Netflix’s pioneering DVD-by-mail rental service has become a relic in the video streaming age, but there is still a steady, albeit dwindling, following of devotees like Amanda Konkle who happily pay for these discs in iconic red. – white envelopes.
“When you open your mailbox, you still want to receive not only bills, but also money,” said Konkle, a Savannah, Georgia resident who has subscribed to Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service since 2005.
It’s a small treat that Konkle and other still-devout DVD subscribers are enjoying, but it’s unclear how long it will last. Netflix declined to comment on the story, but during a media event in 2018, Netflix co-founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings suggested that the DVD-by-mail service could close around 2023.
When—not if—that happens, Netflix will shut down the service, which has shipped more than 5 billion discs across the US since its inception almost a quarter of a century ago. And it will repeat the fall of the thousands of Blockbuster video rental stores that have closed because they couldn’t deal with the threat posed by Netflix’s alternative DVD-by-mail delivery.
The eventual demise of the DVD-by-mail service was inevitable, as in 2011 Hastings decided to separate it from the then-nascent video streaming service. was so widely ridiculed that it was ridiculed on Saturday Night Live. It eventually settled on its current, more prosaic name, DVD.com. The operation is now based in a nondescript office in Fremont, California, located about 20 miles from Netflix’s stylish Los Gatos, California campus.
Shortly before the break with video streaming, the DVD-by-mail service had over 16 million subscribers, which has now dwindled to around 1.5 million subscribers, all in the US, based on estimates based on Netflix’s limited disclosures. in their quarterly reports. The Netflix video streaming service currently has 223 million subscribers worldwide, including 74 million in the US and Canada.
“The DVD-by-mail business bequeathed to the Netflix that everyone knows and watches today,” Mark Randolph, original CEO of Netflix, said during an interview at a coffee shop located across the street from a post office in Santa Cruz, California.
The 110-year-old post office was a milestone in Silicon Valley history because in 1997 Randolph sent a Patsy Cline CD to Hastings to see if the CD could be delivered through the US Postal Service without damage.
The disc arrived at Hastings’ house flawless, prompting the duo to launch a DVD-by-mail rental website in 1998, which they always knew would be supplanted by even more convenient technology.
“It was planned obsolescence, but we were betting that it would take longer than most people thought at the time,” Randolph said.
With the successful streaming service Netflix, it’s easy to assume that anyone still paying to get DVDs by mail is a technophobe or someone who lives in a remote part of the US without reliable internet access. But subscribers say they use the service to rent movies that are otherwise hard to find on streaming services.
For 35-year-old Michael Fusco, that includes the 1986 film The Power, starring then-young Richard Gere and Denzel Washington, and the 1980s film Big Red, starring Lee Marvin. This is one of the main reasons he has subscribed to DVD-by-service since 2006, when he was only a freshman in college, and now he has no plans to cancel his subscription.
“I’ve been getting this for almost half my life, and that’s been a big part of it,” Fusco said. “When I was young, it helped me discover voices that I probably wouldn’t have heard. I still have memories of films that blew my mind.”
Tabeta Neumann is among the subscribers who rediscovered the DVD service during the pandemic in 2020 after she ran out of things to watch on her video streaming service. So she and her husband signed up again, for the first time since it was canceled in 2011. Now they love it so much that they get a plan that allows them to store up to three drives at once, an option that currently costs $20 a month. (compared to $10/month for a single drive plan).
“When we started going through all the movies we wanted to watch, we realized it was cheaper than paying $5 a movie on some streaming services,” Neumann said. “Also, we found a lot of old horror movies, which is not a very popular genre for streaming.”
Konkle, who has written a book about Marilyn Monroe’s films, says she still finds movies on DVD — like the 1954 film Montana’s Cattle Queen, starring future US President Ronald Reagan alongside Barbara Stanwyck, and the 1983 French film Sugar “. Cane Alley” to help her teach film studies as an adjunct professor at Georgia Southern University. It’s a viewing habit she doesn’t usually share with her classes because “most of my students don’t know what a DVD is,” Conkle, 40, laughs.
But for all the charm of the DVD service, subscribers are starting to see signs of deterioration as the company’s annual revenue has shrunk from more than $1 billion a year ago to an amount likely to fall below $200 this year.
Cathy Cardinale, a subscriber who lives in Hopedale, Massachusetts, says she now has to wait two to four more days for CDs to arrive by mail because they ship from a distribution center in New Jersey instead of Boston. (Netflix doesn’t reveal how many DVD distribution centers are still in operation, but there were once around 50 in the US.)
Konkle says that more disks now have cracks or other defects, and it takes “an eternity” to replace them. And almost all subscribers noticed that the choice of DVD titles was drastically reduced from its peak years of service, when Netflix boasted that it had over 100,000 different movies and TV shows on disc.
Netflix no longer discloses the size of its DVD library, but all subscribers interviewed by the AP said the narrowing of choices makes it harder to find famous movies and popular series that were once regularly available on the service. Instead, Netflix is now sorting requests for titles like the first season of the award-winning TV series Ted Lasso – a DVD release – into a “saved” queue, signaling that it may decide to keep it in the future. , depending on the demand.
Knowing the end was near, Randolph said he would mourn the death of the DVD service he brought to life and take comfort in the fact that his legacy would endure.
“The Netflix DVD business was an integral part of what Netflix was and still is,” he said. “It’s in the company’s DNA.”