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First Person: Chasing Netflix

Somewhere on O‘ahu, a movie company bustles through the night.

illustration: Matthew Smith
Every day, little red Netflix envelopes arrive in mailboxes across Hawai‘i. Viewers rip the packaging asunder, then sit glued to the screen, perhaps too transfixed to ever wonder, “How the hell does Netflix do it?”

Founded by CEO Reed Hastings in 1997, Netflix has 42 distribution centers; the one in Hawai‘i opened in November 2004 and its location is a closely guarded secret.

So how does Netflix get the movies to us so quickly? Where do they store 75,000 different movies? I had visions of secret stashes inside abandoned missile silos or in the tunnels beneath Diamond Head, but that’s improbable, right?

When I requested a tour of the Hawai‘i Netflix distribution center, I was politely turned down. Via e-mail, Netflix’s director of corporate communications, Steve Swasey, explained, “We focus on speed and efficiency at the distribution centers, so we can’t distract any of the staff from the operations.”

Well, OK. How about the location of the distribution center? According to Swasey, “Netflix distribution centers are clean, well lit, spacious facilities with a combination of manual labor and highly sophisticated and proprietary automation.” Clean and well lit, you say?

Surely, a phone interview with a manager … Nope. “We don’t identify local managers for media interviews.” Swasey wouldn’t spill the beans on how many employees worked at the Hawai‘i distribution center, but helpfully noted that “all Hawai‘i-based employees are locals. We have distribution centers that employ as few as 10 or so people and as many as 200 people.” Bigger than a breadbox!

Like Willy Wonka, perhaps Netflix found the leering eyes of competition hazardous, toxic even, and closed the doors to the outside world. So here’s my haphazard guess as to what Honolulu’s distribution center could contain:

A) A group of well-trained, well-paid corporate denizens who work tirelessly to make sure I get the newest season of House M.D. as quickly as possible.
B) A fleet of hapless robot drones; unicycles armed with pincher claws, spinning with infinite combinations of zero and ones.
C) The last tribe of menehune, who run the distribution center by bouncing between shelves on pogo sticks while listening to Mahler.

But I do know this: Little turns on a journalist more than secrecy. While I love the great utility provided by Netflix, I’m disappointed in the company’s offering of just the minimum information in the name of competition; a little more trust gleaned through transparency might make the stock price rise. They did share that Crash is the No. 1 rental in Hawai‘i. Thanks, Netflix!

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,May

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