Must-See Movies, Stalled Netflix Queues and the Hotel Rwanda Effect

John Swansburg at Slate recently conducted a fascinating poll of Netflix users, asking them which […]

David Zahl / 9.10.08

John Swansburg at Slate recently conducted a fascinating poll of Netflix users, asking them which rental had sat on their coffee table the longest without getting watched. The answer was unanimous and very revealing: Hotel Rwanda. I couldn’t help but chuckle – I borrowed a copy of the film a few years ago from a friend, fully intending to watch it, but alas, it simply sat on top of my DVD player for months, a daily reminder of the gap between my cinematic aspirations and the reality of my actual viewing preferences. At first I made excuses – “I’ll watch it this weekend” “I’m not in the mood today” “Just one more episode of Batman: The Animated Series and then I’ll put it on” etc – but eventually I gave up the ghost and returned it. A slight extrapolation perhaps, but you would be hard pressed to find a better everyday illustration of the discrepancy between what we feel we should do and what we actually want to do, the extent to which the real falls short of the ideal. Hotel Rwanda may be a beautiful parable of sacrifice and love in the midst of global tragedy, but it functions for people as the opposite, another sad-but-true example of how we tirelessly turn Grace into Law. You don’t need to go to church to find a measuring stick, those little red envelopes are everywhere you look, ht JS:

“Hotel Rwanda is currently the 10th most popular Netflix rental among the service’s 8.4 million subscribers. Which simply means that a lot of people have been mailed a copy—to judge by your e-mails, only a fraction of them ever get around to watching it. Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey told me the company doesn’t keep track of which movies its subscribers hold onto the longest but said he wouldn’t be surprised if Hotel Rwanda was the one. He confessed he’s been sitting on a copy since September 2006.

Hotel Rwanda is that rare movie about a devastating subject that nevertheless feels like something you really do need to see. The same goes for Schindler’s List, which finished a close second among Slate readers. Both appeal to the lofty sense of ourselves that comes to the fore when we’re managing our queues. Neither feels especially appealing after a long day at the office.

So, how can you avoid developing a long-standing beef with a Netflix rental? You could simply eschew renting anything long, foreign, or potentially depressing, but the prospect of dumbing down your queue is itself depressing.