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The family Netflix queue: Who's in charge?

For a time, movie buffs thought Netflix solved all of their problems. There was no more schlepping to the video store, no more late fees, and no more racking the brain to remember the title of that movie you wanted to see - It's with what's-his-name!

(STERLING CHEN / Staff Artist)
(STERLING CHEN / Staff Artist)Read more

For a time, movie buffs thought Netflix solved all of their problems. There was no more schlepping to the video store, no more late fees, and no more racking the brain to remember the title of that movie you wanted to see - It's with what's-his-name!

People were even relieved of the responsibilities of recommending films to friends. They could just say, "Netflix it."

But the 11-year-old online video subscription rental service seems to have generated a new set of complications capable of straining perfectly healthy family relations.

We are talking, of course, about queue quarrels.

For people unfamiliar with the ways of the red-sleeved mailer, every household with a Netflix account has a queue - a virtual wish list of movies - that establishes the next DVD to be mailed once a viewer sends back the current title.

With only one queue and one password in a house of multiple viewers and divergent tastes, what results is often a power struggle, sometimes with unfair tactics, to control what is watched. Passwords are changed surreptitiously. Spouses are banned from adding titles.

Will it be The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Matrix: Reloaded? Or will it be a When Harry Met Sally-Bridget Jones's Diary-Sweet Home Alabama-fest?

Amanda DeForest controls the Netflix queue in her family, and she likes to pepper the list with the "goofy" and "lighthearted" movies she's into now. But after a disappointing Friday night with Hot Tub Time Machine, her husband decided to take a stand.

"That's when we started getting all of these war movies," she explains. "We just watched Flags of Our Fathers and we now have Defiance. He put a whole bunch of them on there - Brothers, The Hurt Locker, Ninja Assassin. Some of them I sent back without even watching them."

The couple, avowed movie fans, joined Netflix in 2002, making them early adopters of the subscription service that launched in 1999. Netflix has more than 17 million members and 100,000 available titles. The company estimates its members collectively add more than 2 million titles to their queues every day to be mailed or streamed.

For her part, DeForest logs on two to three times a week. "I like to see what is new and see what's coming up next on my queue." Soon, the postal service will be delivering the feel-good romantic comedy When in Rome to the couple's Moorestown mailbox. "I try to be fair - so I got The Last Airbender right next to it," she says. "I don't really want to see that at all, but I know he does."

Tales of families feuding over the queue have even reached Netflix headquarters. "Sure, you hear about husbands or wives loading up the queue with action or romantic comedies," says spokesman Steve Swasey. As for the Netflix executive's own family queue? "We always have a robust discussion over what to watch."

For Eric Baumholtz of Wynnewood, Netflix is not a democracy.

"In my house, it is definitely my queue," he says. The family of four has been on the three-movie-at-a-time plan since joining Netflix this year. "That way, I get a movie and my daughter and my son can each have one out - but they have to go through me to get it."

Second only to convenience, the queue is likely what members like most about Netflix. They add titles, remove titles, rearrange titles, and look up Netflix's suggested titles. In addition to looking at what movies are coming up, some fans like to look at what movies have gone before.

"For me, watching a movie is kind of like a marker in time," says DeForest. "Sometimes I like to look at the list of every movie I've taken out - and I'll see one and think, wow, that was three years ago?"

Others credit Netflix and its queue system for changing more than just their viewing habits.

"Netflix has actually changed the way I talk to people about movies," explains Jabin White of Villanova. "Now a movie will come up and I'll say, 'You have to add that to your queue.' And I don't even know if that person is a Netflix subscriber. 'The queue' is now part of the vernacular."

White has 150 movies in his DVD queue and 27 more in his instant queue - movies that are available for instant streaming via computer or Internet-enabled television - and both reflect his eclectic tastes. "I'll go from watching a bunch of immature comedies to a run of violent action thrillers or military movies," he says.

As for his wife, "She likes a lot of the period pieces. She'll watch anything with Alan Rickman or Helena Bonham Carter. I just can't stomach it."

For the Barnett family of Wayne, there is no husband-wife bickering over the movies. Resident controller of the Netflix queue? Their 11-year-old son, Tom. He manages the family wish list from his laptop or his mother's computer, and sometimes from the Netflix app on his iPod Touch.

"I'm kind of the person who handles computers in this family, so I'm pretty much in charge of the queue. Sometimes they tell me what they want, and then I add it to the list," the sixth grader explains. Dad has a few Alfred Hitchcock movies making their way up the list, and Tom has helped his older sister add episodes of Monk and Psych.

As for Mom, she was waiting for Grey Gardens to arrive in the mail. "Well, imagine my surprise when Monty Python and the Holy Grail showed up instead," she says.

That's just the kind of disorder Sharon Merhige worried about when she reluctantly handed over control of her family's movie queue last year. "I was looking to downsize my to-do list, so I gave the Netflix queue to my husband," she says. But Merhige, of Strafford, still reads movie reviews every Friday and jots down titles of those she'd like to see. She gives the list to her husband for the actual data entry and management.

"I'm too controlling to give up the queue completely," she admits. "Let's just say, I know the password."

Recently, the couple and their two sons watched The Blind Side, and Merhige went on the queue to make sure it wasn't some "sci-fi or total man-movie coming next." She also reorders the queue when her husband travels so she can catch Valentine's Day, Letters to Juliet, and Young Victoria. She concedes that during the holidays she'll have little time for movies and will let him load up the queue "with all of his crap, I mean boy-movies - Lord of the Rings, Star Trek."

"I knew there would be a downside to my giving up a little control. I knew I was setting myself up for problems." Like the time Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino arrived instead of the British period piece Brideshead Revisited. "I'm not sure that was really an accidental mix-up."