Remember movie theaters? Yep, those old things. If you’ve been clinging on to the romantic notion of popcorn-scented seats and pitch-black rooms, don’t worry—they’re not all disappearing anytime soon. But while nothing can truly emulate the visceral sensation of in-cinema spectating, there’s no denying that Netflix still gives these old school venues a hard run for their money.
So how did this whole Netflix phenomenon take root? Even the greatest empires are first born from building blocks. Stay tuned, because what follows is a remarkable tale of how Netflix came to be.
We can navigate Netflix’s homepage blindfolded, but just how much do we know about the brains behind the operation?
Enter Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings: two enterprising minds with impressive resumes under their belts. With a background in AI and mathematics, Hastings had previously founded Pure Software in 1991 (which Rational Software later acquired in ‘98); Meanwhile, Silicon Valley extraordinaire Randolph had his hands full spearheading multiple mail-order enterprises. In the month of August 1997, Randolph was the acting marketing director to Hasting’s company Pure Atria, and the pair were on the hunt for their next biggest venture.
The summer of ‘97 proved to be ripe with potential. Everyone knows that the best kind of breakthroughs come from the most unlikely of circumstances, and so it was that the idea for Netflix was conceived: on a fateful trip from Santa Cruz to Pure Atria's Sunnyvale HQ. Somewhere along the road, Amazon’s e-commerce model sparked an epiphany, prompting the duo to explore other avenues of digital sales. Of all the shortlisted products (VHS cassette tapes were considered), DVDs made the final cut, especially after passing Randolph and Hasting’s postage test with flying colours. The men had uncovered themselves a gem. By 1998, Netflix was up and running with a humble collection of just under 1000 titles.
Netflix’s quirky moniker is actually a rather straightforward portmanteau of the words “internet” and “flicks”, and its system was just as foolproof; you’d order a movie online, then receive the DVD in your post. As you can imagine, this was a godsend to those living far from video rental stores. The cherry on top? No due dates! What guaranteed honesty was the simple fact that you could only rent another DVD after you returned your previous one. Before the subscriber-based model that we now associate with Netflix, users were charged a fee of $4 (with an additional $2 postage). As it was, this mail-order set-up was enough to gain traction and rake in revenue. But to propel the company to its exceptional heights today? Something a little more was needed. And boy, did Netflix rise to the challenge.
1998 saw the debut of Netflix’s subscriber-based service which granted its paying audience unlimited access to its rentals (now we’re talking!) We also have 2000 to commemorate, for it was the year that unleashed the site’s personal recommendation feature, incorporating ratings to bump related genres up on suggested content. Just like that, Netflix was well on its way to world domination: already amassing a million subscribers in 2003, its number of avid followers was 5 million strong by the time 2006 rolled around.
2007 was when Netflix morphed into a platform resembling the one we know and love today. The company knew that it was only a matter of time before DVDs would be abandoned beneath layers of dust in some forgotten cranny of the house. So, how to prevent the site from being left behind by the tides of change? The answer came in the form of online streaming, and thus “Watch Now” was born.
In the next couple of years, the refreshed brand would go on to liaise with major electronic companies, making itself accessible on a myriad of Internet-connected devices including Apple products, Playstations, TV set-top boxes and Nintendo Wii. The rapidly blossoming company watched its subscriber count annihilate record after record, all the while extending its roots into almost every corner of the globe.
2012 made it evident that Netflix didn’t just have its sights on overtaking the film distribution, but had also zeroed in on the prospect of becoming a powerhouse that produced such content itself. Kicking its new era off with the original stand-up special Bill Burr: You People Are All the Same and its debut feature film Beasts of No Nation, Netflix raked in 31 primetime Emmy nominations for its gripping drama series House of Cards and comedic elements in Orange is the New Black. The accolades just kept flooding in—with Netflix clinching an an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for The White Helmets in 2017, Best Documentary Feature for Icarus in 2018, and tying with HBO for the most wins (23) at the 2018 Primetime and Creative Arts Emmy Awards.
These achievements didn’t come unchallenged, though, as Netflix kept a wary eye on emerging big leagues like Amazon Prime Video which drew up neck-to-neck with the company, having secured the UK rights to broadcast Premier League matches and purchased the global television adaptation rights to The Lord of the Rings. Alternatives also sprung up in the form of AT&T, Apple and most notably Disney, which didn’t hesitate to pull house productions from the Netflix selections page (farewell Marvel and Star Wars), making them exclusive to just Disney+. Nevertheless, Netflix was able to successfully guard its throne, claiming 27 Primetime and Creative Arts Emmy Awards for series including Queer Eye, Ozark and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Teaming up with Tesla further widened the streaming service’s significant head start.
The K-wave built fast and hit hard, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down, consuming every media outlet in sight—and Netflix is no exception. Netflix’s affinity for South Korean content isn’t some big secret, from reality shows like Busted and Singles Inferno, to dramas like Penthouse, Happiness and All of Us are Dead (what is it with Korean shows and zombie themes?). It seems like every time we log in, some shiny new K-production is eagerly awaiting to become our newest obsession. Needless to say, a large part of Netflix international success and relevancy is attributed to its growing partnerships with South Korean studios. In a recently published article, the company acknowledged the irresistible draw of “inventive and gripping Korean storytelling” and that it’ll “continue to invest in Korea’s creative ecosystem”.
For a company that has seemingly achieved all it set out to do, what’s next in the pipeline? In the course of history where empires fall and crumble, the future seems foreboding for this monopoly. But looking at Netflix’s trend of increasing their budget (does that number of zeros even exist?) to create homegrown content, it’s evident that the streaming giant foresaw competitors keeping their content within their own gates. So it’s well within reason to expect more Netflix originals to continue popping up in 2022 and well into the future!
It might be a stance subject to debate, but the presence of strengthening competitors (present and upcoming) will do little to completely eradicate Netflix’s influence on the global society. It’s established itself as a default, evident from the commanding bright red “Netflix” button on most TV remotes; it’s shaped the way we connect with people we love, as seen by the popularity of the Netflix party feature. The brand has even set its flag down in meme territory—how many times have you uttered the phrase “Netflix and chill''? Because let’s get real, getting memed instantly crowns you as pop culture royalty. So bring on the future! For whatever pitfalls may come, Netflix has already firmly etched itself a permanent place in our hearts.
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