Classic lms get booted from Net ix.
NETFLIX OFFERS FEWER THAN 25 MOVIES MADE BEFORE 1950. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR FUTURE FILM FANS OR HOLLYWOOD’S PAST?
REED HASTINGS, the Net ix CEO who cofounded the company long before “streaming” entered the popular lexicon, was born in 1960, a fairly remarkable year for lm. Among the classics released: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.
In the vast world of Net ix streaming, there’s one movie from 1961 available (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single lm from 1960. It’s like it never happened. Neither, for that matter, did 1968, 1963, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock
lms on Net ix, no classics from Sergio Leone or François Tru aut. When Debbie Reynolds died last Christmas week, grieving fans had to turn to Amazon Video for Singin’ in the Rain and Susan Slept Here. You could ll a large lm studies textbook with what’s not available.
As of this month, Net ix o ers just 43 movies made before 1970 and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries) on its streaming platform. If you’re one of its 4 million DVD subscribers, you get a much wider selection, but the company is increasingly shifting to streaming and original content. And what does that say to a lover of classic cinema? “That those movies have less to o er,” says Nora Fiore, the 26-year-old writer behind a blog devoted to old lms, The Nitrate Diva. “It’s a terrible message to put out there.”
Net ix, which just turned 20, expanded into streaming in 2007. For the next few years, Fiore was thrilled by the eclectic o erings, many of them thanks to the company’s partnership with Criterion Classics (that ended in 2011, when Criterion struck a deal with Hulu). “I saw Breathless for the rst time on Net ix,” she says. “I saw Jules and Jim. They also had some really weird stu that you got the feeling they bought with a package, like Specter of the Rose, a Poverty Row lm noir about a mad ballet dancer.” By 2013, Fiore had canceled her subscription, switching over to Fandor and Warner Archive.
Stephen Prince, a cinema studies professor at Virginia Tech, remembers his distress over Net ix phasing out its archive of world cinema DVDS as the shift was made to streaming. “Now, we see the danger inherent in this change—an emphasis on mainstream, contemporary movies,” he says, “making lms of the past or from other cultures less visible.”
Gone are chains like Blockbuster or the quirky DVD rental stores that turned Quentin Tarantino into a lm fanatic. That means if you don’t live in a place with multiple venues for classic cinema— like New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas— accessing non-contemporary lms takes e ort. Prince has seen this re ected in his students, who are “heavily biased toward what’s new and what can be streamed on portable devices. What isn’t available to stream essentially doesn’t exist. I’ve had students ask if it’s OK to watch Vertigo on Youtube.” (No.) When he taught a course on horror movies, a student who had watched The Shining only on a laptop “was astonished at how powerful it was when seen big.”
Why are Net ix’s classic o erings so lousy? “I believe their reading of the market and the vicissitudes of acquiring materials from the studio’s
lm libraries are key factors,” says Jan Olsson, the Swedish lm scholar and author (most recently) of Hitchcock à la Carte. Translation: Streaming rights are expensive, and Net ix probably doesn’t think the audience for old lms is big enough to make it worthwhile. (Net ix declined to comment for this story.) The longer answer requires a deep dive into copyright law and the legal precedent of
the rst-sale doctrine, which made it easy for Net
ix to rent out tangible media (DVDS) but does not apply to digital distribution.
It’s a conundrum: The internet promises a century’s worth of multimedia at your ngertips but ruthlessly privileges whatever got released yesterday. Some lms have gotten left behind in obsolete-format hell. “There are movies you basically have to break the law to see,” says Fiore of, for instance, the famously unavailable Joan Crawford ick Letty Lynton (1932).
You can nd classic cinema if you know where to look. Amazon has a pretty robust streaming catalog, but the $2.99 price tag per rental makes it less attractive. (The Amazon Prime selection, free for Prime subscribers, is more limited.) Filmstruck, a streaming service launched by Turner Classic Movies in 2016, has a great archive—a curated mix of classic, foreign and hard-to- nd movies—but it’s geared toward the cinephile niche not the generalist (in the not-so-distant past, they could stumble on the pleasures of classic lm simply by ipping channels on TV).
“The gap between ‘casual lm fan’ and ‘ lm history bu ’ has never been harder—or more expensive—to bridge,” Vox.com critic Todd Vanderwer argued in a 2016 piece. Vanderwer ’s conclusion: “It’s never been easier to see classic movies—but it’s never been harder to become obsessed with them.”
When did interest in movies made before, say, 1980 become such a weirdo niche?
IN EARLY , Net ix rolled out a clever new feature: Viewers could press a button and skip opening credits on TV shows. It made sense; when you’re binging six episodes of its original drama Stranger Things, watching the same credits sequence over and over gets tiresome.
Then, this past May, Net ix expanded the feature, letting viewers skip past the title sequences of certain movies as well. Cinephiles were horri ed: These sequences often provide inventive opportunities for brilliant lmmakers, from the snowy desolation that opens
Fargo to the chilling close-ups that suck you into
Vertigo. Why would you skip that? “When we lose title sequences, we are losing something of artistic value,” lm critic Noah Gittell wrote in
For lm bu s, this ill-advised option was more than a stumble. It seemed indicative of a company that understands algorithms but not auteurs—a company detached from the cultural and curatorial knowledge commensurate with its enormous distributive power. In other words, Gittell wrote, it signi ed that Net ix “lacks rever- ence for cinema history.” It was a minor misstep but a major example of the increasing discomfort cinephiles have with Net ix’s dominance.
Net ix began on August 29, 1997, as a sort of mail-order Blockbuster, based on the hunch that consumers were sick of late fees. (Net ix’s founding myth is that Hastings got the idea after paying Blockbuster a $40 late fee for a lost copy of Apollo 13.) By 2007, Net ix had shipped more than a billion DVDS; the company was pro table and growing. But Hastings had loftier ambitions. “Movies over the internet are coming, and at some point, it will become big business,” he said in 2005. His company’s goal, the soon-to-be billionaire added, was “[to become] a company like HBO that transforms the entertainment industry.”
That goal has been achieved. The watershed moment was 2013, when Net ix’s rst piece of original programming, House of Cards, became a critical and commercial hit. Orange Is the New Black—now with its fth season available for streaming—followed that summer. Four years later, Net ix is spending $6 billion to add both original and licensed content in 2017, and like HBO, it has arguably become more synonymous with television these days than lm. (When young people colloquially talk about “staying in and watching Net ix,” they often mean binge-watching TV episodes, whether it’s 30 Rock or an original sitcom.) There’s a cottage industry of digital media dedicated to tracking what’s coming and going on Net ix every single month.
Once a digital library, the company now operates more
like a deep-pocketed studio. The universal power of boredom guarantees that any piece of Net ix programming will be watched by millions simply by virtue of being plastered across the home page. Consider the remarkably lucrative partnership with Adam Sandler. In March, the actor signed another four-movie deal with Net ix (a cost to them of $320 million or more). In April, it was revealed that users had spent more than half a billion hours watching Sandler’s movies. They made minimal cultural impact, but for the millions browsing Net ix.com for content, the marketing is unbeatable.
What gets left behind is the curation model of old. “Net ix’s mission statement has changed,” says the veteran lm critic Leonard Maltin. “Their focus is on original content. They’re no longer focused on serving their former customer base.” Friction between Net ix and segments of the lm community spiked into outright hostility in mid-2017. In May came the opening-credits scu e. That same month, at Cannes, the sight of the Net ix logo drew boos from cranky festival attendees during a screening of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, one of two Net ix lms entered into festival competition (the second was Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories). Critics and judges grumbled because the lms hadn’t gotten a proper theatrical release. Festival director Thierry Frémaux eventually ruled that future movies without theatrical release in France would not qualify for the prestigious Palme d’or prize. Cannes jury president Pedro Almodóvar further bashed Net ix, as did director Christopher Nolan, who, in an interview the following month, vowed never to work with the company because of its “pointless” strategy and “bizarre aversion” to the theatrical experience.
There are plenty of reasons to like Net ix, and advocates, particularly among indie lmmakers and producers, see it as a viable alternative to traditional Hollywood. Okja is a ne example. The quirky and critically acclaimed satire, hailed as the streaming platform’s rst great original lm, wasn’t cheap to produce. “I don’t think anyone would have made this if it weren’t for Net ix,” the movie’s screenwriter, Jon Ronson, told Newsweek in May. He couldn’t imagine a traditional studio funding it.
The Okja model might be integral for the independent lms of the future, but does it have to come at the expense of the past? Perhaps Net ix will one day realize a viable market still exists for old movies. Maltin, however, isn’t taking any chances. “Frankly, this is why I’m keeping all my DVDS,” he says. “And it’s a pain in the neck, because they take up a lot of space.”
+ Net ix neglects the work of Hitchcock (left) while championing that of Sandler (above), who recently signed another fourpicture deal with the company.