The little red envelope just sat there. Night after night. Mocking. • You would think it was filled with anthrax, the way no one wanted to touch it. But inside the envelope was a DVD, rented from Netflix by Louis Marino and his wife, Trente Miller, in Brooklyn. • "The English Patient," said Marino, 39, the creative director for an ad agency. "I never got a chance to see it in the theater. My wife was like, 'Yeah, I'll definitely watch that with you. Put it on the list.' It goes on the list." • And so began their siege in this new trench on the front lines of American marriage: the shared Netflix queue.
With a nation in recession and households cutting back on nights out at the movies, and even canceling cable services, Netflix has thrived, with a growing number of subscribers looking for cheap escapist relief. The company announced in February that it had surpassed 10 million subscribers. The slim red envelopes are everywhere these days, each packed with a single DVD, pumping like platelets through the nation's mail system.
But for many couples, the queue — the computer list of which films will arrive next in the mail, after those at home are returned — is as important as everything else that spouses and other varieties of significant others share, from pet names to closet space to the bathroom. For some, this is fine. For others, the queue is the new toilet seat that somebody left up.
Back to that disc at the Marino residence, dug in like an old grudge.
"I had English Patient for more than six months," Marino confessed. "It was an insane amount of time." He recalled starting the same discussion with his wife, night after night, as they flipped among the five DVDs from their Netflix subscription. "Do you want to watch this? Do you want to watch this? Do you want to watch English Patient?"
"No," was the response he got.
Soon, Marino could not even get the full title out of his mouth before it was shot out of the sky like the English patient himself.
"It was like, 'Eng — —' "
"It just sat. My wife thought it would be too depressing. I'm like, 'When are you going to be in the mood to watch it?' She's like, 'I don't know.' "
Eventually, it was returned unwatched.
Marino and his wife are not alone. Far from it. Men and women from perfectly happy partnerships report their own dysfunctional cohabitation within the confines of the queue. Once upon a time, these sorts of disagreements were sorted out in the aisles of a video store, before a movie was selected. Now, when the conversation begins, it's already too late.
"It comes down to who gets the queue," said Michelle Newton, 37, a homemaker and mother in Leland, N.C.
"Let's say there's a couple things I want to see," she said. In that case, she will sneak into the queue and move her movie to the top, often dashing the hopes of her husband, Grant, a reactor operator at a power plant, at the last moment.
"My husband had looked at the mail and thought a guy flick was coming in, and it's a chick flick," Newton said of a recent dust-up. "He'll go back through and move stuff back up the queue. It's who keeps up with the queue, as awful as that sounds."
They recently cut back from a two-disc $13.99 monthly subscription to the austerity plan of one disc at a time, $8.99, putting all the more pressure on who wins the battle of the queue.
"Right now we have Man on Fire, " she said. (The 2004 film stars Denzel Washington — decidedly not a chick flick.) "We're not sure who put it there," Newton said skeptically. "He's saying it wasn't him. He hasn't watched it yet. If he doesn't watch it in the next few days, it's going back."
Policing the queue is a delicate matter. Tom Smith, 35, of Park Slope in Brooklyn, ran the queue he shares with his girlfriend, Michelle Yarnick, with an iron fist, creating a two-week rule for DVDs in the apartment. After that — out. But a few too many of Yarnick's movies went out unwatched, and he recently extended the limit to four weeks — a Netflix eternity to many, including himself, but what are you going to do?
Greg Albrecht, 28, a software engineer in San Francisco, has been on the receiving end of the premature return. "If I don't watch it within a week, she'll return it," he said of his fiancee. "She'll think I've already seen it or I'm not interested. You're like: 'Oh, we'll watch PBS. It's not the end of the world.' But it's disappointing."
Dr. Adam Wolfberg, 38, in Newton, Mass., would be thrilled with any sort of time limit for his family's rentals. Every month, his credit card is charged $17.84, with tax, for their three-disc subscription, and yet he doesn't remember the last time a disc was watched.
"I don't even know where they are," he admitted glumly.
Wolfberg is a cash cow for Netflix, having already spent many times over what he would have paid to buy the three DVDs. The business model, wherein the busiest customers save the most money, is not unlike a gym membership, and adds a familiar stress — finances — to the couple sharing a queue. An unreturned disc is costing them money. And just as gym members sometimes slack off after an initial burst of dedication, Netflix users become more careless with the disc-to-cost ratio as the months of membership wear on.
Things move at a fairly brisk pace at the Brooklyn home of Jacob Levenson, 35, a writer, and his wife, Kazandra Bonner, 36, who designs the menus on DVDs. They have no television, and largely depend on their computer's DVD drive for entertainment when their 2 ½-year-old son falls asleep. They share a four-disc Netflix subscription and watch most everything together, for better or for worse.
"I tend to be much more opinionated," he said. "I don't rent movies unless I've read the review, and try to triangulate some opinion of whether a movie is good and has artistic integrity."
His wife? Not so much triangulation. "She will randomly rent anything," he said. "It drives me insane. And yet, she will be quick to point out she'll rent something like Battlestar Galactica."
Bonner practically blushes when she remembers one surprise. "I'd heard the name High School Musical a lot, and I knew nothing about it," she said. She thought, "Why is it making such a big splash in the headlines?" as her finger pressed the button adding it to the queue. "That was kind of a miss for our household.
Some couples need help from a third party, so Netflix came up with its Profiles tool, sort of like a therapist for the queue. Each partner gets his or her own profile, and an allotment of discs, so that films from each list come and go and no one party takes over.
Netflix does not know how many of its accounts are for individuals and how many are for couples. There has been at least one "Netflix divorce," in which a couple gave up on trying to share a queue and instead created two accounts, said a spokesman, Steve Swasey. The number of accounts with separate profiles is very small — so small that last year, Netflix announced it was doing away with the tool. The news was met with outrage.
"Because of the strong response from the very few who use it, we decided it was an important enough element for them to keep it," Swasey said.
Some people share the contents of their queues with friends, or post them on Facebook pages. Kinda Serafi, 34, of Manhattan would be horrified to share her queue with anyone. It has her name on it, and only her name, but she is less and less responsible for its contents. Starting almost immediately after she married in 2005 and shared her Netflix password with her husband, the red envelopes began racing upstairs to their apartment with greater frequency, like salmon spawning.
And the selections darkened in tone. The films of her single days — Spanglish, Out of Africa, Gandhi — were replaced overnight with Infernal Affairs, Hot Rods to Hell, High Tension and Maniac Cop. It's not enough work being happily married — now you need people looking at your queue and worrying that you're losing your mind?
Her husband, a reporter at this newspaper who happens to be the author of this article, has said repeatedly she can pick her own movie whenever she wants. He declined to comment.