Getting Netflixed

by Robert J. Hawkins | Mar 5, 2001
Getting Netflixed You hate paying late fees to Blockbuster - almost as much as you hate being called away from the TV set in the middle of a pay-per-view movie. I would, too - that is, if I ever went into a Blockbuster store or paid my cable company to watch a movie when they decide I should.

But I don`t. Instead, I get all the DVD movies I want, keep them as long as I like, play them when I feel like it and return them when I`m good and ready. For this, I pay about $20 a month. In a verb: I "netflix." (As opposed to getting blockbusted for late returns.)

In the past two weeks, I`ve netflixed "The Matrix," "Erin Brockovich," "The Perfect Storm," "The Red Violin" and "What Planet Are You From?" (I would have netflixed plenty more, except that I review videos for a living and have my personal three-foot stack of DVDs begging my attention.)

How do you netflix? You need a few things: Internet access, a DVD player, a credit-card number. Now, point your Web browser to NetFlix and you are ready to join the 300,000 subscribers to the coolest online video rental service in the world.

Netflix is the brainchild of co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings, one of the Princes of Silicon Valley. Hastings founded Pure Software a decade ago and sold it in 1997 for about $700 million. Even with all that money, Hastings recognized a fundamental truth about our universe: People hate to pay late fees for movies. Especially to Blockbuster. Almost as significant: People hate to learn that the last copy of "Nurse Betty" was checked out not five minutes earlier.

Hastings and his partners formulated an online solution to all the things people dislike about the video-rental business. They called it Netflix. The Web-based rental service launched in April 1998 and, clearly, people like what he`s done with the place. In a phone conversation recently, Hastings said Netflix in on course to enroll its 1 millionth subscriber before the end of 2001. Given how rapidly the public has embraced the DVD format, Netflix could be counting 10 million subscribers in two years` time.

Netflix subscribers have access to a library of 10,000 movie titles on DVD - at a copy depth unimaginable by even the biggest video-rental stores. For a flat $19.95 a month, subscribers can check out three titles at a time. Each title arrives in its own mailing pouch, via the U.S. Post Office. When you are done, pop it back into the pouch and into any mail box. Return postage is prepaid.

If you`ve selected additional titles, Netflix will log them on to your personal movie queue. As soon as a movie is returned, the next title on your queue is shipped automatically. If you`ve selected films that have not yet been released, they are shipped on the same day studios launch them in stores.

Hastings says all the major studios are on board with Netflix, and at consumer-friendly terms. Should a new title prove especially hot to subscribers, studios can restock Netflix warehouse shelves on short notice.

Netflix currently employs more than 300 people and it is one dot-com that is still on a growth trajectory. The company operates out of a single California location with a semi-automated fulfillment system. Turnaround - from online request to mailbox - is quite rapid. I dropped three DVDs in a mailbox on the Presidents Day holiday and had e-mail acknowledgments of their receipt from Netflix in 24 hours.

Netflix offers upgraded memberships - for $29.95 you can rent five titles at a time and, for $39.95 a month, you can up it to eight. The Web site itself is designed to help you wade through the thousands of titles in as pleasurable a way as possible. There are myriad ways to slice-and-dice your viewing tastes.

Titles are grouped by genres and in dozens of sub-categories. Search by studio, artist, alphabetical, newest releases, foreign, action, romantic, art house, how-tos, family and more. (Author-critic Leonard Maltin recommends about 10 titles every week.) Users are invited to rate and review movies. Apparently Netflix users aren`t shy. According to Hastings, 30 million ratings have been recorded so far and they`re pouring in at about 100,000 a week. Use the service often enough and express your opinion freely and soon enough Netflix smart software will begin providing you with personalized recommendations.

With all its consumer muscle, Netflix has no desire to lock up exclusives with studios as Blockbuster sometimes does.

"We don`t need that," says Hastings firmly.

He is confident that the company`s service-orientation and no-late fees strategy will ensure a fair share of the $8 billion annual domestic rental business.

The DVD-only strategy was an easy decision for Netflix. Hastings points to the rapid adoption of DVD by consumers - faster than any other consumer electronics product in history. Also, there is miniscule product failure compared to VHS tapes and shipping costs (34 cents per title, each way) are manageable. And when Hollywood studios finally settle on a model for downloadable movies, Hastings says, Netflix fully expects to be at the front of the line offering the service to its customer base.

For today, Netflix has made renting movies fun again. If the industry had an Oscar for such an achievement, Hastings would be up there delivering his thank-you speech on March 25.

OSCAR BEATS A PATH TO HOME VIDEO

If it`s your own personal Academy Awards film fest that you want to mount before the March 25 ceremonies, you`re in luck. Some of this year`s nominees have already hit the rental racks in both DVD and VHS formats - or will before Joan River`s cracks her first joke about breast implants and Donatella Versace gowns worn backward.

The envelopes please ...

Best Picture: "Erin Brockovich" - The Julia Roberts showpiece has been in home circulation since last August.

Other nominations: Best Actress (Roberts), Best Director (Soderbergh), Best Supporting Actor (Finney) and Original Screenplay (Susannah Grant).

"Gladiator" - With a dozen nominations, the Roman epic leads the pack. Available since Thanksgiving - go for the DVD and sop up all the extras - the story on the making of this movie is almost as spectacular as the movie itself.

Other nominations: for Best Actor (Crowe), Best Supporting Actor (Phoenix), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Original Score, Best Costume, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - June promises to be a great month for home video. Industry insiders say three of the five Best Picture nominees, including this one, will make their home video debut that month.

Other nominations: Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Song ("A Love Before Time"), Best Costume, Best Film Editing.

"Traffic" - Another one still conjuring box-office voodoo. Don`t look for this drug-smuggling drama before June. Steven Soderbergh got a second director`s nomination for this one.

Other nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Del Toro), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.

"Chocolat" - Only made it to wide-release in mid-January, so you`ll have to wait at least until June for this one. Miramax is absolutely the best at squeezing box office out of Oscar publicity - "Il Postino (The Postman)" and "Life is Beautiful" were delayed for ages when Oscar drove fans back to theaters one more time.

Other nominations: Best Actress (Binoche), Best Supporting Actress (Dench), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score.

OK. So what is available? Try these red-hot nominees:

"The Patriot" - available since last October. Mel Gibson made it all happen, but the Academy finds it hard to take the Aussie seriously.

Nominated for: Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Sound.

"The Cell" - Nominated appropriately enough for Best Makeup. It is out there for your viewing pleasure. If there were a Best Mannequin category, Jennifer Lopez would be all over it.

"The Perfect Storm" - Thin story - one hell of a storm. So with nominations for Best Sound and Best Visual Effects, this film has been rocking home theater audio-video systems since November.

"Hollow Man" - Kevin Bacon`s sci-fi horror showcase was nearly invisible on the nominee list. It did manage a Best Visual Effects nod - and the effects are spectacular. Available since January.

"U-571" - Another Best Sound and Best Sound Editing nominee. Available since October.

COMING SOON

"Wonder Boys" - Repositioned to March 13 to take advantage of any Oscar fairy dust. A little fell - Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Song ("Things Have Changed" by Bob Dylan) and Best Film Editing - but not enough to elevate this under-appreciated gem to super-hit status.

"Almost Famous" - Cameron Crowe`s rock `n` roll memoir was denied a best picture nomination. Put it at the top of your must-rent list come March 13.

Was nominated for: Best Supporting Actress (Hudson), Best Supporting Actress (McDormand), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing.

"The Contender" - Political intrigue, yes. Wonderful actors - Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges - were deservedly nominated. Best Actress for Allen and Best Supporting Actor for Bridges. Available on March 6.

COMING LATER:

"Billy Elliot" - Gotta-dance picture of the year! Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Walters), Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Look for it in early-to-mid April.

"102 Dalmatians" - Can`t count on this sequel. Got a Best Costume nod (presumably for Glenn Close). To home video on April 3.

"You Can Count On Me" - If Laura Linney wins the Best Actress statue, that`s a very real and hoped for scenario - expect this film to surf the publicity wave back into theaters a while longer. Otherwise, it is due in May. Also nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

"Requiem for a Dream" - Want to make a double-header with "Traffic"? Gritty performance by Ellen Burstyn earned her a Best Actress nod. Movie is on track for home release May 22.

"Cast Away" - Obligatory nomination to Tom Hanks for Best Actor. Also nominated for Best Sound - what is that any way? The volleyball didn`t get a mention. Surfs onto home video no later than June.

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Robert J. Hawkins

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