Today, Netflix is synonymous with movie streaming, but that was not always the case. Flashback to early 1997 and a brand-new media format was just being released: DVD. The first DVD players and discs started appearing early in the year, featuring higher quality digital video signals in 480P resolution and frequently retaining the film’s original aspect ratio and including a discreet multi-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack that crushed video cassettes in both audio and video performance. (And didn’t require any rewinding!) However, mainstream rental chains like Blockbuster were slow to adopt this new format.
Netflix picked up on this idea, and the company was founded in 1997 around the idea of renting DVDs by mail with a subscription plan to avoid the late charges for which Blockbuster was notorious. The company shipped its first disc—Beetlejuice—on March 10, 1998, and has since more than four billion discs to subscribers. Today the company owns the DVD.com domain.
I’ve personally been a Netflix disc subscriber since 1998. I had purchased one of the first DVD players available—a combination Pioneer Laser Disc/DVD player to hedge my bets in case this new format didn’t take off—and when I moved to Myrtle Beach in ’98, there were no local stores renting discs. (In fact, my company, Custom Theater and Audio, toyed with the idea of renting out discs for a while, just to help promote the new DVD format. We purchased 50 titles and set up a simple rental service for our customers, which pretty soon devolved to just letting customers borrow discs for free.)
The new Netflix service made perfect sense to me, offering virtually every movie available on the new format in a consume-all-you-want subscription plan, coming in a postage-paid envelope that made rental simple and free. The little red envelope which the discs arrive in were originally white, before switching briefly to yellow in 2000 and then settling on red in 2001 have changed little in the past 20 years. Though Netflix now frequently uses the tear away portion of the packaging to highlight new releases or feature some bit of film trivia.
Netflix began its streaming service in 2007, which has gone on to become the de facto streaming juggernaut that many of us and our customers use today. Today nearly 90 percent of all streaming households subscribe to Netflix, and Netflix streaming traffic accounts for the majority of Internet activity.
Far beyond just disc rental, Netflix has also become a major original content creator and distributor. And just as Netflix was a major factor contributing to Blockbuster’s demise, the company continues to have a major impact on traditional pay/subscription TV services as customers cut the cord in favor of streaming services like Netflix.
People ask why I continue using Netflix for disc rental with the massive amount of content the company makes available for instant consumption and, for me, the answers are obvious. For one, the number of titles available for disc rental far outstrips those available for streaming. In fact, virtually every disc—whether movie or TV series—that has been released on DVD or Blu-ray is available for rental. In comparison, take a look at this link provided by Fandango Now which lists a sampling of 200+ titles not available for streaming on Netflix.
Second, just because something is available today, definitely does not mean it will be available tomorrow for streaming. Due to contract negotiations and film deals, titles disappear from Netflix on a monthly basis. The Hollywood Reporter site publishes a regular monthly list detailing everything that will be leaving. The most notable example of this is Disney, which elected not to renew its contract with Netflix, so its films will slowly start disappearing from streaming.
Third, while much of Netflix’s new original content is offered in Ultra HD resolution, movies are not, and Netflix streaming quality doesn’t match that of disc based viewing, especially when compared to Blu-ray disc. This is especially true of the audio portion, with Blu-ray discs increasingly featuring Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks that are far superior to streamed Dolby Digital +.
Finally, as a movie lover, there are many films I want to view once, but don’t want to spend $20-25 to own. This includes sampling many foreign and independent titles that didn’t receive wide release. For me, any millions of other film lovers, Netflix still offers the very best disc rental solution.
Now, if the company would just start renting 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray titles it would be perfect!
To honor the long staying power and quality of the disc, below is a list of Netflix’s top rented disc from each of the past 20 years.
1998: The Big Lebowski
1999: Office Space
2002: The Bourne Identity
2003: Mystic River
2004: The Notebook
2006: The Departed
2007: The Bucket List
2008: The Hurt Locker
2009: The Blindside
2011: The Lincoln Lawyer
2012: The Hunger Games
2013: Captain Phillips
2014: The Monuments Men
2015: The Martian
2017: Wonder Woman