The convenience trap: What the changes at Netflix reveal about an insidious trend

The convenience trap: What the changes at Netflix reveal about an insidious trend

Lars Von Trier said that “a film should be like a stone in your shoe,” but it increasingly seems like we’re moving toward a world in which the success of a given work of art is determined primarily by its ease of access. “Convenience” and “choice” are the watchwords of the digital era, in which content must be instantly accessible and as quickly digested, lest consumers flit off to some more welcoming destination. 

With its recent decision to sever its streaming video and DVD-by-mail services, charging a flat fee for each that would raise prices on existing services as much as 60 percent, Netflix unceremoniously shoved its customers toward a future in which hard copies are a thing of the past. (As Jim Emerson pointed out in a post on his Scanners blog, the company has made internal moves to forcibly separate its two-pronged business by removing users’ ability to manage their DVD queues from the streaming app.) Streaming music has turned every laptop into a world-class listening booth, and Netflix’s DVD service allowed anyone with a mailbox access to many of the greatest movies ever made. But as we come to expect and even rely on near-instantaneous access, we risk unconsciously downgrading anything that isn’t so ready at hand. Because of my profession, people confess to me that it’s been years since they saw a movie in a theater, while friends post requests for Netflix Instant recommendations on Facebook and Twitter, apparently content to limit their options to whatever’s streaming right now. 

Netflix’s rationale was a simple cost-benefit analysis: Given the runaway success of its streaming service—which now comprises nearly a third of the country’s Internet traffic during peak hours—it could no longer offer dual plans as a mere add-on. But CNET’s Greg Sandoval put forth an intriguing alternate theory, one that does a substantially better job of encompassing the entirely predictable negative reaction to the price hike: What if Netflix wanted to kill off its DVD business, the way Apple killed off the floppy drive? There’s a reason the company’s not called “DVDs by mail.” 

It’s common knowledge that Netflix’s streaming offerings are patchy and unpredictable, light on new releases and heavy on catalog obscurities, and that a movie or a TV series you’re in the middle of watching can disappear overnight. But what if Netflix wants disgruntled customers? Sandoval speculates that Netflix assumes most customers will drop DVDs in favor of streaming, and studios will be faced with two choices: either make more titles available via streaming, or accept that Netflix’s customers will just watch something else. It’s already trained its members to wait four weeks, during which new movies are available to buy but not to rent, in order to expand its selection of Instant titles. So why not assume they’ll wait forever, or failing that, move on? Search for Drive Angry, and Instant helpfully suggests you watch Kick-Ass instead.

In essence, Netflix is gambling that its customers are less concerned about watching the right movie than watching right now.  What if it’s right? Let’s leave aside issues of quality control, the fact that Netflix frequently makes movies available in the wrong aspect ratio, or that the quality of streamed video is noticeably poorer than DVD, let alone Blu-ray. Let’s focus purely on availability, what you can watch and what you can’t. As of this writing, Instant offers several off-brand collections of Charlie Chaplin’s early shorts, but none of his features. There are two titles apiece for Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa. You can watch Todd Haynes’ Poison and Far From Heaven, but not Velvet Goldmine or I’m Not There. (Despite having been released on DVD, Haynes’ Safe is unavailable even for rental.) You can stream the moving gay-rights documentary Word Is Out, but not the pioneering queer films of Kenneth Anger. Derek Jarman’s Edward II is there, but not his masterful The Last Of England.

As critic and historian Dave Kehr is often moved to point out, the prevailing myth that “everything is on DVD” is hilariously wrong. Every time a new technology takes over, a chunk of film history gets left behind. Movies that were mainstays of undergraduate film classes have been marginalized as colleges and universities zero out rental budgets and build new classrooms that only allow for projection from digital sources. Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, once a pivotal text for teachers seeking to illustrate the potential for deception inherent in the documentary form, has all but drifted out of the conversation, replaced by more easily accessible examples.

The services offering access to a bottomless library of content continue to multiply, but for myriad reasons ranging from licensing restrictions to tangled chains of custody, these services are critically flawed. Spotify’s great, unless you want to listen to anything Hüsker Dü recorded before its major-label debut. Would you trade New Day Rising for the Black Eyed Peas catalogue?

Netflix and Spotify offer untold lifetimes’ worth of content, enough to keep your eyes occupied and your ears filled until the end of time. But there’s so much they lack: out-of-print albums with no rights to license, or great LPs as yet undigitized; movies unavailable and unreleased. Savvy (and legally flexible) Internet users know how to get a hold of many of them, but that too requires an inconvenient amount of effort, to say nothing of the get-up-and-go required to actually leave home and patronize your local cinematheque (if you’re lucky enough to have one, as fewer and fewer people are). 

The consequences of exalting ease above all else are twofold. There’s pure economic marginalization, through which less-popular titles are pushed aside. (See this post advancing the sketchy but troubling prospect that Netflix may be moving away from smaller documentary releases, which could have a disproportionate effect on boutique distributors.) And then there’s the knock-on effect through which ease of access bleeds into ease of viewing. If you’re not inclined to put forth the effort to get yourself in close proximity to a given artwork, will you be willing to expend the mental energy necessary to understand it? How much more likely are you to bail on, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, when with a few clicks of your remote you can be watching a favorite episode of Friday Night Lights

Earlier this summer, a New York Times Magazine article touched off a debate about “cultural vegetables,” singling out “long” movies that in most cases are shorter than the average football game. We carry around unspoken assumptions about what’s long and what’s short, what’s easy and what’s hard, and when those assumptions calcify, we may no longer be aware they’re there. The populist idea that art should be accessible to the public has been engulfed by the notion of art as commodity, readily available, no waiting. 

Writing in the Chicago Tribune last week, Milos Stehlik, who founded Facets Multi-Media, the DVD distributor of such vegetable-flavored works as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue and Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, recalled, “For me, a great film always took effort. Sometimes I traveled far or sat on the floor of basements watching rickety 16mm or beat-up VHS copies. But it was the film that mattered, not having it delivered faster than a pizza, with the click of a button.”

Putting aside the I-walked-two-miles-barefoot-in-the-snow aspect of Stehlik’s recollections, what he’s describing is an environment where the viewer—not, please, the consumer—is fundamentally subservient to a work of art, in which it is our responsibility, and often our pleasure, to come to the work rather than expecting it to come to us. After all, shouldn’t art be inconvenient, if not in the sense of being difficult to access, then because it forces us out of our comfort zones, requiring us to reckon with its way of understanding the world? It may be a stone in your shoe, but if you don’t get off the couch, you’ll never know it’s there.

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