THE FUTURE OF HOME (AND AWAY) ENTERTAINMENT
It seems inevitable that the brightest and most far-reaching inventions and ideas seem manifestly simple after they are discovered. Reed Hastings, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Netflix, which has entirely changed the nature of DVD rentals, came to the idea because of a failure. His wife had been checking with him regularly about the return of their own movie rentals. Inevitably, with his own busy schedule interceding, he returned them, late, paying significant penalty fees.
This, in fact, was what I heard for years from so many friends, who complained they could never get rentals back on time, thus paying de facto high prices for bringing them into their homes. Hastings had the same complaint but hit upon an experiment: Could DVDs be safely mailed? When he successfully sent one to himself, the paradigm of rental through the mail, and Netflix, centered in the Silicon Valley’s Los Gatos, was born.
Since 1999, Netflix has built its subscriber base until it now includes more than 6.7 million consumers. Blockbuster Video has entered the fray, so that both companies now compete for mail and digital delivery of DVDs. Americans have always been willing to pay a bit more for convenience, due to the pace of contemporary life, but with more than 80,000 titles in each of its regional centers, Netflix can boast of satisfying both cineastes and those who want to see the rom-com or blow-it-up action flick that has come and gone in theatrical distribution.
Thus, this writer, in creating his queue for DVDs to be mailed, counts few Hollywood studio pictures among them. They can generally be obtained at a decent local video store. But ask a clerk for rare animation from the former Yugoslavia’s Zagreb studios in the 70s or even a recent documentary like Who Was Kafka?, about the haunted, brilliant Czech writer, and you are likely to get a look of perplexed annoyance. This volume of titles encourages the subscriber to not only search in areas that are favored but to get an education in film, to move the mouse’s cursor over the title of an intriguing sounding film that possibly never saw the light of day or the dark of a movie theatre.
Bronagh Hanley, Netflix’s Director of Public Relations, feels that DVD rentals will continue grow for the next ten years, after which, downloading and streaming of films to home computers will have dominance. As it stands, Netflix offers free streaming of movies in addition to those mailed to consumers, depending upon the plan chosen. However, for dialup connections or DSL lines with speeds under 1 million megabytes, those 3000 digitally delivered films and TV episodes will not be easily viewed. This is a rare case of American technology lagging behind other countries, including Japan and Western Europe, where the digital infrastructure allows much faster average download speeds.
The design of Netflix.com is also impressive, as it is navigable as it is comprehensive. One can search per title, country, era, according to professional critics and can also read the amateur critics, the more than 2 billion ratings from viewers. And stretching beyond the concept of mailing consumers their films in a day or two, the company has now founded Red Envelope Entertainment, named after the very recognizable sleeves in which DVDs are mailed. Its mission is to provide national distribution to films that would otherwise have difficulty finding a wide audience.
To that effect, Red Envelope is distributing to its customers, as of October 23, the documentary The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio (www.theorchestraofthepiazzavittorio.com). It follows the creation of a multinational music group in Italy, including the countries Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Hungary, India, Italy, Morocco, Romania, Senegal, Tunisia and the United States. A national live tour began October 4 and will arrive here in Los Angeles on October 11, as the Orchestra plays at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood (www.egyptiantheatre.com). It will be part of the Egyptian’s Cinema Italian Style Festival. The joy of seeing the Orchestra’s merging of nationalities, cultures and styles of music is encouraging, as is the changing landscape of home entertainment, especially when it allows us to spend more time at home or perhaps gives us a special reason for going out on the town.