As the Netflix red envelope era ends, here's what's really lost to us

Netflix announced it will no longer mail DVDs, which signals a bigger change to our culture

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published April 21, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Packages of DVDs await shipment at the headquarters January 29, 2002 in San Jose, CA. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Packages of DVDs await shipment at the headquarters January 29, 2002 in San Jose, CA. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It was a shocking announcement, in part because of the larger change and loss it represents and in part because we didn't see it coming. On Tuesday, in a tweet, DVD Netflix announced that in September of 2023, "we will send out the last red envelope." Netflix, now known primarily as a streaming service, will end its rental DVD program this fall, after 25 years and 5.2 billion DVDs sent through the mail. 

How many of us had aspirational queues?

"You don't know what you've got till it's gone," Joni Mitchell sang in "Big Yellow Taxi." Such may be true of the DVD; specifically, the rental DVD. It was a staple of the early 2000s, those thin red and white envelopes with movies and shows inside. Organizing your queue — the list of rentals you wanted to request, in order of when you wanted them to arrive — became an obsession for many. (Netflix also taught me the word "queue.") The loss of the DVD rental service is eliciting more than a nostalgia ache for older technology. It's bringing up a problem: we don't have access to everything, and the art we have will not last forever.  

Netflix sent its first DVD in 1998. It was, apparently, "Beetlejuice." Say his name three times and the mischievous spirit, played by Michael Keaton, will appear. Subscribe, pay a monthly fee, and DVDs would appear in the mail like magic. It was always exciting to open the mailbox to discover one of those slender red envelopes along with junk and bills. It was a ritual, which replaced for many — quickly — the previous ritual: of going to a video rental store early on Friday evening, spending an hour or so browsing and debating with friends and family about what film to watch, picking it out (do they have it, or is it sold out, simply the empty box on display?!), getting snacks and heading home for the big night in.

Netflix brought the movies to you, and with the mailed rentals came a whole other culture. It was a pressure, getting your queue in line. (Yes, I know that means getting your line in line.). The way the service worked was that you could only keep out so many movies at a time. You had to watch or send back a movie before getting the next one, and you might have been in a different mood when you listed it than when it arrived. How many of us had aspirational queues? How many of us watched intense, artistic or experimental films that we might not have finished otherwise just to be able to send them back and get the next disc of  "The L Word"? 

"What if streaming goes away?"

It isn't just the end of a culture that the ceasing of the Netflix DVD represents. It's also a lack of access. As behemoth as Netflix's streaming service is, it doesn't have everything. As soon as the shuttering of the DVD service was announced, fans took to social media to bemoan the movies about to be lost to us. The Daily Mail ran a list of movies that aren't available on streaming anywhere. One DVD fan told CNN, "He's determined to finish seeing every film listed in the book '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die' with the help of Netflix. 'I absolutely would not have been able to find all of those movies if not for the Netflix DVD service,' Colin McEvoy said. 'I only have four movies left to go.'"

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The ending of the red envelope era also underscores a technology gap. Not everyone has the internet, especially not at speeds fast enough to stream. Libraries depend on DVDs — their patrons still need them and ask for them, perhaps especially patrons who are elderly or live in rural areas. Streaming services are expensive — and ever-changing.

I will never forget when "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" left My comfort watch, the show that was always there, was suddenly not always there, not easily. You can't count on streaming to have the shows and films you want. You can't count on streaming at all, to be affordable, to work. Slate wrote in a piece earlier this year, "What if streaming goes away?"

I still have VHS copies of "The Hunger," "Legend" and the Canadian miniseries adaptation of "Anne of Green Gables." Does my household have a VHS player? No. Are the tapes even still playable or have they degraded? I don't know. But at the time when I scored the tapes — all at the closing sales of video stores — I was thrilled to find copies. They were all art that I had loved seeing years ago, that I had not been able to find since. Like a treasured book, it felt important to hold those stories close, to be able to return to them.  

There's a reason why adult Van (Lauren Ambrose) owns a video store in Showtime's "Yellowjackets." The cozy store is called While You Were Streaming, a pun on one of Van's beloved Sandra Bullock films, "While You Were Sleeping," whose story she tells to the girls in a pivotal moment when they're in the woods. The video store and its tangible medium is a way to hold to the actual good parts of her youth, before trauma. It's a way to hold on, period. 

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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