RIP, Netflix DVD
Dec 27, 2023

RIP, Netflix DVD

The iconic mail-order service that made Netflix a media giant shut down this year. Slate senior editor Sam Adams discusses its legacy.

In 2023, we said goodbye to a service you might not have known was still around — DVD delivery from Netflix, now a giant in streaming.

With a collection of more than 100,000 titles available for delivery in those red, paper envelopes, the DVD service retained some utility even years into the company’s transition.

But Netflix pulled the plug on the service in September. Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Slate writer and editor Sam Adams about what we lost with its demise.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sam Adams: I had my local arthouse video store that I loved, I had a Blockbuster that I would go to occasionally, and Netflix was kind of a supplement to those things. it was the place that had everything. They had 100,000 titles. They would have the stuff that was too obscure for your local art house store, they would have the big movie that you have to wait weeks for at Blockbuster, they had everything. So that was really the appeal initially. No matter how deep the cut, no matter how big the movie, you would be able to get it through Netflix.

Lily Jamali: Any particular examples come to mind in terms of, you know, this obscure content? The foreign films or the series that might have been too obscure?

Adams: I think the best example of how deep Netflix’s catalog was, there’s this movie called “The Mahabharata,” which is British avant-garde theater director Peter Brook’s five-hour adaptation of this Sanskrit epic. And that was not something that even my big-city art house store could afford to buy their own copy of. But Netflix had it. There was nothing you could think of, really, that they didn’t have. And if, on the off chance that you were able to do that, you could put it in your queue, sort of put it on the waitlist. And then if enough people did that, they would add it.

Jamali: Yeah. And certainly that doesn’t sound like something you’d find at your local Blockbuster, right? So this was a massive physical library with hundreds of thousands of DVDs. Explain what the draw was for consumers, not just the people that like the superobscure stuff, but, like, the mainstream consumer.

Adams: The availability was a huge draw for mainstream consumers and also the ease of use. Netflix sort of became iconically associated with the queue right at the beginning, which is something else that’s kind of fallen out of memory in a way. You could not only make a list of the movies that you wanted to see, but you could put them in order. You could, if you wanted to, say, watch, like, a bunch of horror movies from some obscure label or a bunch of, you know, Julia Stiles romcoms or whatever it was, you could just make a list of those, and they would just keep sending them to you. And you wouldn’t have to keep it in your mind or keep checking your local store. They would just kind of come to you one at a time, and you could prioritize them. And that basically took the whole, sort of, effort of trying to manage what you were going to watch next off the table. Netflix was essentially doing that work for you.

Jamali: As you’ve been reflecting on the retirement of Netflix’s DVD service, you know, you talk about it being the loss of something bigger. How do you explain to someone who only knows Netflix is a streaming service what it is that we’re losing here?

Adams: So Netflix was sort of one of the first internet businesses to really operate on this idea of the long tail, which is the idea that, rather than just selling the most popular things to the most people, which is how businesses have always worked, you could also build a business and a career as a creator, just selling your very niche thing to a small number of people. So instead of selling one movie to a million people, you could sell a million movies to a million people. And so Netflix was the embodiment of that, in that they had 100,000 movies, they didn’t all need to be the most popular because if they had a big enough user base, there was always going to be someone who wanted that movie, no matter how obscure. And that is so different from the way Netflix operates now. They had, you know, at their height, something like over 100,000 different titles. Now they have, they don’t really break the data out anymore, but they have something like 4,000 movies.

Jamali: Oh my gosh, that’s such a difference.

Adams: Yeah, which is sort of, ironically, that’s about the size of like a pretty well stocked local video store. If you go to Netflix being like, I want to watch this movie, I really want to watch, you know, “The Godfather” or “10 Things I Hate About You” or whatever it is, the odds of that being there are very small. It’s like going into a used bookstore looking for a specific book — it’s probably not going to be there. If you’re kind of in the mood for an action movie or romantic comedy or whatever it is, Netflix will have one of those, and you’ll probably like it pretty well. But it’s not going to be the specific thing that you were looking for, if that is how you approach viewing. And I think a lot of people don’t approach it that way anymore. You don’t make this list of, you know, these are the 50 movies I want to see this year. It’s just, what is the easiest thing that will be sort of moderately pleasant for me to watch, and Netflix is very good at serving that to you.

Jamali: When you look back at the DVD service’s legacy, how do you describe it?

Adams: I think Netflix DVDs’ legacy is twofold. I mean, the first thing you have to really acknowledge is that they essentially killed the local video store. And you could argue that that might have happened anyway, you know. Internet speeds were getting faster, streaming video was going to become a thing. It’s much easier to just click a button on your remote. But Netflix really pushed that and because of this long tail strategy that they had initially, they really made your local video store kind of obsolete. There’s no way a local store, even the biggest Blockbuster didn’t have a fraction of the movies that Netflix did. So they wiped out all the stores and then having done that, they then kind of retracted this initial promise of, we’re the place that has everything. And now it’s like, we’re the place that has something and where else are you gonna go? But I do think they had a tremendous effect in terms of changing what people expected from a content service. So there’s so many more movies on the Internet. Now there’s so many streaming services, wonderful places like Mubi and the Criterion Channel that have just this incredible wealth of titles that as a kid, waiting for, like, David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” to come back into the video store, like I would have killed to be able to spend 10 or 15 bucks a month and have access to the amount of things as easily as you can get from some of these services nowadays. You know, there are still movies that fall through the cracks, there are movies that are not on DVD, the streaming rights are always kind of drifting back and forth between one platform and another. And that can be very confusing and frustrating to try to navigate, especially if there is a specific thing you want to watch. But I think the sheer wealth of availability that Netflix kind of helped push and that the internet has made so accessible to everyone, that’s a tremendous good.

More on this

Over 5 billion DVDs were shipped during the service’s lifetime, according to Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

When it ended, Netflix let the people who still subscribed to the service keep the DVDs they had rented as a parting gift. And yes, nearly 1 million subscribers stuck with it until the end, though that pales in comparison to the 16 million subscribers the disc delivery operation had at its peak.

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