Others have detailed the lunacy behind the launch of Netflix's instantly ill-fated Qwikster brand (and there's a lot of crazy there: Did they even consider the Twitter factor? Is there anything more indicative that you just don't care?). However, what's most amazing is the very fine line between the status of being a market leader and being a canary in a coal mine.
Our articles occasionally invoke the disclosure that indieWIRE is owned by SnagFilms, one of the companies that's competing for market share in the streaming-video universe. Today, I'm mentioning it because the association gives me a measure of empathy for Netflix.
As a customer, I find the Netflix machinations annoying in the extreme; as the editor in chief of indieWIRE, I see enough of the challenges Snag faces to believe Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is only doing what he believes necessary for his company's survival. Giving customers easy access to streaming video is a very complex business.
What I don't see in Hastings' announcement, however, is anything that looks like an answer to that business' inherent challenges. One of the biggest is the industry's shared inability to make movies easy to find. All of us now have access to dozens of platforms that host thousands of movies (when will it be millions?). And there's no universal method for finding any of them.
As I wrote shortly after Netflix announced its price hike, Netflix used to have something like that with its queue. However Netflix may have intended it, the queue was used as a one-of-a-kind IMDB-movie to-do list mashup; it helped you remember what you wanted to see and discover films you might not have otherwise considered.
Now that Netflix DVDs are officially a Qwikster afterthought, the queue is useless. Netflix has made it clear they perceive DVDs as the 8-track tapes of the 21st century and Qwikster is naked in its planned obsolescence. It's just a platform (yet another!) unto itself, one that now signifies a shrinking world instead of an expanding one.
Meanwhile, I've already heard from some indie filmmakers complaining that not only is Netflix (sorry, Qwikster) not renewing their DVD deals, it's also not looking to make their films available via streaming. Their movies are no longer necessary to the Netflix or Qwikster business models.
My dad had a saying, as dads often do: "Don't forget the facts that built the business." Sometimes he meant it literally, but it was handiest as a metaphor for any kind of successful partnership: Know why it works and never lose sight of it.
Judging by the 14,000-comments-and-counting on the Netflix blog, I think Hastings has badly miscalculated the business he's in. We loved Netflix not because it meant DVDs or streaming; we loved it because we felt like we had the world of movies in front of us, easily available. We didn't have everything, of course; there were plenty of gaps. But there was enough to make us think so.
It's clear that finding movies -- much less, all movies -- is no longer the point. Netflix already gives preferential treatment to TV over film; soon, according to today's announcement, videogames will be added. And I have to believe that Hasting's publicly traded company saw a much sexier portrait after running the numbers for this new-Coke Netflix strategy.
The stock market so far disagrees, but who knows? Hastings believes that, as a market leader, Netflix is obliged to put the majority of its efforts into the market-leading format of streaming video and all the content that it can support.
Whatever the new Qwikster/Netflix universe may bring to its shareholders, it looks like it will be a poorer world for film lovers.