The telltale red envelope has arrived in the mail from the Netflix shipping center in Rockville. The movie is either Blood Diamond or The Departed. It doesn't matter. Both star Leonardo DiCaprio, a fine actor who has also been characterized as "handsome." Fair enough. But neither of these movies feature Catherine Zeta-Jones or Scarlett Johansson, and that is wrong.
The larger point is, he or she who controls the queue controls the family's home movies.
What is a queue?
"It's a metaphor for my life. There are a lot of things I want to do, but it doesn't quite happen," says Netflix member Tony Talalay of Lutherville. The queue is all knowing and revealing. "If I ever ran for office, I would clean out my queue," says his wife, Mary Talalay.
"It represents the sum of my experiences," says another Netflix member, Millersville businessman Mike Cohn.
For the uninitiated, a queue is the prioritized list of movies the 6.8 million Netflix subscribers create in their accounts. Under one popular plan, members pay $17.99 monthly for up to three DVDs at a time. When subscribers are done with one movie, they send it back to get the next movie in their queue. Sometimes, the movie arrives the next day -- catching the family off-guard. They are behind one movie. There's a sense of duty, a pang of panic. "Not tonight, honey, we have to watch The Departed."
The couple will try to watch the movie until they collapse in a snuggly heap of exhaustion -- usually around the one-hour mark. Maybe they can watch the second half of the movie the next night. All the while, the unwatched Netflix movie begs to be watched and sent back.
Welcome to another night in another Netflix household. For eight years, the DVD rental company has delivered chosen movies to homes. Rival Blockbuster has cut into Netflix's niche, but the Silicon Valley company still ships 1.6 million movies daily. Since January, more than 487,000 new customers have joined the masses in experiencing the zeitgeist of the Netflix Nation.
It's not a perfect world. Subscribers occasionally receive scratched or broken DVDs or not their first choice in the queue. Frequent Netflix subscribers have complained about being "throttled" or sent to the back of the line for the most-wanted DVDs, which are mailed to new subscribers and infrequent renters. If Netflix doesn't have enough copies of a newly released movie, the subscriber with the fewest rentals will get first dibs. It's what the company has called its "fairness algorithm."
But what of the fairness algorithm between members of a Netflix family? Does the household's dominant personality seize control of the queue? Is it the I-pay-the-bills-and-do-all-the-grocery-shopping person who decides the fate of the family's movie viewing?
Beware of hogs
Although family members can have separate queues, Netflix newbies still should be aware of the Queue Hog.
When Casey Miller of Glen Burnie and his girlfriend opened a Netflix account in 2003, Miller took about an hour to stuff 475 of his favorite movies into the 500-movie queue limit. That left 25 movies for the woman he would eventually marry.
"I admit, I went nuts," says Miller, a 26-year-old internship coordinator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Since then, we have gone back through and reorganized our queue."
He and Erin married last summer and honeymooned in Scotland -- but not before "burning through" three DVDs so three new ones would be there when they returned. Their love of B-horror films has kept their queue love strong. On deck this week: Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama.
In the case of the Talalays, the couple share joint custody of the queue. "We have a very civil relationship about the queue," says Tony Talalay.
They are a hardcore Netflix family -- the six-DVD at a time plan. He, an owner of a biotech company, orders Asian martial arts DVDs. Jet Li stuff. She, a magazine reviewer of young children's books, orders Baby Einstein or Wonder Pets DVDs. Nickelodeon stuff. Of course, when he's out of town traveling for work, his wife has her way with the queue.
"Poor Tony has had to survive a lot of dumb adolescent flicks lately," Mary Talalay says. "But when I'm queuing up a movie for me or our 3-year-old daughter, I try to throw him a bone."
Good news, he says. She finally bought a copy of Bridget Jones's Diary so that movie won't be queued up ever again. Good news, she says. With the Orioles season under way, he hardly watches movies anyway. Bring on the Teletubbies!
In Mike Cohn's family, he and his daughter Eva use Netflix as a cultural exchange program. They decided to watch 300 movies before she graduates from Severna Park High School. They figured that's a manageable 75 movies a year.
He's 52 and wants her to understand his pop references. She's 14 and wants him to understand what she's talking about. Some movies haven't translated well for them. He had to pause so many times to explain the humor in Woody Allen's 1973 sci-fi comedy Sleeper they gave up. But they fell in love with one of Eva's picks -- Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School. Father and daughter are keeping a journal of their Netflix experiences.
"When it comes to the queue, we are both on the same page," says Cohn, president of a business software company in Millersville.
It's a less democratic system in one Timonium household. Barbara Coward admits to losing queue control to her 4-year-old son, Matthew, who walks to their mailbox in anticipation of a red envelope bearing a Star Wars or Curious George movie. Matthew is a formidable opponent.
"We do have queue battles," his mother says, jokingly. She had ordered The Queen -- only to see her choice get bumped down the list, demoted by her son's picks. Then her husband snagged Matrix and then got Borat by her in the queue. "I watched about half of that," she says. In their household, the queen has been left waiting.
In the continuing queue battle between the sexes, one line of reasoning says if you don't bother to learn how to use the queue, then don't complain about the movies that come to the house. It's faulty thinking primarily because the other spouse didn't think of it. But the truth is anyone can learn to queue up a movie. If you don't act, think of the possible consequences -- an undertow of movies about global warming, brothels, oppressed Australian aborigines, wild parrots, wild grizzlies, spelling bees, Scrabble tournaments and husbands who constantly garden. Sure, you might learn something, but who needs that late at night?
The following is no suburban myth. A spouse can come home from the office and slice open a Netflix envelope only to find Diane Keaton in Because I Said So, Diane Lane in Must Love Dogs or Matthew McConaughey in Failure to Launch. There might be any number of McConaughey movies on deck in the queue, and the actor will be smiling and shirtless in each one of them.
The night can get worse. He of the male gender might discover The English Patient, The First Wives Club or Steel Magnolias -- Special Edition.
But no Godfather, Scarface, Matrix, Fargo, Raging Bull, Caddyshack or Young Frankenstein.
Enough is enough.
Queue-less men everywhere, rise up and learn the queue. Be the queue. One husband was so distraught he hacked into his wife's laptop by ingeniously turning on the power button and rifling through her "Favorites." There, he found the Netflix account and 83 movies in the queue. Braced for the worst, he read from top to bottom. Among his startling findings:
1. Being Julia
2, Far From Heaven
3. The Joy Luck Club
4. Conversations About One Thing
5. Chariots of Fire
6. Children of Heaven
7. Cowboy del Amor
8. Born Into Brothels
9. Word Wars
10. Kinky Boots
Not a Will Ferrell movie in the lot.
No Lt. Jim Dangle from any season of Reno 911!
And no one to blame but himself.
Such a crisis called for a tutorial. After two minutes of navigating on the Netflix Web site, it becomes clear that finding and adding movies to a queue is as toilsome as turning on a laptop. True, recently added movies immediately go to the bottom of the queue, but electronic provisions are available for easily leap-frogging your favorite to the top of the pile. It's so easy, a 4-year-old could do it.
Under the watchful eye of the person who pays the bills and does the grocery shopping, a spouse can easily demote Being Julia or The Joy Luck Club for the superior likes of Casino Royale or Get Shorty. Add a season of Entourage and send Kinky Boots to whence it came. Feel the power of the queue. Throttle up. You're in charge now, mister. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. Dr. No. Catherine Zeta-Jones -- whatever movies she has been in. It doesn't matter.
With your newfound knowledge, now you can pay the bills online, your spouse might say.
But there's no fairness algorithm in that, as any Netflix member knows.