of rentals, the company has announced that it will ship its final requested discs on Sept. 29; subscribers have another month to ship them back. If you forget? Don’t worry about it. Netflix has said, at that point, you can just keep the damn things. They don’t want ’em.
Because after Sept. 29 they’re shutting the whole rent-by-mail operation down and concentrating on their mammoth, multinational streaming business.
Although the everything’s-online-anyway whippersnappers may be amused to hear anyone was still watching movies this way — Variety referred to that stubborn core of subscribers as “last-gaspers” — it is worth remembering what an innovation this service was.
And all that it changed — for good and bad.
Before Netflix began, if you wanted to rent a movie to watch at home, you had to schlep to the local video store. The experience wasn’t ideal.
Chains like Blockbuster, as their name announced, devoted much of their wall-space to the latest big hits (most of which already seemed to be rented by the time you got there) while giving short shrift to older films and offbeat choices. Local stores stocked far fewer titles (although they were more likely to reflect the personal tastes of their core customers, or the eccentric running the joint).
True, the experience had its own thrill. (Remember the concessions-stand sized boxes of candy at the chain outlets? The rather dodgy “Adults” section at local stores, hidden behind an old curtain?) But it still required a schlep, and those late fees often could cost more than the rental. Netflix was a convenient new option.
True, it took away some of the immediacy of renting: If you wanted a movie for the weekend, you had to put in your order by Monday or so, depending on your mail service. But its online nature offered faster browsing, and the lightweight, compact nature of DVDs — which had just begun to replace VHS as the preferred home-video format — meant that postage costs were so minimal, the company could offer pre-paid returns.
Going to a monthly fee rather than a per-rental one also gave the company a predictable revenue stream. And a certain amount of painless profit, as subscribers didn’t get a new disc until they mailed back an old one. Like those novels you were always meaning to read, those movies you were always meaning to watch could just accumulate — except, unlike your crowded nightstand, your untouched queue offered no visible reproach beyond that regular credit-card fee.
Like Amazon (which, remember, began as an online bookseller), Netflix took a while to catch on, and longer to turn a profit. At one low point, in 2000, it even asked Blockbuster if they wanted to buy them out for $50 million. Blockbuster declined, smirking at this dot.com upstart. Lucky for Netflix. The Silicon Valley company held on and within four years, hit $500 million in revenue; within five they were mailing out a million DVDs a day.
Meanwhile, within 10 years, old brick-and-mortar Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy.
As much as I enjoyed old-school video stores — Tower Records used to have a great, eclectic selection — I was an early Netflix subscriber, and an immediate fan. As a movie buff, there was a certain quiet thrill when one of those red envelopes came in the mail, sometimes even bringing a film I’d forgotten I’d ordered. And for someone who wrote and lectured on movies, they were a great resource — making research easier, providing a fail-safe backup in case my own DVD failed during class.
Then, in 2007, Netflix had another idea: video on demand. In addition to the now 70,000 films it had available by mail, it offered 1000 titles for instant streaming.
At first it seemed like a novelty (and even a pain, as households sometimes struggled with balky Wi-Fi). But the company began signing exclusive streaming deals with studios like Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate. In 2011, it moved into original series content, producing series like “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” (It had already dipped a toe into feature-film production with the gritty “Sherrybaby,” back in 2006.)
Meanwhile, its DVD-by-mail service was declining, year after year. Some of those wounds seemed to be self-inflicted: The library was ruthlessly pared down, particularly when it came to older films. A keyword search that once brought up 20 of a star’s movies now often yielded only a half dozen; cheap copies of public-domain films increasingly dominated the catalog. It was almost as if Netflix wanted the division to fail.
It certainly had little interest in seeing it survive. Last year, Variety reports, “the DVD business generated $145.7 million, down 20% year-over-year, which represented just 0.5 % of its total revenue.”
Time to hit Eject.
There is a kind of rough justice to it; perhaps it is only fair that new technologies have made the disc-by-mail model obsolete, just as Netflix made Blockbuster obsolete. But the disappearance of those little red envelopes is another nail in the coffin of physical media, and that’s nothing to cheer.
Streaming services can add, or drop, titles at will. They can even, surreptitiously, edit a film, making the only available version one with censored language or images. They can promote their own productions over others, or pad out their catalog with cheaply made, bought-for-a-bargain schlock. Or they can — because of rights issues, residual costs or clever tax deductions — decide to “disappear” a movie forever, making it unwatchable.
An actual, hold-in-your hands DVD — whether you’ve rented it, taken it out from the library or, better yet, purchased it — is something you have. It’s something you made a conscious decision to watch — not something some algorithm has shoved in front of you. It’s something you have control over — and that’s rare enough in this world.
So, two concluding bits of advice:
If you are one of us “last-gaspers,” rent those Netflix discs while you can. You still have a few weeks.
And if you have a favorite movie, one you love watching and rewatching? Buy it now.
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