It's Friday night, and you want to watch a movie at home with that special someone. You could go to a video store and rent a film, and instantly it's yours; popcorn extra. Or you could go to Netflix, and the movie will arrive, earliest, on Tuesday. Here's hoping you had a Plan B for your big date.
Ah, but you love Netflix, the online rental service that delivers movies and TV shows to your mailbox. Since its start in 1999, the company has sent more than 2 billion discs to its 10.6 million subscribers, who return them in the familiar red envelopes for more titles. (Think of Amazon.com but as a DVD-lending library instead of a bookstore.) Wall Street generally likes Netflix, whose Nasdaq stock price has more than doubled since last fall, and so does the public; the company has the No. 1 customer-satisfaction rating among online retailers.
As a professional (and obsessive) movie watcher, I find Netflix a helpful reference source for my never-ending entertainment education. (B-movie serials! BBC miniseries! Bollywood musicals!) But I have misgivings about the service's usefulness, especially compared with that of a real, well-stocked video store, and about the possibly harmful effect that Netflix and other online retail outfits may have on American society.
No question, Netflix serves a need. It's a virtual video store with more than 100,000 titles movies and TV shows. And it's cheap: for the four-at-a-time price of $23.99, you could conceivably see about 50 videos a month if you devoted your life to the task. In a deep recession, Netflix has also taught film fans that renting a movie or TV series not only is way less expensive than buying but also takes up no shelf space when you move from your foreclosed home into your parents' basement. That could be one reason DVD sales declined 13.5% in the first half of 2009, while Netflix revenues were up 21% in the year's second quarter. At the same time, movie attendance has surged 8% this year. People are watching more, owning less.
A Netflix ad has one contented couple purring, "We don't miss the video store at all." Well, I do. Specifically, I miss Kim's Video, a lower-Manhattan movie-rental landmark that housed 55,000 DVDs and cassettes of the vastest and most eccentric variety until it closed early this year and shipped the whole stash to Sicily. Admittedly, Kim's was one of the gems, but cities large and small used to have video stores with all manner of movies that you could see right away. With Netflix, you surrender those basic American rights: impulse choice and instant gratification. You must cool your jets for two to four days, dependent as you are on both the skill of Netflix employees to put the correct movie in your envelope (sometimes they don't) and the speed of the U.S. Postal Service. By the time a video arrives, you may have forgotten why you rented it.
Wait Time: Eternity
Put movies in your rental queue and most will be marked "Now" for immediate rental. Some, however, will be designated "Short Wait" or "Very Long Wait." That often applies to old films that have a sudden surge in popularity and of which Netflix has only a few copies. (Did you want to compare the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three with this summer's remake? At Netflix, you could have waited five weeks to see the 1974 film.) Other titles, which may have vanished from the stockroom, are called "Unavailable"; the wait time for those could be eternity.
Most online retailers try to interest customers in items similar to ones they've bought. Netflix offers "Movies Most Like ...," but the similarities can be baffling. Rent the Indian drama Fiza and you'll be pointed to Season 1 of Scrubs and the Bakker biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye. This is when I yearn for the guys behind the old Kim's counter. Not that every video-store clerk is a budding Quentin Tarantino, eager to point renters toward some arcane masterpiece from Italy or Hong Kong, but you do miss out on a face-to-face with a knowledgeable cinephile.
Beyond the mail delays and the botched orders, the lack of human interaction is the big problem with Netflix and its cyber-ilk. Thanks to the Internet, we can now do nearly everything working, shopping, moviegoing, social networking, having sex on one machine at home. We're becoming a society of shut-ins. We deprive ourselves of exercise, even if it's just a stroll around the mall, until we're the shape of those blobby people in WALL•E. And we deny ourselves the random epiphanies of human contact.
Getting movies by mail is, Netflix hopes, just a stage between the Blockbuster era of video stores and the imminent streaming of movies. You can already get 12,000 Netflix titles on your TV (if you have a Blu-ray player or spring for a $100 Netflix box). So, O.K., soon there will be no more waiting for DVDs. But it'll come at a price. You'll be what the online corporate culture wants you to be: a passive, inert receptacle for its products.
Me, I'd rather go out to the movies. Or to a video store, even if it is in Sicily.