May 1, 2013
Nope, that’s not a SyFy original. Alas.
Here we go again.
Yesterday, the internet made a big deal out of the nearly 1800 movies that were about to disappear from Netflix’s streaming video library. Netflix had disclosed a while ago that this was going to happen, so I was surprised at how viral the story went. There was chatter about it pretty much everywhere I went on the net: social media, forums, blogs, Slate, C-Net, Gothamist (from whom I shamelessly swiped the above graphic, which, incidentally, I find hilarious: nuts to you, streaming family!), etc, etc. The tone of the coverage was: these movies are disappearing tonight, so hurry up and watch as many as you can.
I’ve said my piece about Netflix ad nauseum, and I was on deadline yesterday, so I was initially planning not to weigh in. But much of what I’ve seen about this is either wrong or just wrong-headed so, as I said, here we go again. Sorry.
First, factually wrong: Initial reports claimed that these titles were expiring because they were going to move over to Warner Archive’s new, and competing, streaming service. Nope. Warner Archive has explicitly denied it on Twitter. The wording of Warner’s statement was a little strange, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were angling to license the 1800 catalog titles (which are mostly owned by MGM but were linked to Netflix via a third party called Epix; it’s complicated). But it definitely won’t be an immediate transition. I’ve been trying to trace the source of that rumor and I think there isn’t one. Probably some yob on the internet said, hey, Warner Archive is mostly old movies, and these are mostly old movies, so I bet that’s where they’re going! And that’s still being reported as fact, a day after Warner’s denial. So among other things, Streamageddon marks yet another dispiriting failure of online journalism.
Let’s start with this: Any time movies go from being more accessible to less accessible, that’s a bad thing. In that sense, I’ll join with the Streamageddon mourners.
But, as we’ve noted before, streaming is not a good way to watch movies. Of course, streaming varies based on a lot of things, so that statement should be heavily qualified. But let’s drill in on these 1800 movies. Start with film critic Sam Adams’s selections of MGM-owned films that he’ll miss among the 1800 Netflix refugees. I’m pretty sure that every one of those eighteen films is or has been available on DVD, and Netflix carries many of those DVDs. Four of them (The Bed Sitting Room, Kes, and the two Bond films) are available on Blu-ray. Kes is a even a Criterion Blu-ray, and it looks gorgeous. Also, the longer, superior cut of Altman’s Vincent & Theo is available on DVD in the UK.
You can argue about the relative quality of a standard DVD vs. an HD stream, but let’s agree that for every film Adams mentions, that there’s a relatively convenient alternative that’s at least as good. For many of those films, there’s a better option than Netflix streaming. Streamageddon is not a crisis of the magnitude that some are claiming.
Let me put that a different way: If one single person ends up watching Goldfinger on Blu-ray instead of via Netflix streaming, then I think I’m actually in favor of Streamageddon.
Now, it’s true that there are rarer films that were among the 1800 that should cause a little more agitation. Adams does not mention any of these, so I will name a few interesting ones: Philip Kaufman’s Fearless Frank (1967). Robert Thom’s Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969). Norman Jewison’s Gaily, Gaily (1969). Richard Brooks’s brilliant The Happy Ending (1969) and Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977). Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Adventures of Gerard (1970). Walter Grauman’s The Last Escape (1970). John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970). Elia Kazan’s The Visitors (1972). Bruce Geller’s Harry in Your Pocket (1973). Robert Benton’s Still of the Night (1982). Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway (1986). And so on.
(And I’m actually not sure about TV: Were any of the MGM-controlled TV series, like the Ziv action shows or Flipper, on Netflix Instant? I do know that a handful of ’80s TV movies, such as Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal (1982), evaporated from my streaming queue.)
None of the films I listed above ever been available in the US on pre-recorded discs. A few of them (Leo the Last, Harry in Your Pocket, and Still of the Night) were released by MGM as burn-on-demand DVDs, but those were mostly subpar. In theory, those films would’ve looked better via Netflix streaming than through any other commercially available way to see them. But there’s a catch: the Epix library was riddled with bad encodes. By that I mean that the streaming copies of many films had severe technical glitches. Early on I came across two films (Daniel Haller’s The Devil’s Angels and the Leslie Stevens oddity Fanfare For a Death Scene) that were corrupted at length by a severe digital stutter. At which point I stopped futzing with the Epix library, because I don’t care to have viewing experiences ruined unpredictably and there was no good way to QC the streaming encodes ahead of time. Incidentally, one film fan who works for MGM tried repeatedly to get the bad encode for another film, Beyond the Time Barrier, fixed, and no one would listen.
(Another factor to keep in mind is that most of those MGM films were on Netflix in HD because MGM created hi-def masters for its cable channel. So it is or was possible to record your own copy of them, at the same quality level you would have gotten from Netflix. And nobody can take that copy away from you.)
When Stuart Galbraith IV and I discussed this here a few months ago, one of our complaints about streaming was precisely this: that content could vanish en masse and without warning. But I’m not crowing I told you so because that was never my main complaint. Streaming simply looks lousy relative to the other options, so the disappearance of this content is a dubious loss.
If you’re resistant to that argument, perhaps you’ll counter with something like this: Yes, but most people don’t care about image quality and they find Netflix’s one-stop shopping convenient and they don’t have the time or money to look for the best available version of every movie. Well, okay: in any endeavor, you get in what you put out. I get that.
But consider this: Netflix streaming (and the concept of an online streaming library in general) is a relatively new phenomenon. It was only five years ago that selecting a movie to watch and finding that movie and getting it home required a certain expenditure of effort. I’m not pushing nostalgia for that model, but I do think it’s alarming any time someone becomes totally dependent on a particular technology, and helpless when it fails. The tenor of much of the Streamageddon comment I read was along the lines of: these movies are not just gone from Netflix but gone completely, and HELP. I don’t think it’s healthy that movie lovers’ ability to find things to watch begins and ends with Netflix. That deprives those viewers of some things they’ll like and it hurts the rest of us in that it gives Netflix too much power, and cuts off support to alternative (and superior) distribution channels. Those 1800 movies will probably turn up somewhere else soon, but you’re going to have to look for them. In fact, you’re going to have to look for a lot of stuff over the next few years. Netflix’s acquisition of catalog titles (that is, older movies) was essentially flat for the last couple of years; now, it’s dropping. That’s because Netflix, with its present emphasis on producing original TV series, is reshaping itself as an on-line competitor to HBO, not to the local video store it helpfully put out of business a few years ago. The supply chain for old movies and TV episodes, both online and physically, is in the middle of a big shift. Any of us who watch a lot of stuff are all going to reacquire the habit of figuring out where our next rental is coming from. If Streamageddon is a wake-up call for anyone who has become too Netflix-dependent, then, again: that’s a big silver lining.
And let me put that a different way: if you’re a fan of Netflix streaming AND you’re complaining about the loss of these movies, that’s a contradiction you have to resolve. Because huge swaths of disappearing content IS Netflix streaming. It’s not a fuck-up or an aberration. It is the nature of the beast.
And the most important point here is that Streamageddon is trivial compared to the Netflix’s more significant and still ongoing betrayal of its customers: its decision three years ago to stop adding to and replenishing its physical library of films. Anyone who cares enough to notice that a bunch of catalog films disappeared from Netflix’s streaming supply should care even more about Discpocalypse. And yet I didn’t notice any wailing from Slate or CNET or my Facebook feed or Twitter back when that started (or now). Where were you guys when we needed you?