I’m Going to Miss DVD.com When it Closes its Doors

The announcement by Netflix that it would stop mailing out DVDs changed my behavior. I now regularly race to a street mailbox before its 9 a.m. pickup to return a disc I received the previous day. The sooner the company gets it back, the quicker it will send out the next title in my ever-expanding queue.

I suspect that among red envelope fans I’m not alone in trying to break monthly records before the party ends on September 29. I find myself re-renting many of the same discs I’ve seen before. I know this because DVD.com (Netflix’s non-streaming subsidiary) has kept a list of all 2,500 discs I’ve borrowed since 2005. (I can’t believe they’ve already dumped my history from the preceding 7 years.)

Part of the joy of borrowing the same discs has been the belief that we had permanent access to a giant storage bin of 100,000+ titles that we couldn’t possibly fit in our homes. DVD.com combined the best of analog and digital — physical media stored off site. Lately, it’s been a regional warehouse in Trenton, N.J. The selections were breathtaking: 20 main genres, 530 subgenres, even a dedicated Criterion Collection section.

My tastes have ranged from romcoms (to sate my wife) to guilty pleasures. How many times have I unsealed Game of Death (1978), Bruce Lee’s last film, which also starred Chuck Norris and Kareem Abdul Jabbar? Or specific episodes of TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., It Takes A Thief and Person of Interest? You know a DVD wasn’t pressed yesterday when its opening menu offers the full and widescreen versions.

I regret that I waited and belatedly downloaded the DVD.com app onto my iPhone 5 years after it became available. Holding a queue in the palm of your hand is more intimate than using a browser on a desktop computer, my modus operandi managing Netflix through five versions of Windows.

As movie lovers we can’t help but wonder what fate lies ahead for all those discs in Netflix’s vault. Will they be bulldozed like so many pirated videocassettes? Turned into recyclable petroleum products? Will another company make an offer to carry on the business? Redbox, the DVD kiosk operator, says it was rebuffed when it tried. Or maybe Netflix could sell discs to those it abandoned. That would bring Netflix full circle to its origins when renters had the option to buy their DVDs.

Lately, Netflix has been cracking down on password sharing, a problem never as acute for the disc side of the business simply because subscribers registered one mailing address, and there was always a ceiling on how many movies they could have at home. (A popular plan ran $16 a month for 3 DVDs out at once.) For sure, the number of disc subscribers has been shrinking. As of late last year, the DVD service had an estimated 1.5 million subscribers, according to the Associated Press, a small fraction of the 232.5 million paid streaming subscribers reported by Netflix in the first quarter of this year.

Still, during its quarter-century run, Netflix shipped more than 5.2 billion DVDs and recorded 40 million unique subscribers, according to the company. In bridging the decades between Blockbuster late fees and streaming anytime, the service was profitable enough to help finance Netflix’s switch to original content and direct delivery to smart TVs.

So, what killed the envelope empire? Besides the obvious corporate savings of transmitting bits rather than shipping discs, it hasn’t helped that postal rates have kept rising. Also, studios that once saw Netflix as a wholesale customer for its home video offerings have since started their own streaming services. Why supply a competitor at all?

After the obituary bounds the years 1998 - 2023 in parentheses, DVD.com will likely be nominated for entry into the Museum of Failure, a traveling exhibit of unsuccessful products that I recently visited in Brooklyn. Will the red mailers be placed under glass between display cases for DivX (a short-lived DVD format) and New Coke? I don’t think so.

If anything, a celebration for a quarter-century of service is in order. Netflix by mail successfully changed the way we consume home entertainment. I for one will be forever grateful.


May I Have the Envelope, Please? No, You May Not.

rjmedich's picture

Netflix won't bury the discs in a landfill. They'll do this:

Rob1956's picture

GameFly is offering a similiar service, with 4K discs as an option. No where near the depth of Netflix, but at least something.

Traveler's picture

It's movies from the '50s to the 80's that are going to be much harder to find. Netflix has a good "also watched" function. This is all sad but inevitable.