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Requiem for a DVD envelope

Netflix DVD customers are quickly running out of movie nights by mail.
Netflix/WAMC screenshot
Netflix DVD customers are quickly running out of movie nights by mail.

Amid the strikes by actors and writers, another seismic change is coming to Hollywood this month. After 25 years, Netflix is ending its DVD-by-mail business. The final red envelopes are a sign that streaming is the new normal. But for fans like me, more than 700 rentals in and counting, who appreciate the new releases and rich back catalogue, it’s a disappointing development. Another person ruing the change is WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

I know a lot of times when you're in to record your film commentaries, we talk about what discs we've gotten from Netflix. How are you feeling about this big change?

Every week, I got my three at a time. I've had this habit. It's really like a drug habit, you know, my three at a time since 2005. So I feel I feel a little empty. And at the same time, I understand that streaming has taken over. But I will never give up my Blu-ray and DVD habit. I have seen over and over again, that with streaming, once the license ends and they don't renew, the film that you love to watch so often is gone. And you have to look for a new place for it. And maybe it's just gone. So I like to have not one shelf, I have many, many shelves of DVDs and Blu-rays. But it seems to me that Netflix DVD was doomed pretty much from the beginning.


Yeah. Yeah. There have been historically other businesses that have done similar kinds of business. And eventually they close. Eventually, there are just too many titles out there to manage. And also, it's very difficult to organize a business that has so far sent out more than 5 billion discs. Can you imagine?

That's just the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So where will you get your fix now?

I'm afraid that I will be purchasing more of my favorite director or my favorite screenwriter or cast member. And also I do stream, I certainly do not reject streaming, I love streaming. I probably will go with BritBox and Acorn, which I sometimes have had in the past. And I'll probably stay with Netflix. It depends what they come up with in future months. But there's no shortage of titles out there.

This is one of the big questions I have. Because traditionally, the streaming side of Netflix has had a lot of different movies and mainly shows original shows than the DVD side. So as all my friends called me a Luddite all these years, keeping the DVDs, I explained, I like movies better than TV for the most part. And you can't get most of the new releases other than on DVD, especially if you're trying to do it in a timely manner. So I wonder if Netflix streaming will take some of that movie business or if it's really going to be the silos of all the different streaming companies who have now gotten into making original content. And you might need11 different services just to be ready for the next Oscar season.

I think we also have to keep in mind that movie theaters are in a state of transition.

Right. We should be going to the movies, maybe?

Yeah, I don't know. I think home screening has taken over most of the market. And I think it's very difficult for large theaters, theaters that have to pay so much for maintenance, you know, to keep going. And I know with the recent selling of “Oppenheimer”-“Barbie,” there was this obvious push to bring people back into theaters. We'll see. But that's going to be a key component in the future of streaming. In 10 years, we may go directly from production to streaming.

 Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office

Yeah, I think that's very plausible. The screens have gotten better. The internet is high-speed and you can be in your pajamas. So you're a film archivist. A lot of times you'll talk about an old silent film that's just been restored for the first time. And you've seen a lot of technologies come and go. Does this moment remind you of any others in the time that you've been paying attention to film, especially home film?

Yeah, I was thinking back over the years. And in the early 1980s, I had a job as manager of a non-theatrical film library film company. And there were actually a good number of people, film aficionados, who would rent one or two titles from the non-theatrical film library every week to show at home. So 16 millimeter was the way you could bring film into your home viewing practice. That that went on until in the 80s. We really got into VHS and beta. And then that kind of died out. But with VHS and Betamax, there was a company called Home Film Festival, which is really very similar to what we see today with Netflix DVD. It was the time mainly of VHS. It was a Scranton, Penn. based company. And Rob, my late husband…

Rob Edelman, people will remember, another WAMC film commentator.

Yes. Rob programmed the company, he would give them a monthly report as to which new VHS and Betamax tapes should be bought. And there were hundreds, probably thousands of people all over the country who would wait for their mail to arrive and they got the tape. And it worked for years. More than a decade. And I think it could have gone on to this day, except the owners went into another kind of a business and I think they lost interest in the tapes. So we have that history of people wanting to have films to entertain themselves at home.

There's a lot of debate and question and discussion now over what is a movie. As we're in this golden era of TV and things are coming out in streaming. Do you think the film itself has a strong future? Or are we seeing the actual artistic medium change at the same time?

Movies as opposed to limited series?

Or you know, a 24-episode series, which people love to binge and spend more time than two hours with a character.

Right. Well, I don't think the two-hour film is going anywhere. It's been around since the beginning of time, it seems, since certainly since the turn of the 20th century, from the 19th to 20th century, there were feature length films being made in Italy, France, and eventually in the United States. There were even three-hour films in the first five-10 years of film history. We are so used to that I can't see it going anywhere. But I will agree that the series, the kind of marathon that you can do, is very entertaining. It's a challenge to and I do it all the time with miniseries and a lot of British TV. Late at night I watch a lot of British TV series and it might take me a couple months to get through certain long series; it’s a very enjoyable feeling when you get to the end of a good series. But I don't think that the 90-minute or the two-hour film format is going anywhere.

You're also someone who surprised me, in one of our conversations, you talked about how you were fine watching a movie at home, forget the big screen and RPX and Dolby sound. Do you think that we lose something of the artistry by going mainly to streaming at home?

No, I don't think so. I think the most modern technologies are incredibly good. They're good enough for me. I take a look at certain streaming films, I take a look at a Blu-ray, a really well-conceived Blu-ray, and I'm in heaven. I just saw Criterion’s Blu-ray of ‘A Room With a View.’ And I really can't imagine that I enjoyed it any more when I first saw it in the theater. It was beautiful, visually beautiful. The sound was good. And my equipment is just so-so, it's nothing special. And I mean, you and I both know people who have invested many thousands of dollars into home viewing rooms. So no, I think we're perfectly fine. The only kinds of films that I would say suffer from home viewing would be the sci-fi, the spectacular special effect films. So I hope there will always be movie theaters. But I'm going to sit in my room and watch my films mainly at home, sometimes in theaters.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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