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.


12 Responses to “Very Long Wait”

  1. Marty McKee Says:

    A major reason my personal video collection has nearly 5000 titles is that I’ve been stockpiling discs just for this day: when something I want to watch will no longer be available. It started even before that by burning VHS tapes to DVD-R–films that will most likely never receive a DVD release. And then by renting DVDs, sometimes from stores, but usually Netflix, and burning my own personal copy. Finally, by burning more than one copy and swapping the extra for a personal copy of something else I want to see. I would rather spend hobby time watching films than hoarding them, but the marketplace has left me little choice.

  2. Marty McKee Says:

    I justify it to myself with a “Well, how do I know this won’t be the only copy of THE MUTHERS left someday?”

  3. Dandru Says:

    “It’s a small, cold comfort that more influential writers than myself ”

    Me, not myself. Myself is a reflexive.

  4. Roger Green Says:

    Actually, I DON’T think it’s “just a First World problem.” Loss of information, one way or another, is a loss for the culture as a whole.

  5. Schooley Says:

    This “availability gap” is just as real for music. The situation with movies and video stores is analogous to that of music and record stores. Only the most mainstream of the LPs/CDs I own are on streaming services like Spotify. Sure, I could maybe torrent the ones that aren’t, but only in mp3s of greatly reduced sound quality, and only if somebody else who owns it happens to post it. People who think “everything is online now” are generally people who aren’t looking for the things I’m looking for.

    • fantomex9 Says:

      I’m sorry, but that article is just so much bullcaca, and then some; these are the same people crying about how the planet’s infested with too much plastic waste and that we rely too much on oil, and also on how we have to ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’, yet as soon as somebody invents a way to enjoy things without relying on said plastic media, said emoprogressive Profesional Left now complains about stuff being destroyed and ‘we should all be pack rats.’ What is is that they want-for us not to make so much waste that they hate the rest of us for doing, or keep on being pack rats? The Perpetually Poutraged Professional Left at publications like Jacobin Magazine need to make up their minds.

  6. Roger L Says:

    Your “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?” I worked in movie theatres for many years and saw the erosion of passion for film and art before my very eyes. When there’s no easy way to even sample the good stuff – and the online options are so poorly curated (unlike say a rep house that purposefully books their films) will there even be future cineastes?

  7. I have been following you columns for awhile and enjoy them. So I want to say as an old movie fan who started before the was even tape. I was completely dependent on TV station program directors for any movies I watched. So we have come full circle back to movies THEY want us to see. Excepting of course you can buy and own titles that I in my youth could not have thought of owning. It is sad indeed that Netflix has decided to drop DVDs, which they did say they were going to do, for the more lucrative, but restricting streaming.

  8. Kim Messick Says:

    Stephen, I’ve been meaning to comment for some time now on how much I enjoy your work. Your breadth of knowledge and range of interests are amazing, and your stuff is always a pleasure to read. I’ve especially enjoyed the pieces on some of the ’60s series I grew up with— “Route 66” and “The Invaders” to name just two examples— and your profiles of the artists, some famous, some obscure, who toiled in that far-off black-and-white world.

    I was also intrigued to discover that you’re originally from North Carolina. As a Carolinian myself who also grew up to be a writer, I always enjoy the discovery of another tarheel scribe.

    I’d be very interested to read your thoughts on the career of the recently departed James Garner, if you ever find time and inclination leading you in that direction. I did read your piece on his autobiography, but something more focused on his deconstructive (or, if you prefer, ironic) work in two of television’s foundational genres— the western and the PI show— would be very welcome.

    Thanks again for the great work!

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