Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Netflix Prix

Lately, I've noticed that Netflix seems to be running out of movies. 18 movies of the 66 total in my queue are currently listed as unavailable. Out of those, a full third - six movies - are flagged "Very Long Wait," which usually means I will not get them for at least 3 weeks to a month. If ever. (Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner has been marked "Very Long Wait" since it first came out over a month ago, so I've pretty much given up hope.)

When I first joined back in January, there would occasionally be "Very Long Wait"-listed movies, but it was rare, and if I moved that film into the #1 spot in the Queue, often they'd surprise me with it anyway in spite of the wait-list warning. So I just chalked up my bad luck lately to some kind of Netflix oversight (say, they didn't order enough copies and were slow getting around to beefing up the catalog) or a regrettable confluence with the Netflix zeitgeist, my trying to rent the same movies as everyone else at the same time.

But, no. Today, I found out that Netflix manipulates what films they send to maintain a healthy profit. If you return movies too briskly, you are penalized. Frequently, they will send you the less popular films on your queue and flag popular titles for infrequent or new renters. So I'll get When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and Zizek: The Reality of the Virtual because no one else in LA gives a shit, but have no shot at Deja Vu, Breaking and Entering or Smokin' Aces any time soon because that's what all the other local dipshits want to watch.

(Oddly, the classic Horatio Hornblower has been wait-listed for me for a very long time. Is that really a hotly-desired item? I mean, it stars Gregory Peck, who has his fans, but that's still surprising to me that any non-Casablanca classic film would build up that level of interest.)

Even worse than ginning the system, which I naturally until now assumed was first-come first-serve, sometimes Netflix will apparently put off replacing your movie for an extra day or two if they feel you're renting too much! MSNBC reported on this in February of 2006, but I had no idea:

Los Gatos, Calif.-based Netflix didn't publicly acknowledge it differentiates among customers until revising its "terms of use" in January 2005 — four months after a San Francisco subscriber filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company had deceptively promised one-day delivery of most DVDs.

"In determining priority for shipping and inventory allocation, we give priority to those members who receive the fewest DVDs through our service," Netflix's revised policy now reads. The statement specifically warns that heavy renters are more likely to encounter shipping delays and less likely to immediately be sent their top choices.

So there's a good reason to read your Terms of Service when you join Netflix, I guess. I was just anxious to get them to start mailing me movies, because I had recently been banned from a video store.

The thing is, Netflix is still a really good deal, and I wouldn't even mind that much if they charged me an extra few dollars a month to opt out of this system. They have plans under which I could get four or five movies at a time instead of the three I now receive (for about $18 a month), but I'd imagine these optimizing users are just stuck back in the same system. If you exceed Netflix's "suggested rental amount per week" of mystery, you stop getting the movies you want when you want them. I'd have When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Zizek: The Reality of the Virtual, The Devil Rides Out, Mr. Moto's Gamble AND The Fearless Avenger, but still no Deja Vu or Smokin' Aces, which would go to new users or users with social lives.

Why not a "preferred" program or something? An extra $20 a year, and I get put to the front of the line when there's a rental conflict between me and another user? I'd have fewer movies at a time for the same price, but I'd be guaranteed to get the ones I want.

Anyway, it just sucks that Netflix has found an excuse to mistreat their best customers. High-volume renters aren't the most profitable customers for Netflix, but there wouldn't be a Netflix if there weren't massive nerds like myself who want to watch 10-12 rented movies in a week. There wouldn't even be an Internet without those kinds of people, let alone a way to use it to rent movies.

Really, their shady practices bother me so much because I can't possibly imagine canceling Netflix. It's great. I love managing my queue, spending time on Sundays browsing through the upcoming new releases, and coming home at the end of the day to find movies in my mailbox.

I've been running through the second season of "Twin Peaks" on DVD lately, and I feel that, for TV, the Netflix timing is perfect. I finish a disc, return it, and at nearly the precise moment I'm ready to watch the next four episodes, the replacement disc arrives in the mail.

This is, frankly, one aspect of video rental that has always sucked at Fleshworld stores. You don't want to rent an entire series at once, because you'd have to watch it all in two or three days. So you get maybe the first disc or two, but this is of course a huge gamble. You very well may get sucked into the show, and then return the discs to find that the next sequential episodes have been rented. Frustrating.

I was going to buy The Peaks 2.0 (I have the first-season box), but having watched most of it this past week, I'll most likely hold off. There are some really terrific episodes here, but Season 2 is a pretty sizable step down from the stellar Season 1, and at about the halfway point - when the Laura Palmer story ends - the show runs out of steam completely.

It's weird. You can kind of feel the whole series just come to an abrupt, screeching halt. Every episode occurs on consecutive days (the entire first season happens within the span of a little more than a week) until halfway through Season 2, when we get a sudden 3-day time jump. Even though it's only been about 10 episodes, this feels like the natural end of the show. Palmer's murderer is discovered, Cooper's job in the strange little town is completed and even most of the subplots have been brought to some kind of resolution.

Inexplicably, after a few awkward segue scenes introducing the notion of a shadowy Black Lodge and Cooper's angry former partner Windom Earle, the show presses on for another half-season. David Lynch has admitted that there was no need to keep the thing going after the mystery at its core was solved. It's still interesting, as a fan, to watch these episodes, but I can't see returning to them again and again. Everything turned kind of jokey and pointless after a while. It was brilliant while it lasted, though.

I also have to say, I love the ease with which you can pull up your rental history. It's sometimes difficult to recall everything I've seen lately. Now that I'm actually looking at what I've screened in the last month, I see that I'm terribly backlogged on reviews I meant to write for the site. Thieves Like Us was amazing, I finally saw Dreamgirls, I revisited George Roy Hill's Slaughterhouse Five, the insanely bleak Japanese war film Fires on the Plain, The Naked City, Sydney Pollack's unwatchable and misleadingly-titled The Yakuza...On second thought, never mind...I'm never looking in here again. That's like 2 weeks work if I'm ever going to catch up.


Tim said...

Fires on the Plain... fantastic movie. I highly recommend And the Emperor's Naked Army On as a companion piece. Do you remember the film lecture Godard gives in the middle of Notre Musique? Shot reverse-shot, fiction and documentary? This movie is the reverse-shot of Fires on the Plain. It's one of the more fascinating docs I've seen in years. The description I've been using is that it's Michael Moore meets Charles Bronson. Let me know if you find this justified.

Peter L. Winkler said...

The film is title "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On."

I doubt it's on video. I saw it at UCLA once about 20 years ago.

So, Lon, how about a mini-review providing your rationale for why you consider "The Yakuza" unwatchable? I liked it. It's not a great film, but I liked it.

If you're going to write any reviews, I'd like to read ones where you go against the grain and explain why you don't like certain films that are considered classics or that have remained very popular years after their release.

Lons said...

It's on DVD, actually. I just put it in my Netflix queue.

I'll write something up on "Yakuza," which I found dreary to the point of distraction.