It’s a strange feeling, to look back to a time merely 10 years ago and think “that was a golden era, wasn’t it?” It feels like it should take longer than a decade for that kind of clarity to develop, but the more time I spend looking at the streaming service landscape as a Paste staff writer, the more I find myself returning to the same conclusion: Netflix, as a service, could once say it offered a film library that was unmatched by any other archive of films in the world. Just a decade ago, the physical media library possessed by Netflix was well beyond 100,000 titles strong, offering a staggering degree of diversity that essentially made it the equivalent of the best-stocked video store in the world. At its peak, in fact, the number of DVD titles possessed by Netflix would have dwarfed the entire streaming libraries of all the major streamers today … combined.
And now, 10 years later, that DVD library has become a lost treasure—undervalued, hacked to pieces, mothballed and generally a hollow shell of its former self. Rest assured, Netflix still sends DVDs to its subscribers—myself included—by mail. But the scope of that film library has shrunk precipitously, reflecting a lack of interest both from the company and the moviegoing public. In the face of easy, instant access via streaming, consumers were simply all too happy to sacrifice comprehensiveness. We traded in a library of 100,000 titles for one that currently has less than 4,000—and we’re never going to get the former back. There’s no telling how long even the gutted version of DVD.com (Netflix’s DVD spin-off) will continue to operate, but I imagine I’ll be going down with the ship, still nostalgic for its glory days.
At its peak in either 2010 or 2011, according to conflicting reports, Netflix’s DVD delivery service numbered around 20 million subscribers, and the company was sending out in the neighborhood of 12 million DVDs per week. Upwards of 50 distribution centers around the country ran the operation, which The Motley Fool reported last year had shrunk to only 17 outlets. Vox, conversely, says the entire DVD.com operation is run out of a single facility in Fremont, CA, but regardless of the actual numbers, it’s impossible to miss the contraction of this wing of Netflix’s business, which now represents significantly less than 1% of the company’s overall revenue—although DVD.com apparently does still turn a profit. It’s such a minor part of the business, however, that Netflix has stopped even reporting DVD.com subscription numbers in the last few years, although that number is likely well under 2 million today. The streaming version of Netflix, meanwhile, reached 203.7 million paid subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2020.
By any metric, it’s plain to see that the DVD.com service isn’t receiving much attention. In years past, Netflix’s quarterly earnings statements contained data on expenditures toward purchasing DVDs and Blu-rays for the service, which were as high as $77 million in 2016. That quickly dropped to $54 million in 2017, and only $38.5 million in 2018. In 2019, the company stopped reporting this figure, as it had apparently become too miniscule to bother including. CEO Reed Hastings told reporters in 2018 that he had no immediate plans to shutter the service, but the signs of entropy are all there. It might not happen tomorrow, but DVD.com’s days are surely numbered. The service has become a relic, operating with little interest even from its parent company. The size and scope of its physical film library continues to dwindle. And when it finally closes up shop, we’ll have lost the last vestiges of what was once the greatest and broadest movie library ever assembled.
The shrinking of the physical Netflix DVD library has been a simple enough process to observe for customers who are paying attention to their queue of upcoming deliveries. As the years have gone by, I’ve watched my own queue be decimated by this process, with titles first moving from “queue” to “saved” (essentially a request that Netflix obtain a DVD they no longer have), to then disappearing from the service entirely. Many films I borrowed from Netflix in the last decade no longer show up at all when searched at DVD.com, and they’re exactly the sort of movies you would expect to see disappearing—cult films, foreign films, obscure titles, B-movies, etc. It’s the kind of stuff you can imagine an exec reasoning that “no one would miss,” presumably sold off over the last decade as various shipping/storage centers and warehouses have been consolidated. These types of films were clearly never the engine that drove the service, even in its glory days—but access to these obscure or unusual titles was the primary reason I first signed up for the DVD delivery service, along with other weirdo, kindred spirit film geeks. Over time, DVD.com has become less and less useful for this purpose.
At the same time, it’s easy to miss that the streaming side of Netflix has actually contracted significantly during the same period as well—a symptom of the diversification and general crowding of the streaming content market. According to industry analyst Streaming Observer, the number of movie titles streaming on Netflix has shrunk by around 40% since 2014, from 6,494 to less than 3,800 today. That might seem surprising, as it would be natural to assume a service like Netflix gets bigger and broader every year, but it’s not really the case. Instead, the overall direction for the company as a whole in recent years has been “less overall content, but more marketing and focus on each individual piece of NEW content.”
Lest we forget, the streaming side of Netflix has shrunk in the last five years as well.
Where did those streaming titles go? Well, the rights were gobbled up by other streamers, of course. In the first half of the 2010s, Netflix consolidated its power in the streaming space with far fewer competitors. The back half of the decade, on the other hand, saw the growth of primary competitors and the launch of countless new streaming services—there were more than 270 available in the U.S. by 2019, and surely that number is past 300 by now. That includes major Netflix competitors such as Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Max, Apple TV+, Disney+, Peacock, Paramount+, Tubi and many more. And with each service needing at least the appearance of a robust library of content, that means far more competition for licensing titles such as classic movies, and smaller libraries of classic content available to each individual streamer. In other words, it means customers need access to a larger number of streaming services (each with monthly fees) to match the number of titles that Netflix was offering just a few years ago.
This is of course why original content is seen as the answer by most streamers, because it’s the one type of content, be it film or TV series, that the streamer will never lose their ability to exhibit. This focus on original content, especially at Netflix, slowly turns most streamers from archivers of broader content, to exclusive archivers of their own content. The Vox article cited above seems to suggest that once the streaming landscape can finally support no more new services, and server space continues to get cheaper, streamers will respond by expanding their libraries of classic or more obscure films as a new way of providing unique content. But we certainly aren’t seeing that happen yet, besides perhaps at the black hole that is Amazon Prime Video, hindered more than any other streamer by a completely un-browseable user interface.
And this, ultimately, is the tragedy of losing that Netflix DVD collection of old—there’s genuinely no alternative for replacing it within the streaming world, no matter how much you’re willing to spend. Certainly, there’s no other service out there mailing DVDs at anywhere near this scale, even after Netflix’s own DVD.com has contracted significantly. Nor is there a local, brick and mortar video store in the vast majority of American cities at this point. It comes down to direct comparisons with what other streamers can offer—HBO Max, for instance, doesn’t have a huge selection of streaming movie titles, but it does have a comparatively high quality one. Amazon Prime Video offers the exact opposite experience—an insanely, incomprehensibly vast library that is large primarily because it’s filled with zero budget films that look like home movies uploaded directly by users. The Netflix DVD library struck what was perhaps the ideal balance here—truly vast and eclectic, but also with a baseline quality level of films that had to at least qualify on the front of “had a physical release at some point.”
What we’re left with is a service perpetually in decline, but one that is still offering some content that can’t be replicated elsewhere for hardcore film geeks like myself. The service provided by DVD.com literally gets worse on a quarterly basis, but many subscribers still sticking it out will likely continue to pay for it until it’s finally shuttered, mourning all the while. Because when it’s gone, there’s not going to be any replacement.
We’ll always have the memory, at least, of that time a decade ago when Netflix possessed the single greatest film library that anyone had ever assembled, or likely ever will assemble. Perhaps in 2030, when we’re all paying for 100 different streaming services, each with access to half a dozen movies, those glory days will be more fully recognized.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.