The Loss of Netflix DVDs Is More Bitter Than You Realize

Movies Features Netflix
The Loss of Netflix DVDs Is More Bitter Than You Realize

Well, it finally happened: After 25 years and having shipped a reported 5 billion discs in that quarter of a century, Netflix is finally (officially) dismantling its physical-media-by-mail business. The motley but still extremely vast collection of DVDs and Blu-ray discs that called home are being left to a presumably grim fate, one I had become all too certain of when I wrote what amounted to a preemptive obituary for the service in 2021. At the time, I suggested the likelihood that as a resolute Netflix DVD customer who was still paying $8 per month even though my usage of the service had slowed to a crawl, I would probably end up going down with the ship. This week, I finally know for certain that will be the case, as Netflix plans to ship its final discs on Sept. 29, 2023. When that happens, it will truly be the end of a major era in home entertainment.

All things considered, I was a relatively late adopter of the Netflix DVD mail service, given that it began shipping discs all the way back in 1998. It wasn’t until late 2011 that the first DVDs were sent my way–right about the time, in fact, that the service reached its peak in terms of subscriber base and the scope of its physical media library, which was reportedly more than 100,000 titles at the time. This staggering figure meant that at its peak, Netflix’s DVD (and eventually Blu-ray) library contained more titles than effectively all the major streamers today, combined … at a cost of $8 per month. The sheer value this represented is sort of mind-boggling to reflect on today, in a time when so many of us are paying for at least half a dozen services, if not a number in the double digits. Sure, you had to wait a couple days between each delivery, but in terms of scale and selection it truly couldn’t be beat, and there will likely never be a library even half as large today, with titles spread between so many competing services.

Feeling nostalgic for the early years of my Netlix usage, when I was frequently sending and receiving DVDs twice or three times per week, I pulled up the full history of my account online. Conveniently, Netflix explains in the FAQ for the sundowning of the service that they’ve also created a tool that allows users to see a memento of sorts cataloguing their own Netflix DVD usage, in the form of a .pdf listing every film borrowed, rated or reviewed. Looking at it, I can see at a glance that I borrowed more than 400 DVDs from Netflix over the years, peaking at 71 movies in 2013 alone, good for a rate of one every 5 days. Not bad, considering that included all the time those discs spent in the mail … and all the wasted time whenever Netflix sent me a DVD that had been snapped in half, which was always a possibility.

Never was I willing to pay for multiple DVDs at once, either.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but wonder if the true number was even higher–if some amount of the obscure films I plucked up over the years have been removed from the Netflix listing system entirely in the last 12 years, and thus pruned from the history I can now view. Indeed, there are many films still on the history of titles I borrowed that are no longer available to borrow through the service at all, from classic slasher Sleepaway Camp, to George Romero’s Martin, to vintage sci-fi like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers or brilliant kung-fu craziness such as Legendary Weapons of China. I saw each of those films for the first time thanks to Netflix, but users who were still paying for the service in 2023 have had no such opportunity. Those using the service today have not been using it at anything close to its peak.

This shrinking and pruning of the overall Netflix DVD and Blu-ray library has been clear to any of the users of the physical service who were paying attention over the last decade. As I described in 2021, the company’s slow and steady closure of DVD distribution facilities simply took bite after bite out of the grandeur of the collection as a whole, shaving away bits of its uniqueness and individuality. Films would disappear from your queue, moving to the “saved” section, indicating that Netflix no longer had any physical copies available of that particular title. At the same time, the company devoted fewer and fewer of its resources to replacing damaged and destroyed discs on a yearly basis, resulting in previously available titles slowly melting away. For a time, this was easy enough to observe by simply reading Netflix’s quarterly earnings statements, which listed an expenditure of $77 million on purchasing new DVDs and Blu-rays as recently as 2016. That number would plummet, dropping to $54 million in 2017, and $38.5 million in 2018. That would prove to be the final year that data was even available, as from 2019 onward Netflix stopped reporting figures in its earnings statements–the physical media side of the equation had become such an insignificant component of the company’s overall outlook that it was no longer even worth noting to investors. One wonders whether they even bothered replacing any discs in the last few years, or simply let the collection rot away, knowing that this day was inexorably drawing closer.

Many are now asking what exactly will become of the DVD collection itself, perhaps imagining Ted Sarandos presiding over a massive, deeply impractical yard sale with 300 faded copies of Meet the Parents or Analyze This. The sad but more likely reality would presumably be that it’s far more efficient to simply throw these films away, tossing them into giant shredders or sending them directly to the landfill. Nor is this really a scenario that has just now come upon us–as I asserted above, this collection was culled over the course of years rather than overnight. What remains now are simply the dregs, the last remnants of a former empire.

Regardless, it’s a gratifying trip down memory lane to peruse the tangled web of one’s 400-plus Netflix DVD acquisitions. I can chuckle now at just how stingy I often was in those early years about giving a 5-star rating, reserved only for films I unilaterally adored–some prominent 5-star ratings from across the years included Casablanca, Princess Mononoke, The Changeling (1980), The Innocents, The Devil’s Backbone, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and yes, Black Dynamite. The most recent film to score a 5-star rating? That would be 2021’s underseen but lovely sci-fi/fantasy drama Nine Days. Conversely, the films I gave ratings of 1 star tended to be movies I’d acquired for themed bad movie night events–they included such glorious titles as All About Steve, From Justin to Kelly, The Book of Henry and The Karate Dog. A particularly WTF shout-out is deserved here for 2012’s Last Ounce of Courage, the only Christian “war on Christmas” movie you’ll ever see that concludes with a scene of a kid broadcasting a clip of his father’s death in Iraq to an assembly full of high school students, who respond by tearily giving the snuff film a standing ovation. That one is still on if you want to witness it for yourself, but I don’t recommend it unless you’re a masochist.

You’re always going to have some fondness for the first place you saw Princess Mononoke, right?

It’s almost easy to forget at this point that for a full decade, “Netflix” referred solely to “that DVD-mailing service,” a company that built itself around out-competing the local video store by bringing movies right to your mailbox. It wasn’t until 2007 that Netflix streamed its first content, and it didn’t launch its first “original” until 2012. For the entire first half of its existence, the term “Netflix” implied a treasury, a repository of film and TV, before the popular conception of a “streaming service” began to change from that of a vault you were paying to access, to a model emulating a premium cable TV network. A decade later, many of us have more or less forgotten what it was like using this service in the era before streaming became king.

There’s something a little bit tragic about that lost era of selection, because for many average consumers there’s no way to replicate it today, even if they’re determined to try. The independent and chain video stores are almost entirely gone, put out of business by the convenience of Netflix DVDs, and then left fallow as shuts down for the final time a decade later. The tech savvy know that many obscure titles can be accessed in the darker recesses of the web by less than legal means, but it’s not like the average senior citizen consumer is likely to venture into the world of torrents so they can track down a DVD rip of some treasured film from their youth. The list of out-of-print DVDs is ever growing, and the major streaming players of the world don’t care–they’re happy for those older, more obscure titles to be forgotten, if it means you’ll consume their expensive new series instead. Why would the likes of Amazon care about obscure films on the margins, when something like The Rings of Power costs $1 billion, and every bit of their effort needs to be focused on the success of content like it? As is pretty much always the case in these situations, it’s the enthusiasts who truly value variety and eclecticism who will miss out, as they are cast aside in an appeal to the masses who consume whatever the media giants tell them to consume.

I suppose I’ll likely keep on receiving Netflix DVDs right up to the bitter end. After all, I’ve been paying for the service for 12 years, why stop now when there are only a few months left? I could probably engineer some kind of fitting conclusion for my final DVD, a symbolic choice that brings the Netflix DVD experience full circle, or a film with which I have some kind of special, sentimental connection. But I think it’s probably more apropos for the last film I receive in the mail from Netflix to be the sort of oddball, random selection that typified the 400 other movies I watched this way–a shamelessly sexist ’80s B action flick, or some obscure Italian giallo-horror hybrid, a lesser Miyazaki anime or something with the word “Ninja” in its title. They’d all fit the bill, as we wave goodbye to the Netflix DVD library and enter an era when finding many films will become more difficult than ever.

I can’t help but think that a few decades from now, I’ll find myself describing Netflix’s DVD service to some oblivious youngster, and they’ll struggle to believe that we once had access to such a huge repository of film, at a bare minimum of cost. “It was a great time to be a film fan,” I’ll explain as the kid shrugs and plugs himself back into the hive mind, which is offering a vast selection of two dozen movies, all of them starring the hologram of Chris Pratt. And as the dopamine tube begins to drip into his brain and his muscles go slack, I’ll sigh and escape into fantasy about finding a red envelope in my mailbox as I run out the clock until it’s time for the daily meal pills. Oh well. Nothing gold can stay.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin