Remembering Netflix’s DVD empire

It was 2001 when I first signed up for the relatively new DVD-by-mail service that was Netfix. The idea was at once convenient and exciting to me: Instead of making trips out to the local video store to scour racks for movies, I could simply create an orderly queue of my most-wanted films on my computer and get said movies mailed to me at the rate of two at a time. I could watch them and return them without worrying about a simple time limit, other than the desire to get the most movies out of a month’s subscription.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that a good bulk of Mutant Reviewers was accomplished courtesy of Netflix discs. This decade-and-a-half of DVD-by-mail dominance bridged the gap between the video store and streaming. It wasn’t the instant gratification that we’d come to expect later, but it was gratifying even so. It was always a special day when you came home from work to see those familiar red envelopes sticking out of your mail box.

I wasn’t alone at Mutant Reviewers in how much I used Netflix to help with covering a wide swath of cult movies. The almighty queue — constantly growing, constantly being reorganized — offered a way to add film review suggestions that didn’t need to be tracked thereafter. It was really comforting to have that queue holding all of those titles without any further work on my part, other than to bump titles up and down. These days? I’m back to working from a self-made document which is full of titles that I have to go track down from a wide variety of sources.

That’s another thing I miss about Netflix: It really was a one-stop shopping spot for movies. If it was out on DVD, then chances are you could get it through this service. I got full seasons of TV, obscure movies, the works, and all through an easy-to-search interface. Preach to me about the wonders of the streaming age if you will, but let me ask you this: Have you ever encountered a streaming service that was organized and allowed you to search easily by categories? No, of course not; even Netflix itself these days likes to obfuscate and hide its full offerings.

And since everyone used the same service, if a friend told you about a movie, then you could easily get the same one without having to scout around for it.

There were drawbacks to the old Netflix, of course. DVDs could (and did) get lost in the mail, and there was always the time delay factor to consider. If you wanted a movie on a particular night, well, you better hope that you had thought ahead and ordered it days ago. Sometimes the DVDs were delayed, and sometimes they came in batches rather than evenly spread out.

Believe it or not, Netflix is still doing a DVD-by-mail service — it’s called DVD.com by Netflix, and it’s operating at a reduced capacity. Still, over two million people in the USA subscribed to it in 2020, perhaps to avoid the headache of streaming services and to hold on to a simpler and easier-to-understand format.

The other night, I actually signed back up for a free one-month trial. You know, just to revisit old times (and get a free month’s worth of movies). Nostalgia hit me in the face as I whipped up a small queue and twiddled my thumbs waiting for them to be mailed. It was sad, to be sure, that one out of every two options I searched for weren’t available, but I still got more results than I expected.

Yeah, Netflix is probably going to shut down this business sooner or later, but I think that’d be a shame. With the splintering of streaming services and growing consumer dissatisfaction over their user unfriendliness, there might be a future in returning to past business models.

But in the meantime, I’ll be waiting for that red envelope to arrive.

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