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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The dramatic, comic, tragic, true-life story behind the death of DVD.com


By Pamela Paul


Netflix, which has been struggling recently, announced last week that on Sept. 29 it will cease its 25-year-old DVD-by-mail delivery business to focus on its streaming service. Whereas most functioning members of 21st century culture greeted the news with indifference or puzzlement — “People still use DVDs?” — the announcement hit me with a jolt of dread and dismay.


In the face of pity from viewers of all ages, I’ve boasted for years, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, of being the last paying subscriber of DVD.com, the spinoff division Netflix created in 2011. I was the kind of full-throttle loyalist who actively urged others to switch back to the vestigial anomaly that was DVD.com — the OG Netflix, to those of us who lived and breathed during the previous century. I also refused to upgrade. A colleague once went so far as to set up an HBO Max trial account for me and shove it into my inbox. “You’ll be converted,” he said with the assurance of someone who understands accepted behavioral norms.


But I had been happy bucking the norm! My devotion to DVD.com is not about Luddite resistance or stubborn nostalgia. It’s a choice and it’s about better choices. Choice in all senses of the word — about simultaneously expanding and narrowing my options, about active decisions over passive ones, about human curation as opposed to the algorithm.


Let me explain. Netflix pays for streaming rights to films and programs it does not own the rights to, which means that films come and go on the service according to the terms of those contracts. But DVD.com offered all its movies and TV shows at all times. Last week, for example, I watched two movies not currently available on Netflix: 1979’s “The China Syndrome” and 1980’s “Altered States,” both period paranoia fare and reflective of the sort of niche moods and obsessions that populate my maxed-out 500-disc-long queue. If I want to go deep into Albert Finney, I can line up nearly every film of his, from “Tom Jones” to “The Gathering Storm.” I can toggle movies upward if I grow impatient to see something I added three years earlier.


Or I can allow for serendipity — movies appear in my mailbox that I barely remember adding in the first place. I can play a kind of guessing game around what precipitated a particular whim. Was it Jeanne Moreau’s obituary? A retrospective at MoMA? The site’s regularly maintained “forthcoming release” page, which I checked religiously? During the service’s glory days, you could easily sort movies by country of origin and display them in chronological order. The Criterion Collection was in there, sure, but so was “Alien³” You could add not-yet-available movies to a special “saved” section when you’d missed the theatrical release or before an old film existed on DVD.


The choices were broader but my options were narrower, because on my subscription plan, I would have only four movies available to me at any given time. When I visited homes that subscribed to every streaming service from Amazon Prime to Disney Plus, I felt paralyzed by the surfeit of possibilities, like Robin Williams floored in the coffee aisle in “Moscow on the Hudson” (available, yes, on DVD.com). As psychologist Barry Schwartz documented in his seminal book “The Paradox of Choice,” more is, in fact, often less — having too many options can send us into a tailspin.


I started on Netflix’s DVDs 20 years ago, while I was dating the man who became my husband, an early customer of what was then known simply as Netflix. This was well before streaming led the company to spin off DVD.com like a discarded training bra, a source of shame to what had become an entertainment behemoth. He allowed me into his account the way a boyfriend offers a spare dresser drawer. Tentatively at first, I added movies I wanted to watch to his queue. Soon I was working the list, pushing my choices ahead of his. “Did you delete my Buster Keaton?” he’d ask while I pretended to clean out the refrigerator. As happens with any long-married couple, we eventually worked it out in that I essentially took over the account and he moved on to more advanced technologies.


There is a cost to clinging to products and services as they shuffle off into obsolescence. Like a mom-and-pop video store with a desperate “Everything must go!” sign in its window, the service starts to decline as employees are laid off. On DVD.com, the “coming soon” feature disappeared a few years ago and the responses to my forlorn emails to customer service essentially said, “Yeah, sorry.” Like a half-empty shelf in aisle 4, the new “user interface” eliminated the drop-down menu of foreign movies by language; the once assiduously updated “new releases” became a vague “new and popular.”


When the portable DVD player that I perched on the elliptical machine in my basement petered out after 12 workhorse years last winter, I excitedly ordered a new one. “Surely it will be better than the old jalopy!” I told myself. But companies have few incentives to upgrade dying technology. My replacement DVD player offered fewer amenities than its predecessor. It mutters out movie dialogue reluctantly, barely exceeding the swooshing sounds of the elliptical treads.


Here I must make a confession: I am not, in fact, impervious to the lure of streaming. My secret affair started during lockdown with an Apple TV+ account I rationalized as “part of the computer.” I soon added a press account or two for streaming services because I “needed them for work.” When I watch films or series on these services I tell myself it is purely part of covering the culture and not actively participating in it. The truth is, I have started enjoying these services. Delete this paragraph after reading.


So yes, I have been slightly cheating on DVD.com. But I’m still not ready for the relationship to end. My alternative partners look as unappealing as photo-less profiles on an astrology-based dating app: I do not want to watch movies on an iPad, where all kinds of notifications may interrupt. Streaming movies don’t include fun DVD extras like deleted scenes, director commentaries and original trailers. Surely, I would never actually buy DVDs for movies I want to watch just once. I pity anyone who has missed out on the pleasures of DVD.com, just as I pity the kids who never knew the joys of Le Video or the original Kim’s Video or even an especially well-stocked Blockbuster. You still have five months left.

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