Very Long Wait
September 17, 2014
Last week, Jon Brooks filed a lengthy report on the present state of Netflix and the home video rental market in general. It’s an essential read.
Using one film he was tasked with writing about (Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) as a starting point, Brooks explores how many films that used to be rentable from Netflix no longer are, and that once viable backup options – local rental stores and libraries – have become extinct or endangered as well. Often the only options are to purchase a movie or do without – something that hasn’t generally been true in the U.S. for most of the past three decades. Citing examples like the filmography of Woody Allen (at least 13 films available on disc, but not from Netflix; only three are streamable), Brooks points out just how much of the canon Netflix has allowed to slip away.
Indiewire’s Sam Adams then took up the subject, and even coined a handy term for it: The Availability Gap. Adams sums it up bluntly: “As physical media dies a steady death, it’s taking a good chunk of film history with it.” Further:
The shift to streaming technologies is often viewed in terms of democratization: No longer do art house-deprived viewers have to wait months to see the movie their social-media friends in New York are raving about. But it’s hard to think of anything less democratic than a state of affairs where the price for a single viewing of Sweet Sweetback, or any of the untold numbers of movies waiting to strike a digital deal, has effectively jumped above $20.
The conclusions drawn in these articles are gloomy, to say the least. Adams: “With a few blissful exceptions, video stores are dead, and no amount of bemoaning over the current state of cinephilia will bring them back …. It’s a supply and demand marketplace, but when a movie vanishes, it takes more effort to make that demand heard.” Brooks, as he tried out some streaming substitutes: “Looked terrible. But you get used to it.”
(Brooks and Adams acknowledge but avoid discussing in detail the option of downloading illegal copies of films. Setting aside the ethics of fare-beating, here’s the problem with that: for the most part, you’ll be entering the same world of dodgy image quality that you find with streaming. Even on the secretive, well-curated private torrent sites – the ones where people create and share their own English subtitles for foreign films – many of the digital files available are rips of DVDs that have been compressed by a factor of 50% or more, to make file sizes manageable.)
It’s a small, cold comfort that more influential writers than myself are finally drawing attention to a phenomenon I first noted three and a half years ago. Even though I’d willingly accepted the risk of annoying TV buffs by deputizing this space to fight the arguably off-topic Netflix War, I haven’t written about the situation since spring of last year. During that time it has come to feel like a slow, inevitable decline, dispiriting but not newsworthy. But I do think that Netflix has recently hit the tipping point I’d long feared – the point where so many critical titles are depleted or gone altogether that it’s no longer useful as a primary source for full-bore movie and television fans. Without going into specifics, I’ll say that I’ve shifted my own priorities in Netflix rentals toward future-proofing for the day when those discs disappear altogether. And, as Brooks notes, there have been recent, ominous signs – the shuttering of more Netflix shipment centers and the end of Saturday shipping – that this door might close sooner rather than later.
So where do we go from here, we nerds cast out into the wilderness? As I wrote that first piece in 2011, I pictured a distant future for myself that has effectively come to pass: one in which I devote an ever-increasing share of my disposable income to buying films and TV shows I want to see, and an ever-increasing amount of time reselling most of those discs for as much as I can recoup. A process that used to be as simple and cheap as picking up takeout has grown into a huge hassle – the opposite of progress.
Of course, I realize that the Netflix Problem is not only a First World problem, but a problem of import to only a relatively small group of dedicated cinephiles. (And potential cinephiles: How many of us came to love movies in the aisles of a video store? How many millennials won’t join us as the meager future of streaming curtails access?) But for that group, it’s a devastating blow. Every movie enthusiast under the age of 50 came of age in a rental economy, in which (at least in large and medium-sized cities) most of the films and TV shows released to home video could be borrowed on tape or disc for a small sum. Now that the biggest video rental stories have joined the dodo in many communities, including Raleigh (where I grew up) and New York City (where I live), it’s clear that this was a bubble that has popped. (Los Angeles, where I lived in between, still has a few first-rate video stores. If you live there, support them!)
When Netflix first came along, I was a late adopter and a skeptic – what could it offer that the best brick-and-mortar stores couldn’t, apart from a poor approximation of the browsing experience? But with its quick-turnaround convenience and (until 2010) comprehensive acquisition of nearly every available DVD, Netflix won over many of us who, in hindsight, should have stuck with the corner store. Now, even though its reserves of goodwill still inspire incoherent apologists, Netflix is as dispiritingly evil and stupid as any other corporate monolith – hell-bent on abandoning a service it created with singular vision and competence in order to refashion itself as something (a producer of original programming, equivalent to pay-cable channels) of which there are already too many. It has decimated its competitors and now abandons the field, leaving a market unsupplied. In a Deadwood analogy, Blockbuster was Swearengen – and Netflix is Hearst. You’ll scoff, probably, but I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the now-irreversible erosion of Netflix’s vast movie collection is a cultural loss comparable in scale to the burning of the Alexandrian Library.
Things have been really slow here for the past couple of months: Sorry about that! The unplanned hiatus is largely the result of positive goings-on behind the scenes at The Classic TV History Blog – paying writing gigs, first of all (some of them unbylined and thus invisible here), and also the move of the Classic TV History archives to a new, happier, and much quieter home in May. That move translated into a summer spent slumped next to the air conditioner, taking advantage of an option of 24/7 movie and TV consumption that had become unavailable for far too long. Anyway: the writing fatigue is abating now, and I hope to be more prolific both here and at The A.V. Club during the fall. Hope you’ll stay tuned.