You’ve heard the phrase, “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”? The quote is usually credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, although he died several years before the line ever appeared in print — and several years before the modern mousetrap was invented — but Emerson did say something similar:
If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.
And by and large it’s true — provided, of course, that the man is able to get the word out about his better corn, chairs or church organs. Innovation for the better will always attract people away from the old and inferior, as long as there are no entrenched powers preventing it. That’s why we don’t ride around on horses much anymore, or store food in the basement, or do basic research by laboriously leafing through books. It’s much more efficient, speedy and easy to use automobiles, refrigerators and the Internet. (That Emerson quote above — I cut and pasted it from Wikipedia. Took me two minutes to find it and ten seconds to insert it here …)
And that’s why I can drive around my hometown and see empty storefronts that used to be video rental stores. Because something better came along, and we created a broad hard-beaten road to it. Or in a word, Netflix.
I’m rather a newbie at Netflix, having only signed up in the summer of 2009. Before that, I and my family were reliant on the old-fashioned video chain store, so the experience is fresh in my mind.
Do you remember what that was like, the video store? You’d go in and there were shelves upon shelves of video cases, sorted into categories that probably made sense to a corporate suit who hadn’t darkened the door of one of his own company’s outlets in years. Within those sections, the videos were in alphabetical order by title — except for the 6% that someone put back in the wrong place but the staff hasn’t noticed yet. And there was a 50% chance that the one you’d like to rent is in that 6% … provided they have the one you want in stock at all. (I have a vivid memory of wanting to rent The Lion King a few years ago — only the local Hollywood Video had only one copy in their listings, and it was in Spanish. The English-language copies weren’t all rented out; they just didn’t have any.) So you had to go in with four or five choices already in mind, so you could fall back on Plan C or D as needed. And if you hoped to see some obscure art film — not a chance, but they did have 35 copies of the latest no-name direct-to-DVD shoot-’em-up “thriller” …
Well, eventually you’d find the case for your fourth choice of movie — and now the fun really starts! Because you then had to take it up to the front counter and stand in line on a hard concrete floor for ten minutes. Finally, your turn would come and you’d be faced with some overweight, gum-popping, mouth-breathing nineteen-year-old who not only was so unknowledgeable about films that she couldn’t spell Meryl Streep’s name correctly given three tries, but was making no effort to disguise the fact that she didn’t care if you were there or not. In a monotone, she’d ask you for your name, address, phone number and about six other pieces of information (all at a volume that could be heard clearly by the other customers in line, in case any of them wanted to try some identity theft) before she would even allow you to hand her the video case. And then — same monotone, mind you — she would start pressing you to buy popcorn, candy, or snacks at five times the price you could get them for at the supermarket on the other side of the parking lot. Finally, though, she’d stop, ring up your rental and warn you when it had to be returned by. At no point would she make eye contact, or close her mouth except to swallow.
Wasn’t that fun? Ah, those were the days … LIKE, NOT AT ALL. Basically, the Supermodel and I had all but given up renting movies, just so we didn’t have to go through that.
Until, on a whim more than anything, we decided to check out Netflix. And it was like the clouds parting and the sun shining through. How do we like it? Let us count the ways:
- Looking for a particular movie? If it’s out on DVD, they have it, no matter how obscure.
- Having trouble finding it? The website allows you to search by title, actor or even director.
- Want to watch all the movies in a series? Put them in your queue (which you can set up, sort and re-sort with just a few mouse clicks) and they’ll send them to you one (or two, or however many) after the other.
- Not sure if you’ll like a film? Go look it up and they give you a synopsis.
- Don’t know what to watch? They toss out recommendations based on your stated preferences and movies you’ve watched and liked previously.
- Run into serious trouble in some way? They have very courteous 24/7 customer service available online or by phone.
- Takes a while to get to a film you’ve received? Doesn’t matter — there’s no due date, you can keep a disc as long as you want.
- Worried about the cost of renting lots of flicks? Don’t — there’s a flat monthly membership fee, and several levels you can join on (from $4.99 plus tax for two vids a month to $23.99 for four vids at a time, unlimited totals per month and unlimited streaming video to your computer and/or TV).
And you don’t have to leave your house. Heck, once your queue is set up on the Netflix website, you don’t have to do anything except check your mail, watch the DVDs and send them back. The next one comes automatically. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Over the thirteen months we’ve had a Netflix membership, we haven’t had a bad thing to say about them. Shortly after we joined was when our son Sean fell ill, and I ended up spending most of six weeks away from home with him. We had just received Juno, and it was literally a month and a half before we got around to watching it. Not a peep from Netflix HQ; take as long as you want, folks. (Incidentally, excellent film — and the start of my Ellen Page fascination.) When we had to change banks due to lax security at our old institution (and were thus without a working credit card for several weeks), we called and they simply put our account on hold until we had a new card number to give them — no fuss, no charge. When we returned Spirited Away (another good movie) and it got lost in the mail, we called and they said, “no sweat, happens all the time, we’ll send out your next film today.” (It turned up at their warehouse a couple of days later.) And I’ve gotten to educate myself about Mystery Science Theater 3000 (see my earlier post), because they have about thirty episodes of the old show available to watch online, so I could immerse myself without boring Nina sick.
The result is that we’ve probably rented more movies in those thirteen months than we did in the previous six years. It’s now easier, it’s more efficient, it’s cheaper, and you don’t have to watch someone smacking their Juicy Fruit while you do it. I don’t see a downside here. Not even at the macroeconomic level — I’ve theorized that with the growing use of e-mail and online advertising, Netflix may be one of the major reasons the U.S. Postal Service is staying afloat.
And it gives me hope for other things in life. When I have to rattle cages to get some medical dingus taken care of for Sean … when I watch sports executives make the worst move possible for their teams and their fan bases … when I shake my head at how so many congregations and Christian leaders act at cross-purposes to both their own stated aims and Jesus’ expressed desires … I can look at something like Netflix and say that no matter how screwed up the current way of doing things is, someone will come up with a better way, and it will drive the old (and worse) way aside. Things will get corrected eventually. The market will sort things out. And we’ll all benefit.
So needless to say, I smile when I go by that old Hollywood Video store, now just an empty building waiting for a new renter since the company went bankrupt. It’s proof to me that not everything is going to hell in a handbag. Better mousetraps are still being built.