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in Filmmaking
on Jul 23, 2006

Chuck Tryon’s The Chutry Experiment points to an interesting and, if my own behavior is any indication, accurate article in The Wall Street Journal Online on how Netflix is changing people’s DVD viewing habits. Specifically, the article talks about how the service’s easy access to great movies encourages those movies to stay sealed in their little red envelopes unwatched for weeks and even months at a time.

From the article:

Netflix Inc., which boasts nearly five million members, often trumpets how its all-you-can-eat rental model is changing the way people are watching movies. But Netflix may also be changing the way people don’t watch them. Through its Web site, Netflix makes it easy to comb through a massive catalog of 60,000 films. It offers access to everything from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent tramp movie “The Kid” to recent Academy Award-winners like “Crash.” And some members admit that when browsing the Netflix backlog, they overestimate their appetite for off-the-beaten-track films. The result: Sometimes DVDs languish for months without being watched.

The article goes on to talk about how if someone goes to a video store to rent something for that evening, he or she is more likely to pick an entertaining and more commercial movie. If one is putting together a list of movies for future viewing, he or she will pick the cinematic equivalent of a heaping plate of vegatables — movies that are “good for you.”

“It’s a paradox of abundance,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of culture and communication at New York University. If people aren’t pressured to see a movie in a specific time frame, he said, viewers tend to put it lower on their priority list. “When you have every choice in front of you, you have less urgency about any particular choice,” he added.

The result can be a type of guilt-fueled Netflix bottleneck for users, who may not feel like watching a film but are also loath to return it, said Mike Kaltschnee, who writes a popular blog called HackingNetflix. He’s experienced the sensation himself. He twice rented Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” kept it for weeks, only to send it back unwatched. He cites his Catholic upbringing for his inability to watch the sometimes-brutal depiction of Christ’s last days. “It’s childish almost. It’s just a movie. But I could not put it in the DVD player,” he said. “And I know I’m not alone.”

For Tryon, Netflix has actually decreased his DVD viewing:

To be fair, I’m still watching a lot of movies, but for whatever reason, that is happening less often on DVD. I’ve found that when I rented from video stores, it was much easier to gauge what kind of film I’d like to see, and the late fees, even if they were relatively minimal, were punitive enough to motivate me to watch and return movies quickly.

And over at the blog AKMA’s Random Thoughts, the condition has received a specific diagnosis: Netflix Constipation:

Tonight, for instance, I voluntarily watched Road to Perdition. The family was suffering from Netflix Constipation: you know, the time when you have all three movies out, and you really want to see them, but just now you’d like something else, but you can’t get something else from Netflix till you return one of the three, which you can’t, because now isn’t the moment to watch those three movies, and so on. I had sent for three relatively somber movies, because (at the time) Margaret was away and Pippa had just been on a comedy spree; I felt I was clear to watch a couple serious flicks without upsetting anyone. But (as John Belushi used to say) “No – o – o – o – o – o. . . .” I got sidetracked for a couple of days, and Margaret came home, and she usually doesn’t like heavy movies as much as she likes light movies, and that goes double when her endocrine system is playing malignant games with her mood. So Road to Perdition, Gangs of New York, and Donnie Darko sat on the dining room table, waiting for someone to have mercy, watch them and send them back to their DVD homes. Pippa sat at the dining room table, thinking that those DVDs could be Austin Powers or Batman, if only Dad would send them back to Netflix so her choices could come. And of course, any day I could simply have mailed them back, and put them back into the queue for a later date — but that would be giving up.

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