In the 1980s and 1990s, renting movies was something that required an investment of time. You had to drive to a movie rental store, see what was in stock, drive back home, and return the movie to the store early enough to avoid late fees. Furthermore, while you were in the store, you had to search for your movie on a shelf that was often not in alphabetical order, wait in long lines, and ask the clerk to check for movies in the slot that just came in to see if that hot new release of Armageddon on VHS had come back.
Netflix changed the entire paradigm of how the public watches movies at home. In Shawn Cauthen’s Netflix vs. the World, we witness the rise of Netflix from a fledgling startup to a producer of original content that wins Academy Awards.
Movies by Mail
Through a combination of animated sequences, vintage footage and new interviews with both former Blockbuster Video and Netflix employees, Cauthen does a great job easing the viewer into a narrative that starts with Reed Hastings financing Marc Randolph’s “movies by mail” idea to the tune of $2 million and ends with the current world of streaming becoming the norm. Writer-Producer Gina Keating adapts her book Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America’s Eyeballs with aplomb providing plenty of context for all the backroom business dealing the story covers so that the viewer is never lost amidst all the wheelings and dealings.
At its launch in 1998, Netflix had only 3,000 DVDs for viewers to pick from. They planned for 108 orders in their first month but hit that goal on their first day. Although the evolution of their business is the main topic on display, a few humorous anecdotes are included to keep things from getting too dry. An early Netflix exclusive in 1998 was a DVD of Bill Clinton’s grand jury testimony. To save on costs, the DVDs were printed without labels. Netflix’s supplier sent them some wrong and unlabeled DVDs by accident that contained pornography, which in turn went out to some surprised customers!
It’s important to remember the size of Blockbuster Video at the time Netflix started. They eventually had a competing DVD by mail service called Blockbuster Online in 2004 that really took off with the Blockbuster Total Access program in 2007. Customers could return the movie they rented by mail to a local store and pick up a new movie for free. Although customers loved this system, it lost Blockbuster a lot of money. Their CEO at the time Jim Keyes made further poor decisions, like bringing back late fees, buying Circuit City, and renewing focus on their stores instead of streaming and DVDs by mail.
Director Shawn Cauthen has a big story to tell here, and as a result, more recent developments are smoothed over a bit too quickly. The importance of original streaming content and the rise of competing services from the likes of Hulu, Disney+, and others is less of a focus than Netflix’s early days. An overall rosy picture of Netflix is painted with moments of criticism that are all too few and far between. Late in the film, digital media analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities makes an astute point that Netflix’s movie recommendations of what to watch next are often of their own original programming rather than something related to what you just watched.
Streaming to the Future
As new streaming services like HBO Max and Peacock take back their library of shows, Netflix will offer less compelling classic movies and TV shows. The waters of streaming media are growing murky indeed.
Netflix vs. the World is a decent, if too self-congratulatory, look at Netflix’s evolution to become the media giant we have today. Whether you’re wanting to learn of their early days or curious about the ancient times of renting movies from a physical store, it offers viewers a lot to think about.
What do you think of Netflix vs. the World? Do you have a favorite story from the documentary? Leave a comment below!
Watch Netflix vs. the World
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.