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The Net Flux

Internet rental giant inspires virtual road trip to determine who rents what

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On Netflix's Web site, there's a section—netflix.com/LocalFavorites—that details movie titles more likely to be rented in user-selected zip codes than the country at large. Curious to see what people across America are renting, I set off on a virtual road trip through some of the country's Netflix rental Top 25 lists.

Our Netflix virtual road trip begins at home base: 83702, the zip code for BW world headquarters. The top local favorite 'round these parts is a little documentary called Out of the Blue. I'd like to think a review I penned last year for the football film in this very publication helped its popularity, but in truth, I'm sure it's more to do with Boise's devotion to that big concrete temple on the corner of Broadway Avenue and University Drive. The rest of our city's list is made up of stand-up comedy specials, TV shows and a mixture of mainstream and offbeat feature films.

Though I decide not to include a full stop in Norman, Okla., 73026, home of the state's beloved University of Oklahoma Sooners, I do check to see what they watch. I'm shocked that the 1955 musical Oklahoma! is nowhere in the town's top 25, nor are any football DVDs. Some fanatics they are, eh?

I haven't seen my folks in some time, so my old stomping grounds in southern Oregon are my next destination. Honestly, who better to first talk with about the little DVD sleeves that have become all the rage the past decade than my pop, a man who's sorted mail in its various forms for the last 30 years?

Though he deals more with priority parcels now than standard first-class letter mail, he still sees his fair share of the iconic red sleeves. "I'll find letter trays just completely packed full of those Netflix movies," he says. In zip code 97501, where his post office sits, Netflix users are surprisingly very fond of films starring actor Tom Selleck—five of the top 25 local favorites are titles featuring the former Magnum, P.I. heartthrob. Three of the Selleck films are made-for-TV pictures about an LAPD cop who relocates to Massachusetts. My dad's actually a big fan of the Jesse Stone films.

"We love them. We've watched every one of them," he says of himself and my stepmother.

He was a little shocked, however, that dramatic films would be a hit in his typically shoot-'em-up-crazed valley.

It was a short stay, but I'm back in my virtual car on a 400-mile road trip pointed due south toward zip 95032: Los Gatos, Calif., home of the Netflix corporate office. Since I'm not actually going there, I substitute a face-to-face chat with a phone interview and e-mail correspondence with the company's vice president of corporate communications, Steve Swasey.

First, he's unable to explain why, exactly, there's an X at the end of his company's name. "Nobody's ever asked me that before," he says. "It's just what we named the company." But that's not what I'm here in virtual Los Gatos to investigate, anyhow. I need to know what people from the home of Netflix are watching more often than the rest of us.

Swasey says that, despite the fact that Netflix's corporate conference rooms are all named after Hollywood creations—such as the Edward Scissorhands and Leave it to Beaver rooms—his fellow employees aren't necessarily any bigger movie buffs than anyone else. And they have to wait for their red envelopes to show up in the mail like everyone else. In the town of about 35,000, their faves aren't necessarily out of the ordinary, though they do seem to favor foreign and family films—and those starring mega-hunk Ben Affleck.

"The Ben Affleck thing is random," he notes.

I bid adieu to Swasey and make tracks 1,700 miles southeastward to Dallas, Texas. I'm now in zip code 75201, about nine miles away from Texas Stadium, home of the Cowboys. There's a lack of football fare in this sports Mecca's top 25, which is filled instead by many titles from the Netflix-categorized "gay and lesbian" genre, as well as a few very sexually explicit NC-17 and unrated selections. Before I can conjure a quip about how "What have y'all been watching behind those closed doors?" is a better question today than "Who Shot J.R.?," I'm back in my v-Civic and out on the open v-highway heading east.

Just after the odometer clicks off mile 522, I pull in to virtual 70116: New Orleans, La. As I voraciously down a dozen or so fat-free virtual beignets, I examine some of the French Quarter's favorite rents. There are no titles featuring native writer/director/actor Tyler Perry and no John Grisham thrillers set in The Big Easy among their local favorites, but rather two documentaries about Hurricane Katrina's devastation, Ken Burns' Civil War series, and a mix of indie and foreign flicks.

"Out of the swamp and into the jungle" is my mantra as I jet out of N'ahlens and head 1,305 miles northeast to zip 10007: The Big Apple. On a side street that would have once been in the shadow of the World Trade Center, I grab a virtual park bench and ask virtual New Yorkers, via Netflix, what movies they'd recommend. Despite being called a "mook" by one rather curt virtual bum, I get a good response from the rest of the population: They like artsy films. In fact, they like arthouse fare from all periods, with selections from their top 25 having been made in every decade since 1930. And if it's foreign, they prefer it be in French. Snobs much, New Yorkers? I think this trip is making me virtually homesick. I decide to start heading home.

With the car aimed southwesterly, I set the GPS for a spot it says is 2,173 miles away, clearly making this the longest leg of my trip. Destination: zip 84101, Energy Solutions Arena (Home of the Jazz), Salt Lake City, Utah. Despite the distance, I make such good time I don't even have a chance to play the license plate game. Perhaps no one will be surprised that the top three local favorites in SLC are all Mormon-themed films, and further down the list are seasons one and two of Big Love, HBO's series about a polygamist family living in Utah's capital city. The remaining titles are mostly kid flicks and more TV shows.

A scant 341 miles away, I'm sure my actual editor is wondering aloud where I've wandered off to and when, precisely, this story is going to hit her inbox. Applying the pedal to the metal, I jump onto virtual I-15 North then merge onto virtual I-84 West and coast the rest of the way. I feel I've been away from home for days, maybe even weeks, but it's really only been a single evening with a lot of clicking around the Netflix, Mapquest, Wikipedia and Google Web sites. I virtually circumnavigated the entire United States and all I have to show for it is a little more knowledge on who rents what where. But for a homebody DVD reviewer, I'd say that's one heck of a successful road trip.