Reed Hastings, the Netflix CEO who co-founded the company long before “streaming” entered the popular lexicon, was born during a fairly remarkable year for film. 1960 was the year Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho astounded and terrified audiences, influencing a half-century of horror to come. It was a year of outstanding comedies (Billy Wilder’s The Apartment), outstanding epics (Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus) and outstandingly creepy thrillers (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—a close cousin of Psycho).
But in the vast world of Netflix streaming, 1960 doesn’t exist. There’s one movie from 1961 available to watch (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single film from 1960. It’s like it never happened. There aren’t any movies from 1963 either. Or 1968, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock films on Netflix. No classics from Sergio Leone or François Truffaut. 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 fill a large film studies textbook with what’s not available on Netflix.
Netflix’s selection of classic cinema is abominable—and it seems to shrink more every year or so. As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers. Netflix’s DVD subscribers enjoy a much wider selection (four million customers still opt to receive discs in the mail), but as the company shifts its focus to streaming and original content, cinephiles fear the cinematic canon is being left behind.
“If you’re the biggest name in film streaming services, the less you offer in classic movies, the more you imply that classic movies have less to offer,” says Nora Fiore, a 26-year-old writer who has a blog devoted to classic cinema, “The Nitrate Diva.” “It’s a terrible message to put out there.”It wasn’t always so bleak. Netflix, which just turned 20 years old, first expanded into streaming media in 2007. Back then, Fiore enjoyed the site’s streaming offerings, when the service was still new and the movie selection more eclectic. (There was even a selection of Criterion Classics, which ended in 2011, when Criterion struck a deal with Hulu.) “I saw Breathless for the first time on Netflix,” she says. “I saw Jules and Jim streaming on Netflix back in 2008 [or]2009… They would also have some really weird movies that you got the feeling they bought with a package. Like, a movie I saw there for the first time that hardly anybody knows about is a movie called Specter of the Rose, a really weird poverty row film noir about a mad ballet dancer.”But in recent years, DVDs have started going the way of the floppy disk, and Netflix, the golden child of the streaming revolution, has started catering less to the film nerd and more to the average bored consumer. By 2013 or 2014, Fiore had canceled her subscription after noticing the classics selection had dropped off. She subscribes to other streaming services today, like Fandor and Warner Archive Instant, and holds tight to her large DVD collection.
Film professors and historians are particularly troubled by the situation.“It was very distressing when Netflix began to phase out their huge inventory of movies available on DVD with the goal of shifting viewers over to the streaming model,” says Stephen Prince, a cinema studies professor at Virginia Tech. “Now we see the danger inherent in this change—an emphasis on mainstream, contemporary movies has replaced what had been a broad archive of world cinema… Convenience biases viewers toward mainstream fare and makes films 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 film fanatic. “It’s getting progressively harder to connect with non-contemporary film cultures outside hubs like L.A., where multiple venues offer gems for all ages,” says Jan Olsson, the Swedish film scholar and author (most recently) of Hitchcock à la Carte. Olsson says access to film archives are essential in the streaming era. (The screenings in his classes at Stockholm University, for instance, are in 35 mm format.) “For educators outside schools close to film archives, this is a big problem. As DVDs are on the verge of being phased out, streams will be the key resource.”
Prince has seen the shift away from classic cinema reflected in the classroom. “My students are heavily biased toward what’s new and what can be streamed on portable devices,” Prince says. “What isn’t available to stream essentially doesn’t exist. I’ve had students ask if it is okay to watch Vertigo on Youtube.” (No.) Last year Prince taught a course on horror movies, during which he showed The Shining projected on a large screen. “One student who knew the film and had watched it on a laptop was astonished at how powerful it was when seen big.”Why are Netflix’s classic offerings so lousy? “I believe their reading of the market and the vicissitudes of acquiring materials from the studio’s film libraries are key factors,” says Olsson. Translation: Streaming rights are expensive, and Netflix probably doesn’t think the audience for old films is big enough to make it worthwhile. (A Netflix representative declined to comment on the record for this story.) The longer answer requires a deep dive into copyright law and the legal precedent of the first-sale doctrine, which made it easy for Netflix to rent out tangible media (DVDs) but does not apply to digital distribution.
“Studios never liked the idea that viewers might own copies of movies,” Prince explains. “If I’ve purchased a DVD, I can do with it what I want—I can loan it out, resell it, give it away or even destroy it.” That permitted Netflix to build an immense library of films without having to obtain the individual rights. With streaming, distribution rights are much thornier, as the writer and librarian Rachel Paige King explains here:
The end result is a paltry, pathetic catalog of older films shackled by copyright law. It’s a strange conundrum: The internet promises a century’s worth of multimedia output at your fingertips but ruthlessly privileges whatever got released yesterday. Some films have been left behind in obsolete format hell. “There are some movies you basically have to break the law to see,” says Fiore—for instance, the famously unavailable Joan Crawford flick Letty Lynton (1932).
Written by ZACH SCHONFELD for Newsweek