The Unbearable Expense of Convenience

Netflix has ruined my life.

Oh, it’s not quite that bad, but it has certainly altered the role of movies in my life. While they have been important to me, probably to a fault, now films have become the sun around which our leisure time orbits, to the point that leisure time isn’t quite so leisurely. And my relationship with the old familiars — and the movies that I hope become old familiars — has fallen into disrepair because of Netflix. The service has given me an illustration of the psychic and lifestyle cost of convenience.

It’s been almost two years since my wife and I joined the online DVD-rental operation. (Actually, my wife joined and pays the bill. I just choose most of the movies. Clearly, she gets the short end of that deal, but she married me, so she’s used to it.) Like most people, we’re very satisfied with Netflix, in terms of delivering what it promises.

The service is pretty simple: You pay a monthly fee, you pick movies, Netflix sends them to you, you watch them, you send them back, and more arrive.

It starts out well enough, even joyfully. You see movies that your local Blockbuster doesn’t carry. You never have to leave the house to get them. You never have to leave the house to return them. You stop leaving the house altogether.

I’m sure there are millions of Netflix subscribers who suffer none of the angst I do, but here’s how it really works, if you’re as anal-retentive as we are in the Culture Snob home: You track how many movies you’ve seen, and divide that number into the cumulative cost of the service; you try to cycle through the movies fast enough to keep the cost to a reasonable level (say, a buck more than a Blockbuster rental, to allow for the added convenience and selection); you feel guilty when movies sit unwatched, driving up the per-DVD cost; you force yourself to watch movies you really don’t feel like seeing; you agonize over how to arrange the movies in your rental queue, trying to figure out which one you really want to watch next; you develop elaborate patterns in your queue, trying to balance the good-for-you films with easy-on-the-brain television series such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.

It’s a lot of work, and it takes a toll.

A recent article on Salon.com states one problem well:

“I managed to pick the three movies most perfectly calibrated to inspire my lack of interest. I know I should mail them back and move on with my life, but that would be admitting defeat. I have already paid an average of $26.60 for the privilege of watching each of these DVDs gather dust atop my cable box, their bright red postage-paid envelopes growing dimmer by the day.”
Oh, how long The Deer Hunter sat in our house, begging to be watched. “But you’re three fucking hours long,” I told it. “I don’t have time for you!”

Fitzcarraldo, The Pianist, and the first disc of Ken Burns’ Civil War have similarly driven up our per-rental cost significantly by lying there for long periods of time. And they’re not happy about it, alternately hurling insults at us or pleading for just a few hours of our attention.

The good news about post-Netflix life is that I’m spending less money on movies — I have been known to purchase DVDs without even seeing the movies because I can’t find them in local rental outlets — and that has left more cash for important things such as CDs, wine, beer, books, and Red Sox shirts. The bad news is that I miss my movies.

You see, my household owns more than 250 DVDs, and I bought those mostly because that’s what I do best.

I also buy a lot of movies because I love to watch them. I discover new things about them every time I see them, sometimes liking them more and sometimes liking them less. Certain things become clearer. A second or third viewing can reveal deficiencies that weren’t apparent in the spell of a fresh film. Commentaries can illuminate the work. And, sometimes, you just need to see Babe win the herding contest or Fredo get whacked.

A great movie, I firmly believe, will never be boring, and will always benefit from being seen one more time, or in a new frame of mind, or with different people. And that’s what has been lost because of Netflix. I don’t return to movies nearly as often, and that compounds the Netflix guilt: Look at all these films, neatly arranged on the shelf alphabetically [because that’s the way we are], perhaps never to be watched again. There are millions of children in the world who will go to bed tonight without a single movie to their name, hungry for cinematic greatness, and here you are hording them all. To which I reply: “But we have to watch Elephant!”

This isn’t Netflix’s fault. The service likes nothing better than people who have The Deer Hunter and Fitzcarraldo for months at a time; that’s how they make their money. The people who watch every movie the day they receive it and send it back the next day are like the people who go to movies without buying anything at the concession stand: money-losers.

In fact, the business model is premised on a large percentage of customers letting Netflix movies acquire a thick layer of dust. A person who watches and returns three movies a week will get through 12 movies every month. That’s a direct cost to Netflix of 24 postages and packaging, plus the overhead of Web-site maintenance, movie acquisition, and staff. There’s no way $20 (the old monthly rate) or $22 (the new one) covers that.

Netflix wants me to keep its movies — particularly those obscure Werner Herzog ones — forever. The company will continue to charge my wife for the privilege, without incurring any direct costs.

We’re smart people, though, so we fight Netflix. We will do our damnedest to watch these movies quickly, because while convenience is worth $4 a movie, it’s not worth $10 or $5 or even $4.50 a movie.

As a result, movies have become one-time commodities, and it’s important to see as many different ones as possible. Those 250 movies I already own, they’re not good enough, and the meter’s not ticking on them. They can wait. They’re the toys from last Christmas.

Our rental queue presently has more than 120 DVDs on it, very few of which either of us has ever seen. The list rarely drops below 100 discs; for every one we watch, we think of another we’d like to see. It’s a never-ending cycle.

Certainly, the movies on the back end of the queue aren’t a high priority. Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly has become a running joke, always last on the list. Some of the movies we’re curious about. Others we feel we need to see for one reason (they’re Important Movies) or another (a recommendation from a friend).

Strangely, I don’t expect to like many of them. I once prided myself on selecting movies that were most likely to reward the investment of my time; I never wanted to kill time with a movie. Netflix has changed that.

I can’t blame Netflix fully. Getting married has certainly reduced the time I spend watching movies — not that I’m complaining, of course — and Bad Dog Ginger requires regular walking and maintenance. But we still watch plenty of movies — just not the ones we own.

So I’m resolving that at some point, before we make a little Culture Snob — which will obliterate the concept of leisure time completely — I will ask my wife to cancel Netflix. And the last movie we send back will be Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

The trouble is that I look at the rental queue and can’t see an obvious cutoff point. Oh, I really ought to see The Tin Drum and Keep the River on Your Right and Persona and ... I doubt I’ll ever be to the point in my life when I say, “I’ve seen everything Netflix has to offer me.”

So maybe the answer is not dumping Netflix but selling the movie collection. So: Who wants a once-watched edition of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf?

GREAT article.

.. i myself don’t have netflix, but have thought about it. i have in the neighbourhood of 150 movies, most of which are blind buys. not anymore, though. rent takes precedence..

Netflix is going to lead to marriage counseling, there’s too much pressure. When either I’ve watched a movie or my wife has and we’re waiting on the other to get it together and finish this “project” so we can move on with our lives. The other problem is I constantly sabotage what is in our Queue because I think I have better choices than she does. (she pays for Netflix and has no short-term memory). But I love the service and have learn to accept that I have Queue anger issues that I need to work through. “The Vagina Monolgues, I don’t think so!”

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