Back in 1997, the home video rental/sales business was $18 billion annually, and was dominated by several large well-entrenched brick and mortar retailing chains, including Blockbuster. Reed Hastings and his friend Marc Randolph decided to start a mail order movie sales and rental business. Randolph had earlier started a mail order computer business (among many other enterprises), so he was familiar with how that kind of business worked.
Hastings was an admirer of a three-year-old internet bookseller up in Seattle that used the web for its marketing and order processing—Amazon.com. Hastings and Randolph decided to apply a version of that model to the video business. In April 1998 (that’s 20 years ago for those of you counting at home), after making sure DVDs would survive the mailing process, they did a full launch of a their new venture, Netflix. They used a highly scientific method to test this—they mailed themselves some DVDs. The DVDs survived just fine, and the red envelope venture was born.
From its inception, it was clear that the movies people loved in theaters were not necessarily going to be the movies people rented at home from Netflix. This difference was noticeable in its very first year of existence. The box office king of 1998 was Steven Spielberg’s wrenching World War II drama Saving Private Ryan. The biggest movie of Netflix that same year? The Big Lebowski, the brilliant oddball comedy from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, which came in 98th in theater box office grosses that year.
In fact, one of the hallmarks of Netflix users is that they love quirky movies, ones that typically fall well out of the blockbuster mainstream. In 1999, the top Netflix rental was Mike Judge’s snarky spoof of life in a tech firm, Office Space. In 2000, the top Netflix rental was Christopher Nolan’s dark and strange thriller Memento. The DVD.com customer base seems to revel in defying what Hollywood expected them to rent.
As Netflix built up its library of films on DVD, customers signed up by the millions, drawn by a business that didn’t require you to get in your car to rent your movies or drive back to return them by a deadline (no late fees!). Here are the most popular rentals of DVD Netflix from the first ten years of its existence and their corresponding box office status for that year.
- 1998: The Big Lebowski (98th place box office)
- 1999: Office Space (121st place)
- 2000: Gladiator (4th place)
- 2001: Memento (88th place)
- 2002: The Bourne Identity (21st place)
- 2003: Mystic River (33rd place)
- 2004: The Notebook (32nd place)
- 2005: Crash (49th place)
- 2006: The Departed (15th place)
- 2007: The Bucket List (31st place)
As far as I am concerned, other than The Notebook, all of these are wonderful and interesting movies. (Don’t get me going on The Notebook and its calculating and cloying and sentimental—Oh, wait. See what you’ve done? You got me going on The Notebook and the many ways I loathe it. To quote one of my daughters who was subjected to this rant; “You’re just like a mean guy who doesn’t get how great that movie is and should just stop talking right now, okay?”)
It’s an impressive and sophisticated list, other than The Notebook. You’ve got a trio of quirky and memorable comedies (The Big Lebowski, Office Space, and The Bucket List), a couple of gripping Boston crime dramas (Mystic River and The Departed), a pair of movies that subvert normal storytelling methods (Memento and Crash), one of the best action pictures ever (The Bourne Identity), and a bold Award-winner with fantastic score (Gladiator). And…. sneer, sneer, sneer… The Notebook.
We’re going to break in here at 2007 because in February of that year Netflix delivered its one billionth DVD. But something was about to change dramatically in the company’s business model. Netflix introduced its streaming service.
While DVDs may not be the first thing people think of when they hear “Netflix” these days, the disc library has now grown to around 70,000 movies and shows. If you’re looking for something, it’s pretty likely DVD.com has it and can send it to you in one of those delightful red envelopes.
Here are the most popular movies from each year of the second decade of Netflix’s DVD business.
- 2008: The Hurt Locker
- 2009: The Blind Side
- 2010: Inception
- 2011: The Lincoln Lawyer
- 2012: The Hunger Games
- 2013: Captain Phillips
- 2014: The Monuments Men
- 2015: The Martian
- 2016: Sully
- 2017: Wonder Woman
One of the biggest movies ever released in box office terms was Avatar (2009). And that movie is nowhere to be found on this list. It was the 4th most popular rental for DVD Netflix members during the year of its home media release. The divergence of what Netflix customers want to watch in the theater versus what they want to watch at home certainly continued into the second decade of the company’s existence.
What seems to resonate with home viewers is the theme of the “Unconventional Hero.” Take a look at the heroes who dominate the films above: Jeremy Renner’s bomb squad leader in Iraq in The Hurt Locker, the lonely and impoverished Michael Oher who finds a place in life as a blocker on a high school football team in The Blind Side, Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream robberies in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Matthew McConaughey’s fast-talking, corner-shaving lawyer in The Lincoln Lawyer, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in The Hunger Games, the calm and resolute ship’s captain portrayed by Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, and, well, you get the idea.
This decade produced only one questionable movie as a top rental: The Monuments Men. Granted, this movie fell short for completely other reasons than The Notebook, but it was still pretty terrible in my book. On a side note, I was talking to one of my daughters as I wrote this and I once again mentioned my disdain for The Notebook. She accused me of having “some kind of psychological problem.” She may be on to something there, but I don’t think crankiness has been fully accepted as a diagnosis quite yet.
Tom Hanks and Christopher Nolan both made multiple appearances on our Most Popular Rentals list. Hanks was the lead in both Captain Phillips and Sully. Christopher Nolan topped the list twice with Memento and Inception. While these movies are both of the highest quality, they aren’t necessarily the ones that immediately come to mind when you think of their careers. When I think of Tom Hanks, I think of Forrest Gump and with Nolan I think of The Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises). But the super discerning DVD Netflix customers chose lesser well-known, but equally excellent, films as their favorites.
It’s a well-established trend among DVD Netflix customers that has been going on for 20 years now. You’re an interesting bunch! Keep surprising us.
Head to dvd.com/20years to help celebrate 20 years of DVD Netflix!
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.