The streaming giant saw the future, and now it's fighting to make sure it can hold on to its own

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In 2011, Netflix changed its pricing model. The company was separating its streaming business from its DVD-by-mail business, and customers were in an uproar. What do you mean I have to pay more for DVDs by mail? customers griped. 

A lot has changed over the course of a decade. Spotting one of those little red Netflix envelopes today is like seeing an endangered species in the wild: you can't believe your eyes, and you want to run and tell someone what you just saw. 

Netflix is the entertainment story of the decade. The company, which started as an alternative to video stores (remember those?), has changed the way we watch TV and now it's changing the way we watch movies. Whether it can hang on to its dominance in the decade ahead remains to be seen — it has a financing problem that has to catch up with it sooner or later — but its impact has helped shape the future of entertainment.

Netflix is closing out the 2010s with "The Irishman," the 3 1/2 hour Martin Scorsese gangster epic that stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and everyone else you'd expect to be in a 3 1/2 hour Martin Scorsese gangster epic.

The film premiered on Netflix on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, and has caused quite a stir among moviegoers — or moviewatchers, rather, since they didn't have to go anywhere other than their living rooms to watch it.

According to Nielsen data, 17.1 million people in the U.S. watched at least some portion of "The Irishman" during its first five days of release. Over the long holiday weekend, more people came up to me and talked to me about "The Irishman" than any other movie this year, including "Avengers: Endgame" or "The Lion King." It's small, anecdotal evidence, but it counts for something.

To put Netflix's impact in perspective you have to go back to a time, not too long ago, when TV was seen when its gatekeepers wanted you to see it. That changed with the premiere of the first season of "House of Cards" in February 2013. Netflix released the entire first season, all at once, a concept so radical at the time I remember not being able to wrap my head around it. It has since become expected.

"Orange is the New Black" followed later that year, as the concept of binge-watching became a national obsession. At the time, Netflix's movie options were subpar, but the company made up for it by bulking up its original episodic programming ("Bloodline" and "Making a Murderer" in 2015, "Stranger Things" in 2016) and adding old favorites ("Friends" joined the service in 2015). 

Netflix dipped its toe into the waters of original movies beginning with the war drama "Beasts of No Nation" in 2015 and has since rolled out dozens of productions. Several were milestones: The Will Smith-starring "Bright" was the first major star vehicle to appear on the service, in 2017; "The Cloverfield Paradox" made jaws drop when it was announced without warning during the Super Bowl in 2018; the Coen Brothers' "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" upped Netflix's artistic cred when it arrived in Nov. 2018. 

Then came "Roma" and "Bird Box," the former becoming Netflix's first big ticket Oscar contender, the later a pop culture sensation that sparked a million memes. Together, they proved the viability of the model of first-run movies at home, lighting a torch the service has run with this year with "The Dirt," "Dolemite is My Name," "El Camino," "Marriage Story" and "The Irishman." Next week, the Ryan Reynolds-starring, Michael Bay-directed "6 Underground" debuts on the service, something that wouldn't have seemed possible even a few years ago.  

It hasn't all been rosy for Netflix. Theater chains, which have every reason to want to continue doing business the old way, have resisted the Netflix model, and have refused to book prestige Netflix films during their short theatrical runs. This has pushed Netflix originals out to arthouse and independent theaters, making the company seem like even more of an outsider to the system. 

It's really a disruptor. Netflix saw the future before we did and has spent the last 10 years realigning our perceptions of how and when we consume entertainment. Now, every major studio seem to have its own streaming serviceand is aiming to copy — and kill — Netflix.

Since it continues to operate at a massive debt, Netflix will have to come up with some answers to sustain itself going forward. "The Irishman" and "Marriage Story" are shaping up to be major Oscar contenders, but the service is facing new competition from the just-launched Disney+ and the forthcoming HBO Max. Nothing lasts forever, and Netflix will have to be shrewd to continue to drive the entertainment industry the way it did this decade. If not, it risks going the way of those once-ubiquitous red envelopes. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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