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June 9, 2006

Consuming Videos

Andrew's pointer to David Leonhardt's New York Times article on Netflix reminds me that I've been planning to write a blog entry on my ambivalence about Netflix for a while now. In the article, Leonhardt argues that the Netflix model, which allows viewers to rate movies on a five-star scale and to choose from a far wider catalog (60,000 DVDs) than any video store could ever offer, has expanded the movie-watching horizons of home entertainment consumers (although I find his example of The Conversation as a potentially "lost" film a bit odd). Given that most chain video stores, especially those with a blue and yellow color scheme, focus almost exclusively on promoting new releases, that's probably true, and evidence is pretty strong that consumers are digging deep into Netflix's archives, with anywhere from 35,000-40,000 of its titles going out on a daily basis. Arguably, Netflix is making it possible for films that might otherwise be forgotten to find new and wider audiences than ever before. Even better, there are no late fees if you hold on to a video for a few extra days, and because the movies are delivered in the mail, you don't have to worry about rushed late-night trips to the video store.

But for whatever reason, I've found it incredibly difficult to adjust to using Netflix. When I decided to live without a car this year, a Netflix subscription seemed like a necessary investment in my professional career, but instead of expanding my viewing horizons, I've found that I've never watched so few movies at home than I have this year. Now, there are a number of complicated factors that might explain why this is happening. Because I'm in Washington, DC, I have access to a number of good art house and repertory theaters (two Landmarks, the AFI Silver, the Smithsonian theaters), which means that I've been going out for movies relatively often, although probably not significantly more often than I did in Atlanta or even Champaign-Urbana and Lafayette. I've had to adjust to teaching new courses, which required a little more background reading than in the past, which means less time for late-night movie watching (I find watching a movie before it's dark outside almost completely unbearable, and if it's still daylight when I leave the theater, I get what feels a bit like jet lag). And to be honest, I think the lack of late fees puts less pressure on me to see whatever film I've rented immediately. As a result, I sometimes hold on to movies for days or weeks without returning them with the good intentions of watching them eventually.

Still, I think the biiggest factor in making it difficult to adjust to Netflix is that I genuinely enjoy (and miss) skimming the shelves of the independent video stores I used to frequent in Atlanta, Champaign-Urbana, and Lafayette. I enjoy the tactile experience of looking at the DVD (or VHS) cover, holding the box in my hands, and seeing the other videos stacked nearby, and obviously that's something that Netflix or video-on-demand services can't offer. I also miss the sense of community that I typically found at many of the independent video stores I've frequented, the conversations with video store clerks who were bigger movie obsessives than I am. I realize that my nostalgia for these video stores may be coloring my perceptions of them, but those places are a big part of my cinematic eductaion, and I haven't yet figured out how to incorporate Netflix into that.

At the same time, I realize that moving to Fayetteville will change my movie watching habits yet again. Fayetteville does have an art house theater, the Cameo, downtown, and I'm sure I'll get my art house fix there and in Raleigh, but I imagine that the availability of services such as Netflix will mke it easier for me to feel connected to the independent and foreign film scenes that are typically associated with major cultural centers. I realize that my experiences thus far with Netflix are probably exceptional, but I've found it somewhat surprising that I've actually watched fewer movies than I did when I actually had to make the trip to the video store.

Leonhardt's Times article is well worth a read, though. In addition to addressing how Netflix changes our movie watching habits, he explains how the service has become such a massive enterprise, becoming "a logistical operation that has few peers outside of FedEx, U.P.S. or the post office itself." In fact, the head of operations is a former postmaster general.

Posted by chuck at June 9, 2006 11:10 AM

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