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I’ve rented DVDs from Netflix for half my life – streaming is a poor substitute | Zach Schonfeld

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Red Rock West, a twisty thriller from 1993 starring an uncommonly subdued Nicolas Cage, is one of the best neo-noirs of the 90s. But you won’t see it mentioned much on social media or included in what-to-stream lists, because Red Rock West is unavailable on streaming platforms – a fate that now renders it all but nonexistent. Even many Cage fans haven’t seen it.

In 2021, when I needed to watch Red Rock West for a book I was writing about Cage, I accessed it the same way I would have a decade before: I rented the DVD from Netflix. Not only did I get to see it without crawling around sketchy torrent sites, I also got an insightful director’s commentary.

I’ve been getting Netflix’s red and white envelopes in the mail since 2007 – half of my life – and, surprisingly, I’m not the only one still holding on. The company’s DVD arm reportedly generated $145.7m in revenue last year, with more than a million American subscribers. (Its DVD rentals were never available in the UK, where people may instead recall services such as LoveFilm, which stopped posting discs in 2009.) All that will be left behind at the end of September, when Netflix finally kills the DVD-by-mail service that once comprised its business model.

While it may go unmourned by most of Netflix’s 230 million streamers, this amounts to a slow-motion murder of the greatest resource the early internet offered cinephiles. I’m only 32, but I feel like the grandma from the let’s-get-you-to-bed meme when I try to convince Zoomers that Netflix was once a boon for discovering classic films. It was a virtual video store with an enviably vast selection, but its transformation into Hollywood’s leading manufacturer of mediocrity (with the occasional Roma or The Irishman thrown in for prestige points) is now complete. Netflix is now in its austerity era, cracking down on password-sharers and Nancy Meyers alike.

I’m not quite as sentimental for Netflix DVDs as I am for the suburban video stores of my youth, but I’m pretty nostalgic for the service’s golden era. When I first signed up I was still in high school, and Netflix’s offerings helped expand my still-burgeoning taste in film. I remember ordering Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), which amazed me with its gargantuan scope, because someone had recommended it to me on the Flaming Lips message board. I remember using Netflix to explore Pedro Almodóvar’s dazzling filmography – All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002) – after seeing Volver (2006).

In 2009, I went off to college, and my Netflix subscription became a reliable lifeline now that I was no longer within driving distance of those floundering video stores. I remember receiving Stanley Kubrick’s brutal Paths of Glory (1957) during freshman year and watching it with my roommate on a dorm-sized TV, bonding over a shared interest in movies from before we were born.

Look, I rented tons of crap from Netflix, too. In 2015, when my girlfriend and I were on a Winona Ryder kick, I rented long-forgotten duds like Square Dance (1987) and Boys (1996). Even now, plenty of the beloved and dated trash of yesteryear has fallen between the streaming cracks. “My dad can’t get his favourite comedy series (Police Academy), Steve Martin’s bombs [flops] or Charles Bronson’s oeuvre,” a fellow journalist told me when I began writing this piece. “Those – and other more valuable dated films – had huge audiences who would surely like to see them again.”

A closing down Blockbuster Video shop in Sidcup, Kent.
A Blockbuster Video shop before it closed down in Sidcup, Kent. Photograph: UrbanImages/Alamy

By the mid-2010s, as streaming options such as Prime and Netflix supplanted physical media, I began to sense that the central promise of streaming – every movie or show ever, available at your fingertips – was false. Too many great films are inaccessible. In 2017, I wrote about Netflix’s abysmal catalogue of classic films to stream. As of 2023, the US service offers just 35 movies released before 1980. Far more are available to rent on Amazon, but certainly not everything. Many culturally significant films, like Pink Flamingos (1972) or Rebecca (1940), remain mysteriously unstreamable.

Speciality services such as the Criterion Channel in the US are wonderful and smartly curated, but it’s not a replacement for breadth. Besides, the ghettoisation of classic cinema as a separate service means it’s only available to those who deliberately seek it out across multiple platforms, and not the curious kid who, 25 years ago, might have stumbled upon Mean Streets (1973) on a Blockbuster shelf.

Meanwhile, streaming content seems increasingly disposable because the corporate powers treat it as such. In the US, HBO Max (soon to be Max) recently removed a handful of its own original films and shows, including The Witches (2020) and An American Pickle (2020), starring Seth Rogen. If HBO Max can’t even be trusted to care for and preserve its own original movies, how can it be trusted to care about anyone else’s?

Netflix likes to cosplay as a home for film lovers, but it’s a hollow claim. When you’re lucky enough to stream a classic film, they vandalise the end credits with a pop-up ad. Compared with that indignity, watching a DVD feels weirdly luxurious these days: you don’t need to worry about intrusive ads or the wifi cutting out, no one’s shouting at you about what to watch next.

We were told that “everything’s on streaming now”. We thought we’d have access to 120 years of cinema history. Instead, we have access only to the content that can be readily and easily monetised, trapped in garish and unreliable platforms. There’s no guarantee your favourite movie will still be streaming next month. It feels as if the internet’s vast early possibility has shrunk.

DVDs won’t die out. They’ll probably go the way of vinyl – overpriced boutique items prized by stans and collectors, and cherished by canon-building organisations like the Criterion Collection. You’ll be able to find mainstream DVDs at the public library (for now) and the rarer ones on eBay. As for me, I’ll cling to my modest personal library of about 130 DVDs. A few years ago, during the streaming boom, I thought I might eventually get rid of them. Now I expect to carry them to the grave.

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( With inputs from : www.theguardian.com )

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