‘A living museum’: what it’s like using Netflix’s DVD-by-mail in 2022

The bright red envelopes feel like a nostalgic artifact from a different era and require an alarming degree of commitment

I opened my mailbox and it felt like 2006 all over again: there it was, a DVD in a bright red envelope.

While Netflix has become synonymous with streaming, its DVD-by-mail service remains alive – and 2022 marks its 25th anniversary. It could also mark the last full year before its brutal death: Reed Hastings, the company’s co-CEO, has suggested 2023 could be the year the service goes the way of Blockbuster. It once had 16 million subscribers, according to the Associated Press; now it’s down to 1.5 million.

The author holds the DVD from Netflix.
The author holds the DVD from Netflix. Photograph: Matthew Cantor/The Guardian

So I wanted to give it one last try while I could.

Turns out my account was already equipped to receive one DVD at a time. For the first time in roughly a decade, I opened the DVD queue and hunted around for a disc to put at the top. My options were far more plentiful than on the streaming service, a reminder that browsing the digital version of Netflix is like scanning your friend’s DVD collection – far from an exhaustive representation of cinematic history. Thus we subscribe to service after service, and the $15 (£12) a month charges pile up.

The DVD-by-mail option, however, does require a level of commitment that has become foreign to many of us. You can’t watch the first 10 minutes of a movie and then settle on a better option. So it took me quite a while to decide on what to get. I figured I should go for a Christmas movie for maximum old-school coziness, but that hardly limits things. The Muppet Christmas Carol? Home Alone 2: The One with Trump? One of the “verys” – A Very Murray Christmas, A Very Country Christmas, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas?

Ultimately, I decided to go hard on the “commitment” angle, using the requirement to force myself to watch a classic movie I wanted to have seen but would never click on: Meet Me in St Louis, the one where Judy Garland sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It also didn’t appear to be on any of the subscription streaming services (though I could pay for an individual rental on some platforms). I put it in the queue, and lo and behold, three days later it was at my door.

I was surprised to feel a long-forgotten sense of anticipation as I ripped open the envelope to reach the inner sleeve with its familiar, dated-looking font describing the film. The text identified it as “one of the greatest American musicals ever filmed”, which was a nice vote of confidence. On the back, the sleeve told me what to do if I couldn’t play it: “Try gently washing with liquid soap or window cleaner” (I assume this referred to the disc and wasn’t a dig at my personal hygiene).

But I also felt a little sad, the way you might when you watch a show filmed right before the pandemic, or see your favorite band lose its “relevance” and become a nostalgia act, or have a dream about someone you’ve lost touch with. It all felt like a relic of another time, as though this disc shouldn’t really be in my hands: we have faster, colder ways of getting our movies now. I was participating in what felt like a living museum, which is a lot of weight to put on a five-inch-wide disc.

But it was a pretty good museum. I popped some popcorn and, after briefly panicking that I didn’t have a DVD player any more, put the disc in my PlayStation.

I’d forgotten about two key benefits of DVDs: the packaging – the disc had a nice image of a smiling Garland and her love interest, played by Tom Drake – and the extra features. The big one here was a video of Liza Minnelli introducing the film; without it, it would have gone over my head that this movie is essentially responsible for her existence. Garland and Minnelli’s father, the director Vincente Minnelli, met while making the film.

I’ll admit it was tough going at first – the movie felt slow and a bit dry, and the first few songs weren’t particularly engaging. But Garland’s incredible alto made it worthwhile, and I was really hooked when I met Tootie, her five-year-old sister who is obsessed with death. We first encounter her telling a local guy about her plans for a funeral for her doll, who has “four fatal diseases” and isn’t expected to make it through the night. Later she sings a song about getting drunk and claims to have murdered a neighbor.

By the end, I was invested in the Smith family remaining in St Louis and all the progeny entering healthy, stable relationships. I won’t say whether it happens, but I will say the movie drew me in enough to inspire a post-watch Google session to find out more about it. And I wouldn’t have watched it if streaming had been my only option.

Of course, much of my inclination to mourn past routines is due to the fact that I am a big-time Luddite – had I written this in 2006, I probably would have been complaining that DVDs by mail were much less personal than video rental stores.

That’s also a reminder of the accelerating speed with which we perceive “the future”: the first video rental store emerged in 1977 and Blockbuster’s success peaked in 2004, according to Business Insider, a span of 27 years. Netflix’s DVD-by-mail subscription model launched in 1999 and soon felt like the new standard for video rental; within less than a decade, the company had started streaming, and by 2013 its shows House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were gracing our countless devices. After just 14 years, discs by mail felt old.

But now that I’ve rekindled my interest in the service, I’m eager to dive in again. The movie selection is virtually limitless, so maybe I can end my subscription to some of the other services.

Then again, three days is a long time to wait.


Matthew Cantor

The GuardianTramp

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