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HomeEntertainmentA Eulogy for Netflix’s DVD-by-Mail Era

A Eulogy for Netflix’s DVD-by-Mail Era


On April 18, Netflix announced it was “sunseting” — or ending — its DVD rental option in the material world. The last photo show in the form of 5-inch discs delivered to your door by hand in red envelopes will be discontinued on September 29, 2023. Randolph stated, adding an unsentimental kiss, “Thanks for your service.”

While it was only inevitable that Netflix would embrace the pledge in its name, the announcement struck many as yet another fatal blow from the ailment of physical media, that resonant term for a record album, reel of film, or DVD box set you can actually get. put your feet up and collect. Increasingly, in home entertainment there is only one way to press play and that is to log in and stream (or download) a digital file.

Netflix’s disc toss feels like a decisive pivot as the company’s trajectory neatly parallels the second phase in the evolution of hands-on, home movie watching. The first phase, of course, was television, which in the immediate post-war era stirred up the noise of Hollywood. The second phase started with VHS, supplemented with DVD, and now seems to have settled down with digital streaming, which is where we’re all getting into.

The VHS (Video Home System) cassette tapes, introduced in the mid-1970s, were the first major revolution in home entertainment since television became indispensable in the living room. One way to deal with the new video technology was to grab the means of production (video cameras and blank cassette tapes) and create DIY productions that documented weddings, bar mitzvahs, and more; the other way was to let the professionals do it and bring home a feature film on the new format.

Ironically, the gateway drug was not a commercial movie title, but a fitness regimen. Jane Fonda’s workout. In 1982, the shapely actress did for the purchase of VHS cassettes and players what Milton Berle did for television sets in 1949. investment for a feature film watched once or twice was less attractive: blade runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanAnd An officer and a gentleman (all 1982) sold for $39.95; premium selections such as Gone with the wind (1939) and Pinocchio (1940) sold for a $79.95 sticker. Prices of VHS tapes fell gradually – in 1986 Top gun sold for $26.95 — but at a time when it was cheaper to bring a date Top gun than purchasing the VHS, many consumers opted for temporary preservation rather than permanent possession.

While major outfits like Hollywood Video and countless mom-and-pop stores surged into the rental market, the emblematic and hegemonic outlet was Blockbuster Video Inc., which seems doomed to go down in media history as the village blacksmith to Netflix’s car garage. Founded in 1985 by Texas oilman David Cook, Blockbuster opened its flagship store in Dallas with an inventory of 8,000 VHS and 2,000 Beta tapes (the loser in the decade-long “format wars,” Betamax was a superior, but short-lived, analog videotape format from Sony.) Blockbuster specialized in rentals, not sales (“The margins for tape sales are pretty lousy,” Cook said), required no membership fees, and charged $1-$2 per rental, depending on the title.

The company went like a spear. The business model was simple: high turnover, convenient retail locations, a wide selection of movies with clearly marked categories, fast automated checkouts, and an out-of-hours return bin. By 1994, the year Blockbuster was acquired by Viacom, it had sucked 20 percent of the market. In 1997, its share was 27 percent, three times more than its closest competitor, Hollywood Video.

Members of a certain generation may remember the ritual of a Friday night pilgrimage to Blockbuster to book into the weekend entertainment — the aisles packed with parents and teens searching for the latest copy of a hot new release. By 1999, Blockbuster—commercially nicknamed “McVideo”—operated some 6,500 stores around the world serving 91 percent of U.S. homes that owned a VHS player, a level of penetration nearly equivalent to broadcast television.

In 1997, the introduction of the Digital Versatile (not Video) Disc threatened to expand rather than disrupt the video rental market. Early adopters (many of them young men) defected to the disc en masse. Only two years later, 1999 was hailed by the trade press as ‘the year of the DVD’. The buffs and techies touted the virtues of the DVD’s higher resolution and capacity for additional “extras,” but another quality proved no less transformative: the format’s size, thin and light, was easy to slip into a letterbox. .

Enter Netflix. In a recent thread on Twitter, Marc Randolph recalled the startup company’s salad days, how co-founder Reed Hastings and himself (“two Silicone Valley geeks”) envisioned a “DVD rental by mail idea” based on a “no-due” dates, no-late fees subscription model” and online orders. “It’s not going to replace the video store in any way,” Randolph said Billboard in 1998, although he probably already saw physical competition in his sights. (The longer version of the original story is told in Randolph’s The birth of Netflix and the great life of an idea that will never workpublished in 2019, a likely blueprint for a future Ben Affleck-Matt Damon movie.)

For $4 per title, the customer purchased a seven-day DVD rental that could be returned in a pre-addressed, pre-paid label. You don’t have to go to a store, you don’t have to make hasty choices before another customer takes your cassette. (Netflix did share one affinity with Blockbuster: It refused to trade porn, “an absolute no-no,” Randolph noted.)

Netflix thrived until the dotcom bubble burst in 2000 and the company ran into cash flow problems. Randolph recounts how he and Hastings, desperate for funding, went to Blockbuster to broker a partnership. He couldn’t stop himself from kicking the corpse of the late competitor and notes that the Blockbuster execs grinned and passed on the deal.

Around that time, the first shelf space at Blockbuster, formerly the privileged property of the VHS tape, was being pushed aside by DVDs. “I need a DVD player,” said every Blockbuster customer as they surveyed the shelves.

Blockbuster was slow to pick up on the warning signs. “The company’s favorite point – that 70% of US households live within a 10-minute drive of a Blockbuster store – won’t mean much if the user/viewer can stay home and make his or her choice,” noted trade reporter Denis Seguin up. in 2000 Screen. It didn’t venture into online rentals until 2003, when Netflix was the undisputed bigfoot. In 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. The company’s obituary has arrived The New York Times had a cup worthy Variety: “Why bricks and clicks don’t always go together.”

Now Netflix has removed the clicks, at least the ones that called a US Postal Service agent to you. However, before movie buffs and pack rats get too nostalgic about the end of the DVD delivery service, they might remember how limited the library of selections on Netflix is. Like Blockbuster, of which maybe 100 copies are in stock The Blair Witch Project (1999) and not a single silent movie, most of Netflix’s streaming inventory comes from titles that opened in a mall multiplex in the 21st century. Writer and self-proclaimed “video store vixen” Kate Hagen did the math. “Right now, Netflix is ​​streaming about 3,800 movies — less than half what the average Blockbuster used to have.” (Well, not my Blockbuster.) “As for movies made before 1990, only 79 titles are currently streaming. If we go to 1980 or earlier, that drops to 36.”

The result, as always, is that the more film only exists in a digital world, the more decisions about availability are in the hands of companies, where monetization is the main criterion for access. From this perspective, the Netflix disc toss may have one archival benefit for the physical media collector: the upcoming sale of used DVDs on eBay.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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