Netflix recently surprised no one by announcing that its once wildly successful, zeitgeist-capturing DVD by Mail program was winding down and would send its final envelope on September 29th, 2023. The announcement was unexpected only in the sense that plenty of Netflix’s own users probably thought that the streaming giant had discontinued that program years ago. Streaming is such a massive force in entertainment and American life, that it’s become very easy to forget how transformative and wonderful Netflix was in the beginning before it was a streaming company. Netflix’s DVD-by-mail program was the best of times for watching movies at home. And I know. Because I was there when it all changed.
I worked for four years as a video store clerk throughout high school and college, primarily at Blockbuster Video, so I have a granular knowledge of the myriad devastating weaknesses of the traditional video store. For starters, there was the hassle of having to head down to Blockbuster or Hollywood Video or a mom-and-pop outlet and hope that the in-demand new release you wanted hadn’t already been checked out. Then there were the late fees and lines. Video stores punished renters harshly for not turning films in on time with steep fines that made the whole process a lot less fun, as did the prospect of having to wait behind 15 other annoyed customers looking to rent something to distract the kiddies.
I have all too vivid memories of letting a friend of a friend rent the famously self-indulgent Eric Shaeffer vehicle If Lucy Fell from my account and wracking up maybe eighty dollars in late fees on it. Now, let’s make this clear, no one should have to pay money to see If Lucy Fell, let alone be forced to pay a small fortune because of someone else’s irresponsibility. Despite kinda creating an entire subculture of armchair movie aficionados, the video store was simply an unsustainable business model.
Unlike streaming, which, was an audacious new technology, Netflix’s savvy business model combined two previously existing businesses — the US postal system and DVDs — in a new and exciting way. It didn’t reinvent the way people watched movies at home or try to create some strange future in which movies started to feel like a utility bill. Instead, Netflix used the mediums by which people watched movies and just cut out the store. With Netflix, the video store came to you. By sending sleek DVDs in eye-catching red envelopes to subscribers in their homes, Netflix solved one of the biggest problems of traditional video stores: the need to venture out of your home in order to procure the DVD you wanted, while running the risk that the video store might not have your movie anyway.
Eliminating late fees was an even bigger deal, and again, one that feels quaint now, but was actually huge at the time. Netflix started the DVD-by-mail business in 1998, a time when having a new release movie in your house for more than three days would start to cost you a lot of money. By the early aughts, you could catch up on shows that were hard to watch on cable, like Battlestar Galactica. And the lack of late fees took the guilt and shame and scary cost out of renting DVDs by allowing customers to keep discs as long as they’d like. True, they would need to return that disc eventually in order to get another movie sent to their home but that seemed like a more than reasonable compromise.
When I first discovered Netflix as a young pop culture writer/film critic it legitimately seemed miraculous. It felt like a massive step forward in the evolution of how we consume movies. It had a brilliant business model but it also had great branding. Netflix’s reference to its red envelope being “iconic” in the note announcing the end of DVDs-by-mail is totally self-aggrandizing but it’s also accurate.
Because I still get the mail-order DVDs, even to this day, I get a Pavlovian shiver of excitement when I spot that unmistakable red envelope in the mail. There’s just something weirdly satisfying about the ritual of ordering a movie online, then getting it in your mailbox and popping it in your DVD player, and then putting it in the mail so that the whole glorious cycle can begin again. Netflix’s almost perfect system drove a stake into the heart of my old employer Blockbuster as well as other video store chains, and, more disastrously, mom-and-pop operations. That was bad for those businesses, but, for the customer, it was fantastic.
But that’s not the case anymore. The elimination of mail-by-order DVDs isn’t progress. Or if it is, it doesn’t make the movie-watcher’s life better. While streaming movies and TV are more convenient in terms of delivery, streaming services are far more mercurial. Not everything is always streaming in the same place, and some movies and TV sometimes will stop streaming altogether after having never been released on DVD or Blu-ray at all, ever. Streaming decimated DVD by mail.
In October, Netflix’s DVD-by-mail system will be history. It’s inevitable and understandable but also unfortunate because it doesn’t seem like renting movies will really ever be possible again, the way it was even ten years ago. Imagine if streaming music was as inconsistent as movies and TV. Imagine if suddenly a Taylor Swift album was no longer on Spotify, and you can never listen to it again, because she never released it on a CD. That’s the dystopia that movie-renting folks are now facing.
First streaming exposed the weaknesses of physical media. Now, physical media is exposing the weaknesses of streaming. The only way to ensure that you have permanent, unfettered access to the art and entertainment you love is to own it on physical media. Physical media is consequently making a comeback not unlike vinyl’s big return and for similar reasons.
Naysayers might say, that nostalgia alone is the reason why people of a certain age are hoarding their Blu-rays and DVDs. But that argument doesn’t see the bigger picture. It’s wise to be wary of entertainment that you cannot hold in your hands because if it seems to exist only in a digital cloud up in the sky it could easily be taken away without an explanation.
So goodbye, Netflix discs by mail program. You made my life better, even if you destroyed my old job at the video store. Netflix destroyed Blockbuster, and now, bizarrely, has exterminated the best, and fairest, version of itself.
Netflix will end DVD-by-mail on September 29, 2023.
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