On March 6, 2013, I wrote a Word document to myself in which I pledged to watch 200 movies by the end of the year. I did this, apparently, because I wanted to find out how to be happy. My own words. Whatever you think of that logic, I’m bringing this up now because of one sentence in this document in which I outlined the feasibility of this challenge: “I won’t have to spend more than my Netflix subscriptions to do it.”
Last week, Netflix announced it is ending its DVD by mail service after 25 years and sending some 5.2 billion red envelopes through the mail. This news was expected. Streaming has taken over the film industry, for better or, as I’ve argued, worse. But I’m not here to castigate the entertainment industry for pivoting to streaming. I’m here to offer a eulogy to a service that, for a brief moment in time, offered the single best entertainment experience ever available to humans on Earth and was the pinnacle of the tech industry’s accomplishments before it wrapped its tentacles around our brains to suck the life force out of our souls.
Back in 2013, Netflix DVD was at its peak. Although I didn’t appreciate it as such at the time, in retrospect it was a perfect service. There were, by some accounts, upwards of 100,000 titles in Netflix’s library, making it likely the largest collection of rentable films ever assembled for mass consumption. When my family first signed up for Netflix DVDs in the mid-2000s, it took a week for the discs to complete a turnaround from the single distribution facility on the west coast. By 2013, my Netflix DVDs were going to Trenton, New Jersey and I’d get a fresh disc within 48 hours of returning mine. I could sign up for the two-disc plan for about $10 a month and always have a movie to watch, or the three-disc plan for a few bucks more and usually have two. And they had every movie. I was living in a major metro area making about $40,000 a year, but I could pull up a website and order almost any movie I could think of to appear at my door for about $10 a month.
It’s worth emphasizing how incredible that was, both before Netflix and compared to the current state of affairs. Before Netflix DVDs, one was limited to whatever rental tapes or discs the local Blockbuster or private equivalent had. Renting a movie from the local video store was an analogue version of scrolling through a streaming service’s home screen. I remember the local Blockbuster aisles, walking up and down, back and forth, for half an hour before lowering my expectations sufficiently to grab a copy of, say, Die Hard 2: Die Harder just like I click the right and down buttons on my remote today for the same amount of time before settling on, say, Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard. This digitization of decision fatigue occurred because both the local video store and streaming services have about the same number of titles, from the high hundreds to low thousands, just enough to make you think there’s probably something better to watch when in fact there isn’t.
To do the 200 movie challenge today, I’d have two choices: Either spend the same amount of money and play inside one company’s walled garden or spend a lot more money to roam the movie wilderness free to pursue my own desires. For the latter, I’d likely have to subscribe to no fewer than five streaming services—probably more like eight or ten, including various indie/arthouse niche services—on top of paying a couple of bucks per title to rent if it isn’t available as part of a subscription plan. I could easily see it costing me close to $1,000 today, a sum I never could have afforded as a 23-year-old where much more than half my take-home pay was going to rent and seeing a movie in an actual theater was a rare treat. Or I could pick a service and watch the movies they had, not the ones I necessarily want.
Back in 2013, I didn’t have to make that choice. I had Netflix DVDs and, for all practical purposes, the entire film world at my disposal, providing me an endless supply of films I have personally selected to watch. It was nothing short of magic, and affordable magic at that.
The complete list of films I watched in 2013 has been lost due to a OneDrive migration that deleted many of my older OneNotes (thank you, Microsoft). But I remember that I watched 213 movies in 2013. I can recall this because I binged the final night to squeeze in one final movie to get to 213 for the symmetry. The only other documentation I have left, besides the initial pledge mentioned above, is a folder of movie reviews I wrote for every film I watched the first half of that year.
I watched movies of all kinds: foreign, classics, action, thrillers, drama, and weird. The most mainstream movie I watched was Zodiac. But I also boned up on some classics like Roman Holiday, Stray Dog, The Battle of Algiers, The Third Man, and The Bicycle Thief, among many others. I introduced myself to Noah Baumbach through The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha. I stumbled upon, and have still not sufficiently recovered from, The Raid Redemption, one of the most absorbing action movies ever made. I watched the lesser-known “Pusher” trilogy by Nicolas Winding Refn, who went on to direct the acclaimed cult hit Drive. I watched a film called LOL—not to be confused with a later film of the same title featuring Miley Cyrus—that belongs to a genre of movies called mumblecore that doesn’t really have a definition as much as a vibe, young adults expressing themselves inarticulately while trying to get their life shit together, a genre which for totally inexplicable reasons appealed to me at the time. LOL is a particularly memorable installment in the mumblecore genre because it is about how texting is ruining interpersonal relationships. It came out in 2006. Greta Gerwig is in it.
I watched the Before series by Richard Linklater, an acclaimed trilogy where each installment was filmed nine years apart, with the same two lead actors, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, as their relationship evolves. The third installment, Before Midnight, was released that May; I sprung for a theater ticket to see it on opening night even though it cost more than a month’s Netflix subscription. It was worth it. In Before Midnight, an old Greek woman whose husband had died long ago talks of how she must actively focus to remember what he was like, the details of his face, the sound of his laugh. When I re-watched this movie recently I found that scene achingly sweet. But when I was 23 I wrote it was “the most depressing, saddening thing I’ve ever heard.”
2013 was the peak of the McConnaisance, when Matthew McConaughey decided to perform in films other than romantic comedies. So I watched Killer Joe, a film that forced me to, as I put it in my review, “consider the disturbing possibility that Matthew McConaughey is a good actor.” (A line I preserved in my review: “That poor, miserable bastard set his own genitals on fire just to teach his girlfriend a lesson. I guess he showed her. I wonder if she ever got over it.” “Was he all right?” “No. No, he was not all right. He set his genitals on fire.”) I also watched Mud and Magic Mike—still the most astute film about the period around the 2008 financial crisis—and concluded that, yes, Matthew McConaughey is not only a good actor, but a great one.
I also watched a lot of movies I no longer remember. They include titles like Circo, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, Terri, The Well Digger’s Daughter, and Box of Moonlight. I watched a few movies that I wish I hadn’t, like The Turin Horse, a 146 minute black-and-white Hungarian film that was surely about a lot more than some poor farmers eating potatoes but all I can remember is a long take of some poor farmers noisily tearing into a pot of boiled potatoes. But, to my surprise, I remember the vast majority of the movies on the list, even a decade later.
I watched some Lars Von Trier movies, including Dogville, a film which I can see from my own tortured review had a profound impact on how I viewed the American way of life, a further push in my transition away from unquestioning patriotism and towards cynicism of the American project in which power is so routinely abused for the benefit of the few. At the time of its release in 2004, Dogville was widely criticized as being anti-American, but Von Trier said the point of the film was not to be anti-American, but that “evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.”
I’m sure if I had compiled a debrief document after the 200 movie challenge, I would have written something very different than what I’m putting together today, for the same reason that I cried during both viewings of Before Midnight but for totally different reasons. The context in which we experience things matters as much as the thing itself. Today, with the death of Netflix DVDs imminent, and a decade working in the “content” industry, all I can think of is how fortunate I was to be a burgeoning film enthusiast when Netflix DVDs were at their peak, before that utterly fucking terrible word—content—subsumed creative production.
The acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert once memorably described movies as “like a machine that generates empathy.” The best movies are such machines. Many of the ones I watched in 2013 were. On the other end of the spectrum, there are films that are made because a company has amassed data that says what kinds of movies people like. It is a machine, alright, but one that generates a purgatory of nothingness that not so much resembles art as mimics it. It is content.
Today, Netflix is a content generator. It buys, makes, produces, and markets content. Netflix didn’t care what was inside the envelopes, so the only thing that mattered was that we, the customers, were getting what we wanted. Now, Netflix’s entire business is to know what’s inside, to make you think everything you want is inside, and to keep you distracted long enough so you never see the big world outside. Netflix went from being content-agnostic, a truly unbiased platform, if you will, to being content-obsessed, preferring to show you only its own content, and always its own content first.
A similar transition has happened at every major tech company, even the social media companies in which Netflix is often grouped as a major tech company emblematic of Silicon Valley. They all do extensive content moderation even as they claim to just be platforms, because they can no longer declare ignorance or ambivalence about what’s inside. And they, too, want you to look away as rarely as possible. They have all rallied around the cause of engagement. Finding ways to maximize it, to retain it, to increase it.
The demise of Netflix DVDs is about more than the loss of a great way to watch movies. It is about the passing of an era where the great big tech companies of the day thought the internet was a way to improve the offline life rather than to replace it. You signed up and paid for Netflix and managed the queue online. When you wanted to watch a movie, you watched it. Otherwise, it was a non-presence. Twitter was a text-based service for telling people what you were doing “in real life.” Facebook was for building a social life at college. Now, Netflix starts playing a new piece of content within ten seconds of the last one ending, automatically, in a pre-emptive strike against other needs and desires. Facebook rebranded as Meta and is literally trying to replace the real world with a fake one. Twitter, the diametric opposite of a machine that generates empathy, is owned and controlled by a guy who appears physiologically incapable of empathy and will not stop posting. TikTok is a platform that exists because it invented the most hyper-addictive engagement algorithm of them all. All of them operate very simple businesses. If engagement goes up, they make lots of money. If engagement goes down, they make slightly less money. Their way of thinking is spreading like a plague. The mega-corporation Warner Bros Discovery, previously not a tech company, is injecting Discovery+ reality programming into HBO Max to form a new service, Max, in order to increase engagement.
What Disney, Warner Bros Discovery, Netflix, Meta, TikTok, Twitter, and all the rest haven’t articulated is that there is simply not enough engagement time left. If I learned anything watching 213 movies in a year, it was perhaps the simplest lesson of all: It was entirely too many movies. This may sound obvious. But in the founding document I wrote, I calculated it would amount to an average of 68 minutes of movie-watching per day. The average Netflix user today streams about 30 minutes of content per day. On TikTok, they watch a startling 90 minutes per day. If anything, the most beautiful part of Netflix DVDs, and the thing I will miss the most about it, was not how much we used it at the height of its popularity, but how little. And how everybody was OK with that.