Like a lot of cinephiles cruising through university in their early 20s, I studied by day and worked at a video store by night. My customers were treated to a free (but compulsory) value add-on. I’d provide praise for good choices — “nice pick, man, good film” — and snobby looks of condemnation for bad ones.

I like to think that the people who left with copies of Pearl Harbour or The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps noticed the way my face contorted, as if responding to a bad smell, and walked out in shame.

I got the job despite answering the all-important interview question “why do you want this position?” with the response that “I, well, um, er, I like movies”. No video store manager wanted to hear that. They didn’t care if a prospective employee had never seen a Spike Jee joint or thought Fellini was a kind of garden herb.

They wanted to believe in practical things. That you could stock and dust the shelves; that you could remember to lock the door when you closed the shop; that you could operate a computer with at least the ability of a high-functioning primate; that you would not dip into the till or take home a freebie. Also, that you would not turn to water when an irate customer complained about a late fee.

On that last skill set, working for a shop where customers were not allowed to hire a movie until all their late fines were paid, I realised the importance of having a thick skin. One evening a bulky, angry young man in a singlet and a baseball cap stormed with hell-blazing energy into the store, presumably leaving a trail of dead fairies in his wake. He selected a DVD in about 30 seconds (straight to New Releases: Action).

When the man came to the counter I broke the news he needed to pay $2.50 before he was able to rent his next movie, and he totally flipped. “Why can’t I pay it next time?” “Let me pay it next time!” “I need to pay it next time!” still ricochet around my brain. In case you were wondering: yes, that’s two dollars fifty and no, that was not a lot of money at the time.

The man was angry, inconsolable and breathtakingly unreasonable, but Buckmaster stood his ground. The scene ended when he flashed his teeth and snarled “you wanna get a farkin’ punch?” then, without an answer, stormed out.

Maybe that mean imbecile is still frequenting DVD rental stores, threatening to beat up university students behind the counter. But as Netflix reminded us yesterday, when the trailblazing video-on-demand service provider announced it will be officially opening its cyber doors to Australians in March next year, he won’t be able to do that for much longer.

If he has a grievance with online movie providers he’ll probably find himself filling out a form in the “contact us” section of the website. I like to imagine him so furious he’s slamming the keyboard with his fists, producing nothing but gibberish. He’s gripping his computer monitor with two hands and shaking it like a victim in a Joe Pesci movie.

The in-person touch will be gone. Good riddance, I say, though it’s not all happy news and high bandwidth speeds. The video rental chapter in entertainment distribution ends, like virtually any other, with a hint of sadness. In addition to harsh economic realities that hit (perhaps devastated) plenty of business people, the decline of the video/DVD store has also created a haze of nostalgia through which we fondly remember previous time killers such as perusing aisles and examining the same weekly for the fourth, fifth, sixth time before eventually deciding to rent it.

But through those rose-tinted glasses we should also acknowledge that the end of one era has led to the beginning of another, which will be far more capable of delivering a satisfying experience for customers. The introduction of Netflix marks that transition period in Australia. It is the point my cinema studies lecturer back in my video clerk years might have described as “the passage”. The bit where the hero stumbles from one reality into another, a la Alice down the rabbit hole, or the plight of Andy Dufresne in The Shawswhank Redemption, who — as Morgan Freeman so eloquently put it — “crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side”.

For us, coming out clean means no more fuzz on the video tapes. No more scratches on DVDs. No more hearing somebody like a younger version of myself say, “Sorry, another customer has rented our only copy of Dil Chahta Hai, but if they return it before 7pm I’ll give you a call.”

We all knew it was coming. The video/DVD store experienced death by a million, trillion downloads. Business and media journalists this week produced a flurry of stories about what we can expect content-wise from Netflix, but the truth is that nobody knows much other than the basics. It is likely to be cheap (peg the cost at around $15 a month) and will start off with a small library that will expand throughout 2015 and, of course, into the future.

There are already around 200,000 Australians legally signed up to the American version of the service via VPN unlockers (software that defies regional restrictions). Think about that for a moment. A fifth of a million people in this country have been so desperate for a high-quality streaming service they have installed special sneaky software to allow them to sign up and pay for it.

The competition in Australia have seen the Netflix wave coming for years —  we all have — but reacted with astonishing slowness. Stan, a joint partnership between Nine and Fairfax, will launch in 2015. Quickflix, which has been around for a long time in Australia and, like Netflix, began as a postal-oriented service, introduced streaming a few years ago but struggled to make an impact. I won’t pretend to understand its business model well enough to know why, but on their homepage I was given a clue. At the time of publishing, the second most prominent title displayed was Rowan Atkinson’s here-we-go-again 2007 comedy Mr Bean’s Holiday. The most prominent is a brand-new TV drama called, um, The Sopranos: Season 1.

Like the muscly man who stormed into the video store, Netflix is certain to make an impact. For the betterment of us all, there will be no late fines. There will be no creepy guy hovering around the porn aisle. There will be no obnoxious uni student giving you strange looks on the way out.

*This article was originally published on Daily Review

Peter Fray

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