Watching movies is an important part of participating in culture. Every year the film industry goes through a cycle of releasing thrillers, summer action movies, artfully crafted stories and good ole blockbusters. These movies are then seen by hundreds, thousands or millions of people, and some even earn many times their budgets, while others can bankrupt their creators. At the end of the year these movies are vetted and selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (among other groups_ and the winners of several categories, including Best Picture, are paraded before the world on national television.
The Oscars, or the Academy Awards, is a live awards show, hosted by famous entertainers and featuring dozens of pop-culture references and homages. Scilla Andreen, a filmmaker and co-founder of the company IndieFlix, calls the Oscars “My Superbowl,” according to an interview she had with the Puget Sound Business Journal. A 30-second advertisement cost about 12 percent more per viewer for the Oscars than for the recent Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl game.
With all this said, it may come as a surprise that even as everyone becomes better connected and entertainment media becomes more and more versatile we still cannot access every movie that we want to see. Ironically, the ubiquity of online streaming services like HBO Now, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, has caused a colossal decrease in the availability of DVDs anywhere other than your public library or an old relic of a video rental store once every few hundred miles. This wouldn’t be a big problem if the streaming services actually provided the same kinds of movies that the video stores used to offer, but they generally do not. True, there are services like FilmStruck and Tribeca Shortlist that at least fill in the quality gap, but there still simply is not the kind of quantity available that we enjoyed just 10 years ago.
Not too long ago this was really not too much of a problem. There were stores that carried VHS and DVD copies of many movies, especially new films and the great classics — provided they were not too obscure. Something that gets ignored though is the intermediate step that came between the video store and online streaming: Netflix’s DVD service. With its fast shipping and ridiculously low monthly cost of just a few dollars per month for unlimited rentals, virtually every film is actually still available to anyone in the U.S. with a valid shipping address.
Getting Netflix by mail has recently been overshadowed and seemingly surpassed by far more popular instant streaming options, as well as seriously downsized local renting options like Redbox. This latest shift away from large, local stores and warehouses full of ready-to-ship DVDs toward highly selective online content and tiny selections at local machines is a turn in the wrong direction. Fortunately, the popularity of internet streaming and vending machines has not yet forced DVD mailing services like Netflix to declare bankruptcy; it may seem ironic, though, since many local stores like Blockbuster were forced to shut down by those same mailing and streaming services. As a consequence, it is still possible to tailor your cinematic experience, even if you don’t have access to many theaters or want to see obscure films without resorting to piracy.
I don’t want to go into too much of this, but piracy basically amounts to theft, but it can be easily avoided when reasonably-priced alternatives to piracy are available. This is why Netflix’s mailing service is so useful. Its catalog is massive and allows safe, high-quality and legal viewing of virtually anything, provided it has been out of theaters long enough. Though the urge to illegally stream or download something that would otherwise be impossible to find at a store or Redbox is understandable, it is also very likely these movies can be found by legal and cheap means as well.
There have recently been many experiments in distribution of films, as evidenced by the strange series of events surrounding “The Interview,” and the demand for alternative distribution continues to grow as people realize if they try a little they can find a way, legal or not, to watch the movies mentioned at the Oscars or film festivals each year, but never made it to a local theater.
My advice to you is to do yourself a favor and take the free trial month of Netflix’s mailing service and try watching some of the classics, maybe Best Picture winners from years past, or the other nominees from this year that piqued your interest. At just eight dollars a month there really is no reason not to participate in the ongoing evolution of culture cinema presents.
This originally appeared as an article in The Reflector on March 6, 2015, and I am still subscribed to Netflix DVD today. Shockingly, Netflix hasn’t paid me to say any of this, though I’m open to any offers.