Stone: Do You Suffer From Netflix Guilt?

"City of God," the award-winning 2002 Miramax film about the slums of Rio de Janeiro, is the most expensive film I've never watched. By my calculation, it cost me $66. I hear it's great.

Perhaps you're familiar with the following dynamic: film is highly recommended; film appeals to intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities; film is added to the Netflix queue, and soon appears in the mail in that unassuming but somehow pushy red-striped envelope. Temperament, timing and ambiance is never quite right for film's subject matter—in this case, brutal and depressing. Film sits on TV for a year, taking up valuable space on Netflix queue and inflicting pangs of guilt and regret. Said intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities are called into question when "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" is watched and quickly returned.

I had "City of God" in my possession for 11 months, during which I paid $18 a month for a three-DVD-at-a-time Netflix subscription. Finally, I returned the movie in defeat while delusionally re-adding it to the end of my queue. By that time, my wife and I were talking about a dangerous new force in our lives: Netflix guilt.

The digital revolution has introduced us all to the life-altering phenomenon known as asynchronous entertainment. We can now enjoy movies, TV shows and our favorite media sources wherever, whenever, we want. But a decade into this monumental shift, the drawbacks are coming into focus. Episodes of "The Daily Show" and "Letterman" pile onto our DVR television recorders like copies of The New Yorker, begging to either be consumed or wastefully discarded. Netflix movies line up on our shelves like airplanes on a runway waiting to take off. And all of those blog postings relentlessly flood into our Web browsers every hour, every day. There's certainly not time for all of it. Is this entertainment? It feels more like homework.

Grappling with these feelings of SNA (Severe Netflix Anxiety) I asked the Silicon Valley movie rental firm to let me talk to the most delinquent Netflix customer of all time, the user who holds the record for keeping a single movie out the longest. The company didn't want to violate their members' privacy but gamely played along, serving up former employee Crystal Trexel.

Trexel, I could tell, was a kindred spirit. She likes movies and is on the eight-films-at-a-time plan ($48 a month). She watches several films a week, but there was one she absolutely choked on: the 2004 indie film "Maria Full of Grace," an unflinching depiction of desperate Colombian women who smuggle drugs into the United States. Trexel received the film in December 2004, and she still has it, sitting on her TV cabinet.

I asked Trexel, who now works for Apple Computer, whether failing to watch "Maria" after all this time gnawed at her. "I wouldn't say I feel guilty. But I am sort of stuck," she said. "I have all these people who tell me it's fabulous and that I'll really enjoy it. But I know its going to be a hard movie to watch. It's not the light sort of thing you put in when you have an hour and a half. It requires a special mood."

A mood that, apparently, hasn't struck in a year and a half. In that time, Trexel has watched "Harold and Maude," "Napoleon Dynamite," "Murderball," "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and all the seasons of TV's "Gilmore Girls" and "Sex and the City." Though her Netflix subscription was free while she worked for the company, if you assume she watches eight movies a month, the value of "Maria" after sitting there for 20 months comes to around $120.

Trexel told me that "Netflix guilt" was actually a subject of conversation at the company's Los Gatos, Calif., headquarters. "We had a running joke with one colleague. He had a movie about the first Persian Gulf War, "Three Kings," out for so long that we teased him that the U.S. had actually gone back to war with Iraq during the time that he had it."

There's no way to tell how many Netflix customers hold onto movies for absurdly long periods of time. The company says only that 1.4 million discs go out and come in on any given day and that 20 million movies overall are in active circulation.

I asked CEO Reed Hastings if customers like me and Trexel are good for Netflix—just as a gym benefits from members who sign up but never come. Hastings said that the company actually works hard to solve the consequences of media overabundance. Social-networking features on the site, which allow you to link to friends on Netflix and see their movie recommendations, help users find films that have better chances of appealing to them—and less chance of sitting on the shelf unwatched. "We want users to go from 'blah' to 'wow'," Hastings said. "Hopefully, with each person you sign up as a friend, the movies you order get better and better."

Netflix guilt actually poses a danger to the company. If customers decide they're not getting their money's worth, they might cancel their subscriptions altogether or at least downgrade them. That's what I did after finally returning "City of God." Now I'm on the two-film plan for $13 a month.

But downgrading hasn't helped much. In preparation for our upcoming trip to Japan, we've had the animated classic "Princess Mononoke" out for four months and counting. I hear it's great.