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On Netflix

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The Netflix price spike annoys me as much as everyone else. I don’t mind paying for my films, and indeed I do, but the combination of the on-demand and mail services is extraordinarily annoying. Jim Emerson gets at some of the key issues:

The more serious problem is that too many of the movies themselves (even the good ones) are being made available in lousy prints: not just shabby public-domain versions (the equivalent of the old 16 mm local TV station prints that used to circulate through low-end nontheatrical distributors), but films shown in the wrong aspect ratio (beware of anything with the Starz logo on it) or even obsolete pan-and-scan (shame on you, Warner Bros.). What good is streaming delivery if you have to watch a digital mastering job that looks like it was done in 1986? I thought these battles were fought (and won) long ago, in the VHS and early DVD era. Surely the dominance of 16:9 HDTVs has accustomed mainstream movie and television watchers to the previously foreign concept of widescreen and “letterboxing.” (Now some people actually distort their TV picture on purpose — grotesquely stretching 4:3 images just so they’ll fill up the whole screen horizontally. Oy!)

A recent anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) movie like “Let Me In” shown in “full screen” (16:9)? Not acceptable. Albert Brooks’ “Lost in America” (1.85:1) in 4:3? Outrage! (Actually, that particular movie doesn’t look so bad, but why crop it? The Amazon $2.99 Instant Video 48-hour rental is in the right ratio.) And the mangled movies aren’t even labeled, the way they would be if they were axed for television or DVD: “This film has been modified from its original version: it has been formatted to fit your screen.” (Although, that too is bull: Parts of the picture have been cut off so that the smaller image gives the illusion of looking bigger. Properly presented letterboxed or windowboxed movies “fit your screen” just fine.)

On top of this is the fact that the large majority of movies are not available online. Sometimes the streaming isn’t great either, but that will likely improve over time. But if you can’t get your movies online, however possible, you are going to lose customers to better services if you charge this much.

Netflix was originally a site that appealed to cinephiles like myself. I became a subscriber fairy early in the company’s history But as they quickly dominated the market, they became the Wal-Mart of film. They kept prices low in order to undermine Blockbuster and other physical videos stores. Once those are gone, they jack up the prices. A classic capitalist move I suppose.

Except that the quality is not there to justify this move. Without a more integrated film library between the DVDs and on-demand, it just doesn’t make sense to do this. In addition, there are too many other options for people for the company to treat its customers like this. Netflix seems to assume that while it could lose customers like me, the average person who thinks Date Night is going to be awesome is there’s. But the arrival of Red Box is a real threat for Netflix on this front.

For people like me, Netflix’s appeal has lessened. What Netflix doesn’t seem to understand is that is the base of their business is not that hard to replicate today–using the internet for convenience. Two very real alternatives for cinephiles are GreenCine and, increasingly, Mubi. GreenCine operates very much like Netflix but with better movies. About the same price with a pay by the film online service for some. Mubi is a growing site that is all on-demand and pay by the film. It has some really great and obscure stuff. For all of you who want to watch the entire Chris Marker catalog, as I do, it’s gold.

The other issue here transcends film and gets to the problems of rejuvenating the economy. Netflix wants everyone to drop their mail subscriptions so they can lay off thousands of employees and increase profits. So long as the government encourages companies to lay off everyone possible to maximize profits at the top or to move every single possible job overseas, this economy almost cannot recover. People have to work somewhere. We don’t value work, employees are seen as expendable, and there isn’t any entity picking up the slack.

Edward Copeland has a powerful indictment of Netflix as well.

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