Farewell to Netflix's DVD-by-mail service

It is the end of (another) era. After 25 years, Netflix has mailed out DVD movie rentals for the final time on September 29, 2023. Netflix began their service of renting DVD's by postal mail in March of 1998. The company says that Beetlejuice was the first DVD title rented through the service, at a time when DVD was a new medium, and only about 300 DVD titles were available. The company has posted a video on YouTube bidding farewell to their DVD-by-mail service, also known as DVD.com:

As depicted in the video, the company's DVD service began way back in the days of dial-up internet. My personal Netflix experience began in 2005, when I signed up for the service after a long-running brick-and-mortar video store in my city finally closed down. When that store ceased to exist, and I no longer had access to its reliably large selection of hard-to-find video titles, I did not think I would find a good replacement for it, since a brick-and-mortar video store of the same caliber was not likely to come into existence after that. And then I subscribed to Netflix.

At that time, it was hard for me to fully realize that there was such an efficient, low-cost way of renting movies by mail. This was only a few short years after VHS was the dominant medium for renting movies, and I was initially imagining packages the size of VHS tapes being sent back and forth through the mail. Even when it fully sank into my brain that DVD's were the medium which would be mailed, I still imagined that they would be mailed in plastic packages like the ones they were sold in, or like video stores packaged their rental discs in. When I found that the discs were simply mailed in thin red paper envelopes, and could simply be dropped into mailboxes instead of being taken to a post office, I fell in love with Netflix's DVD rental system immediately. It was like something I could hardly have dreamed of when I was a young VHS junkie in the 1980's. Countless hard-to-find titles could be conveniently shipped to my door. Returning them was easy, with no due dates or late fees. In this day and age, it's easy to forget how awesome it was back then to discover such an updated and convenient service.

Netflix has enabled its DVD subscribers to download a PDF file showing their entire history of DVD rentals from the service. When I look at the DVD titles I rented during my first few years of using the service in the mid-to-late '00's, I see that I rented many music-related selections at the time. Some were live performance videos, some were collections of music videos (either by a specific artist or by various artists), and some others were documentaries. In those days, YouTube was a new thing, and did not feature nearly as much video content as it does now. Blockbuster was still in business, but their music video section was limited in its selection. Tower Records was on its last legs, and its video store had long since stopped renting videos, instead only selling them during its final years. I can remember seeing broad selections of music-related DVD's for sale at Tower, but it was too expensive to make a habit of buying them, and Blockbuster did not offer most of them for rental. When i went browsing online for better deals, especially at Amazon.com, I only discovered more DVD titles that I couldn't afford to own. When I started using Netflix to rent DVD's by mail, I loved being able to affordably rent numerous video titles by artists like Björk, and numerous live performance discs by artists like Hawkwind, and documentaries about obscure artists. Imagine my surprise when I was able to rent a full-length documentary about the once-mysterious Jandek in 2006.

Of course, it also became so much easier to rent obscure movie titles, something that I had always previously searched for ways to do since the 1980's. I was always the type who sought out rarities when it came to my hobbies. I can remember being frustrated that local video stores could not carry every VHS title; I certainly understood why, but I always wished the situation could be better. When it came to renting DVD's from Netflix, it seemed like nearly every DVD in print was available from them at one point -- and it was amazing for me to see just how many movies had become commercially available in that medium.

Of course, we know where the story went from there, because Netflix had a large hand in writing it. In 2007, the company launched its streaming service, which now has many competitors. Once again, I absolutely loved this new way of viewing movies and other streamed content. It was like a whole new level of wish fulfillment that I hardly could have dreamed of less than 20 years earlier. But I did not think at the time that streaming Netflix would actually replace its DVD service, because the selection of content available for streaming was far smaller than the wide selection of available DVD's -- something that remained true until the very end. Even with the number of different streaming services available today, there is a frustrating tendency for content to be constantly removed from the services, sometimes when you least expect it. Being able to rent DVD's from Netflix has often been a good way to remedy this inconvenience.

The popularity of Netflix in both departments helped to bring on the demise of in-store video rental chains like Blockbuster, which had already crushed most of the mom-and-pop neighborhood video stores of yore. After Blockbuster finally shut down its rental business -- both in-store and online -- in 2013, I was so glad that Netflix's DVD service continued to exist. I remember being particularly thankful for it several years later in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused limits to be placed on the things we could do. Apparently there was some interruption to the service then, because my rental history PDF shows an uncommon gap between 3/27/2020 and 5/11/2020. But shortly after that, I was able to rent the very topical 2011 film Contagion. I loved the continuing availability of this service so much that an unrealistic part of me probably thought it would never go away.

But soon after that point, I could see the end coming. In or around 2021, I remember a relative of mine seeing a red Netflix envelope in my house, and saying something like, "Wow! Do they still do that?" Clearly, it was fast becoming a thing of the past.

At its peak, Netflix reportedly had more than 20 million subscribers to its DVD service in 2011. By 2023, the number of subscribers had reportedly fallen to less than one million. I am glad I was one of the people who stayed with it until the end. I hope it will not be difficult in the future to regularly access desired movies and other video content through YouTube and Netflix and other streaming services. However the situation may evolve, I know I am going to miss adding DVD titles to my Netflix queue, and receiving the discs in those red envelopes. I am also going to miss seeing previews for other movies at the beginnings of those discs, which have often helped me discover movies from different time periods which I had previously overlooked.

Netflix says that the final DVD's mailed to subscribers do not need to be returned, although they can optionally be mailed back before October 27th. I plan to keep at least one disc and red envelope as a souvenir. That gives me one more thing to look forward to as I sadly say goodbye to the era of Netflix DVD rentals.