Movie streaming shouldn't mean obliterating the history of film

By Dan Raile , written on July 12, 2014

From The News Desk

Of the top 20 movies in IMDb’s list of “100 Greatest Movies of All Time”, only Titanic and Forrest Gump are available for streaming on Netflix. For those willing to pay, Amazon Prime’s Instant Video does a better job: with all but three movies available to “rent” for 24 hours at $3 or $4 a pop.

The IMDb list is incredibly pop-centric and would dismay many a seasoned cinephile. But the gaps in availability of these seminal flicks points out a real problem with online video streaming, and belies the “everything available, all the time” ethos of the internet.

There’s a well known, ancient Chinese proverb that goes: “After three days without reading, talk becomes flavorless.” Since this quotation predates the invention of film by some centuries, it doesn’t explicitly include the medium, but it should be common sense that film can season a conversation in much the same way a good book or article can.

But whereas one can pretty easily get access to vast libraries of books and archives of articles on the Internet, with film there are fewer options. Beyond Amazon and Netflix, one can try to download more obscure titles from the crowd-sourced offerings on the PirateBay or similar members-only file-sharing communities like RevolutionTT. But those collections are even more piecemeal, more difficult to navigate, and of dubious legality. Some classic films are available in full on Youtube, but again its hit or miss.

As a culture, we are getting precariously close to losing the access to the motion picture canon that we gained with the advent of VHS and movie rental outlets in the ‘80s. For now, most major US cities still have a boutique rental shoppe or two, but declining business means they constantly have to fight for survival.

Netflix, as we all know by now, was the undoing of Blockbuster. Blockbuster was an easy target due to its bloated network of brick-and-mortar franchises, and its focus on new releases and mainstream fare. But smaller rental outfits survived because they provided better, more carefully curated film collections and employed film buffs capable of recommending great movies you never knew you were missing out on. No algorithm yet written can rival that expertise, and anyway most algorithms have a more proscribed archive of films to recommend.

San Francisco, for example, has a handful of holdout video stores. Perhaps the most visible is Lost Weekend, due to its presence on a choice stretch Valencia Street, which has quickly become one of the city’s most precious. In recent years, facing declining membership and rentals, Lost Weekend opened a tiny basement space, the CineCave, where it hosts ticketed comedy shows and film screenings four or five nights out of the week. The space has quickly became an anchor for a new generation of stand up comics, many of whom have moved on (and out, to LA or New York) to writing gigs and bigger venues.

“If it wasn’t for the CineCave, we’d already be out of business,” says Christy Colcord of Lost Weekend. But even the increase in ticket sales hasn’t stopped the bleeding. Currently, Lost Weekend is exploring consolidating its video collection into a smaller portion of the space, and renting out the front to another retail outfit.

Le Video, a rental store in the city’s Inner Sunset neighborhood, has similarly rented part of its space to a bookstore, and is running an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to meet a rent increase.

Both stores are examples of small businesses innovating out of necessity, as innovations in online commerce disrupt the retail model across the board. If they can find a successful formula and endure without diminishing their offering, it would be an example of the market delivering on its promise of improving offerings to consumers through competition.

If they can’t, it will represent a real loss in access to a cultural trove and a link to the past. Beyond all the films we’ll lose access to, we’d also be losing yet another locus of gathering, conversation and encounter that was once the heart of the American meatspace. Library branches are closing and selling off inventory, Elk’s Lodges and their ilk have faded to oblivion, and there are ever fewer places to go and talk with the people in your neighborhood without having to buy a drink first.

“House of Cards” may signal the elevation of television to the level of writing, production and performance once the exclusive domain of film, but is it so good as to make up for the loss of Capra, Chaplin, Huston and nearly every other historical cultural artifact of the first century of film?

When mainstream America first bought into the internet, it was sold as a revolution in the spread of information, knowledge and ideas. The past twenty years have borne that out pretty well. But if the current vectors of disruption continue, Netflix and its rivals could quietly pull the history of film out of circulation for everyone as they push recommendations and original content to their users.