Oswaldo Quinones has looked forward to receiving red envelopes in his mailbox for almost two decades. He subscribed to Netflix’s DVD service back in 2004, around the same time Blockbuster reached its peak with 9,000 global stores (and not long after Blockbuster turned down an offer to buy Netflix for $50 million). But he despised Blockbuster for its late fees, censoring of content, and excluding smaller, independent titles.
“They were the video-rental equivalent of Starbucks,” Quinones says. “You will find a Blockbuster everywhere, anywhere, and they put a lot of people out of business.”
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As Netflix ran the video store juggernaut into bankruptcy, Quinones clinged on. He rented hundreds of titles from Netflix, and had a special affinity for horror films and David Lynch productions.
But the streaming service is saying farewell to its signature red envelope and discontinuing its DVD delivery service after a 25-year run. Since the April 18 announcement, subscribers will not be charged for keeping any unreturned discs and may receive up to 10 additional discs by the final shipping date, Sept. 29. For subscribers who have held on since the early 2000s, however, parting from the DVD-by-mail service represents a loss of niche film titles, ownership, and a historical catalog you can hold.
Quinones saw it coming. For people in their 20s, Netflix, HBO, and Hulu is all they know, he says, and they would prefer to talk into the remote than insert a disc. But he believes that we lose when streaming wins. Major streaming platforms divide their content, forcing users to subscribe to multiple services. In addition, digital media gives the allusion that subscribers own the content when they can be taken offline at any time.
“Sometimes when you buy a movie, from let’s say Amazon or something, you don’t even get to download it to your computer. It stays with them,” Quinones says. “You have access to it anytime you want, but it stays with them.”
Sara Hooker has been a Netflix DVD subscriber for more than a decade, and says her boyfriend has a collection of more than 2,000 DVDs. While searching for her most recent rental, Broadway Idiot, she discovered a slew of other Broadway-themed documentaries that she’ll now miss.
“These quality films that no one even knows exists will just fade into nothing,” Hooker says.
When Netflix launched in 1998, the company had an inventory of 925 titles that were available on DVD at the time. About 70% of Netflix rentals belonged to niche categories like documentaries and foreign films, with only 30% consisting of new releases – unlike Blockbuster which flipped the model, carrying largely popular releases.
Despite the successful business model, the streaming giant had always intended to be an internet-based company (“net” for “internet” is in the name), says Summit Osur, a Quinnipiac University media studies professor and author of the study Netflix and the Development of the Internet Television Network. DVD revenue dropped by 20% from 2021 to 2022, and makes up a fraction of the streamer’s earnings, according to Netflix’s 2023 annual report. In addition, Osur adds that with the cost of storage, upkeep and shipment of the discs, it makes financial sense the brand is pulling back.
“I’m sad as a TV historian, but I completely understand as a revenue model. We have seen streaming just take off at this level that is unheard of,” she says. “When I talk to my students, not a single one of them even knows what cable is, nonetheless [has] any intention of purchasing cable.”
Redbox owner Bill Rouhana told The Hollywood Reporter in April that he was interested in buying the business, but Netflix wouldn’t budge. A Netflix spokesperson told Rolling Stone that there were no plans to sell the business. Beyond the lucky subscribers that will receive extra DVDs in their mailbox come Sept. 29, Netflix plans to send the remaining inventory to third-party companies that specialize in recycling digital and electronic media. The streamer also plans to donate a portion of the DVDs to organizations focused on film and media, such as New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts library, wrote a Netflix spokesperson.
When Netflix pulls the plug on DVD rentals, low income and older populations may lose access to digital entertainment, Osur says. And although binged shows are enjoyable, viewers are more likely to forget the content compared to weekly watchers. “You’re watching content super quickly and moving to the next,” she says. During the age of the red envelope, households all watched the same three programs, powering a cultural conversation among family members. Now, it’s every person for themselves.
“Everyone has a very individualized media experience, which is great and personalized,” she explains, “but it is taking away our collective community idea of media and entertainment.”
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