The handwriting was on the wall long before Reed Hastings' e-mail arrived in my inbox on Monday morning: Netflix doesn’t want to be in the dvd-mailing business. It was clear last year when they lowered the price of their cheapest (streaming-only) plan and raised prices on plans with dvd rentals. That was like choosing a favorite child, then buying both him and his unfortunate sibling t-shirts announcing their status with their parents. It was clear when my browser started to be redirected to the Watch Instantly page whenever I typed in netflix.com. It was clear when I could no longer access my Netflix queue from my iPad app. But now it’s official. Netflix will become a video streaming service. A new company will be handling dvds. They’re calling it Qwikster. If Netflix wanted Qwikster to succeed, they wouldn’t have given it such a silly name. They would have called it Mailflix. Or Netflix. And they would have bothered to pick up the Twitter handle @Qwikster from the—um, colorful, character who owns it.
It’s not that I am opposed to new technologies or have any particular love for plastic media. But the first time I went to stream a movie from Netflix on my Roku box, I got a strange feeling that I hadn’t had in over a decade: a traumatic memory of walking around the outside wall of the video rental store—where they kept all of the new(ish) releases. My wife, Hillary, and I would do a round (always counter-clockwise, for some reason), find that the movie we sort of wanted to see was not available, and end up back at the starting point without a dvd in hand. On our second trip around the periphery, we would lower our standards and find something (“This one has Robert De Niro in it. How bad can it be?”) to serve as a back-up while we moved into the center of the store where the back catalog was stored. Maybe we found something more desirable to replace our back-up choice; maybe not. But either way, we had to settle for something that was available, rather than something that—out of nearly all of the films ever put on dvd in the US—we deliberately and with forethought chose to watch.
We’ve been with Netflix since 2000—shortly after they launched their subscription service. And for over a decade we haven’t had to settle. Because we joined during the early days when every disc had to make a four or five day roundtrip to San Jose, we were grandfathered into a very reasonably priced four-disc plan. That became a luxury when the turn-around time on a disc was reduced to 48 hours and we were able to develop a basic model for deciding what to rent. We always keep a more ambitious feature film at home for when we have the time and mental energy to watch something demanding, but we also keep a less demanding film on hand for nights when we have 100 minutes to spare, but don’t feel like concentrating too much. Add a family film into the mix to watch with the kids and a disc from a TV series that we are working through for those nights when we only have an hour of awakeness left in us.
I know that I take too much pleasure in being hyper-organized and should loosen up a bit, but I enjoy thinking about what to add to the queue and am constantly re-prioritizing the films in the queue. I love to plan ahead for the coming week's viewing and then anticipate watching those films. I hate deciding to watch something, then trying to find something to watch based on what's available—there are in fact an awful lot of very bad films with Robert De Niro in them.
The first decade of the 21st century has been a golden age for movie lovers. I could sit out here in the hills of Kentucky and have access to practically every film ever released on dvd in the US. For about $20 a month. Remarkable. But this golden age is, I fear, coming to an end. Someday—maybe in a few months, maybe in a few years—Reed Hastings (or his successor) will send me an e-mail regretting that, despite their best efforts, this plucky young video rental service Qwikster just couldn’t come up with a viable business model to succeed. But, good news: Netflix just signed a deal with Universal Studios, and now both Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers are available to watch instantly. And I will once again be settling for what’s available. Right now, that’s 29 out of the 209 films in my Netflix queue.
There are, of course, other places for film lovers to get a great variety of films. If you have a lot of money to devote to movies, there are excellent re-releases on blu-ray every week. But you know that someday soon those blu-rays will end up on the shelf next to your laserdisc collection as a "remember these things?" conversation piece. And George Lucas will be selling you your fifth version of the Star Wars saga in whatever format is the star of the day. Alternatively, if you don't have a lot of scruples about paying for things, then an amazing variety awaits you in some of the darker alleys of the internet.
When I look at those four white envelopes on my dvd player this evening as we figure out whether to watch Meek’s Cutoff, Win Win, Rio, or an episode from Community, Season 1, Disc 3, I’m not going to take it for granted. In fact, for eleven years I have never taken Netflix for granted. I never held much hope for a business model that relied on people planning ahead and the US Postal Service being reliable. I underestimated all three groups involved: Netflix, the USPS, and people. Perhaps I’ll be wrong again and the golden age will continue. But I still have my doubts about Qwikster.