For you, the start of an evening in front of Netflix might begin with the tudum jingle. But for some, it still starts with opening a small red envelope. Not for long. The end of Netflix’s DVD rental business might be long overdue, but for some it was Netflix—and for all of us, its demise is a reminder that streaming captures just a tiny fraction of the movie industry’s storied history. Soon, that will be much harder to find.
“My parents subscribed to Netflix way back when it was just DVDs,” says Jeff Landale, who works in the digital rights and privacy space. While Landale and his brother moved to Netflix’s streaming service some time ago, their parents, in their late 60s and early 70s respectively and living outside Boston in the US still treasured the mail-order service.
As well as providing them with entertainment for regular movie nights, Landale’s parents will also miss Netflix’s DVD service for another reason. They care for Landale’s grandmother, suffering from major healthcare issues, including a decline in memory. “One of the big things they’re asking me is to help them find where they can get movies and TV shows from when my grandma was a lot younger,” he says. “They’re trying to find stuff they can watch with her that, given her memory issues, is familiar and easier for her to follow along with.”
Netflix, founded in 1997, only became a streaming service in 2007. Since its launch, the company has shipped more than 5.2 billion DVDs to 40 million customers. Netflix’s most popular movie by mail is the Sandra Bullock-led book adaptation The Blind Side, profiling Michael Oher’s rise to play in the NFL. But Netflix won’t reach the six billion DVDs shipped number.
The market for physical media such as DVDs still exists, though it’s rapidly shrinking. DVD sales are in double-digit year-on-year declines, according to Tony Gunnarsson, principal analyst of TV, video, and advertising at Omdia. In 2021, Technicolor Home Entertainment Services, which produces more than 80 percent of every disc-based format around, still shipped around 750 million discs, including DVDs, to market. The company was renamed Vantiva in September 2022. While Vantiva has decreased disc production to meet lower demand, according to its 2022 financial results, the company still produces hundreds of millions of discs, including DVDs, every year.
Still, Gunnarsson thinks that Netflix’s decision is something that could mark a major shift in the fortunes of companies that produce DVDs—and that this might be the beginning of the end for the format.
The death knell for DVDs has long been predicted, and repeatedly. In 2002, people thought Wal-Mart starting to rent DVDs in-store would kill off Netflix’s mail-order service; in reality, the supermarket’s foray into the rental business lasted just three years. In 2006, Apple and Amazon launching their streaming video platforms was enough for some to call time on DVDs by mail. And Netflix’s own tentative pivot to streaming in 2007 fired the starting gun on a real decline in mail rentals. But the fact it’s taken until 2023 for Netflix to call time on this arm of its business is a vindication of how keenly some people cherish—and need—physical media.