Essays · Streaming Guides

Netflix’s Classic Cinema Problem

Netflix’s U.S. streaming movie library isn’t actually that terrible… so long as you’re not looking for any movies older than a college student.
Buster Keaton (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
By  · Published on June 11th, 2017

Netflix’s U.S. streaming movie library isn’t actually that terrible… so long as you’re not looking for any movies older than a college student.

In the past year or so, there have been a number of articles written either asking or addressing the question, “why does streaming Netflix’s movie collection suck so much [in the US]?” There are numbers to back up these concerns; between 2013 to 2016 the streaming content library has reportedly shrunk by over 40%, due at least in part to Netflix’s shift towards emphasizing their original and exclusive content.  There is a definite case to be made here, and a number of people have already made it, so I’m not going to be needlessly repetitive.

While their selection of streaming titles has shrunk, and what remains definitely follows Sturgeon’s law, if you’re looking for quality releases from the last twenty years or so there’s still a decent selection available. You’ve got most of your biggest working filmmakers represented—Christopher Nolan (Following, Memento, The Prestige), Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds), the Coen Brothers (Burn After Reading, Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men), David Fincher (Zodiac), Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Moonrise Kingdom), the list goes on. Or, to give another example, say you followed the coverage of Cannes and are excitedly anticipating the release of the films screened there. You can watch Force Majeure, the last film from Ruben Östlund, the writer/director of the Palme D’Or winner The SquareWe Need to Talk About Kevin, the last film directed by Lynne Ramsay prior to You Were Never Really Here, which won Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix) and Best Screenplay; The Cut, directed by Fatih Akin, whose In The Fade took home a Best Actress prize (Diane Kruger). Overall, of the nineteen competition films, eight are directed by individuals represented in the streaming Netflix catalog. Sure, it’s not quite half, but it’s still the makings of a serious movie marathon. Room for improvement? Most definitely. But it’s not exactly a desert either.

However, there is a particular aspect of Netflix’s shrinking library that has not received much attention, and it’s that this reduction has affected a particular category of films more than others—older films. And I’m not just talking about black-and-white or silent films. I’m talking about things released before 2000. Of the 1,350 Drama titles currently available on streaming Netflix in the US, only 97 were released prior to 2000. Even if we consider 1920, the year when the oldest of these films (The Daughter of the Dawn) was released, the “starting point”—that is, not even going back to the late 1880s/1890s, when film was first invented—then 82% of film history is represented in a measly 7% of streaming Netflix’s Drama library. A bias towards more recent releases is to be expected, but this is pretty extreme—and it seems to be growing.

Is this a major world problem? Of course not. But as someone who first started exploring film beyond the latest Hollywood releases through streaming Netflix, it’s disappointing. Scrolling through my viewing history of those formative years, almost all of those films that I streamed on Netflix on a whim but that ended up significantly influencing the way I see the world and the course of my studies, and therefore the general course of my life—M, Battleship Potemkin, The War Game, F. W. Murnau’s Faust, Sherlock Jr., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 8 1/2, the list goes on—are no longer part of the streaming catalog, and as 97 out of 1,350 would suggest, they did not receive comparable replacements.

Now, there are two pretty obvious arguments to be made here, and they definitely have some validity:

  1.  What about its DVD rental service?
  2. Isn’t that what streaming services like Filmstruck are for?

While DVD rentals are still profitable and therefore unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, those iconic red envelopes are no longer symbolic of the Netflix brand, or, for many subscribers, the Netflix experience—while Netflix continues to add new subscribers on the whole, the DVD service has lost, according to one source, nearly 10 million subscribers in the past five and a half years (including my parents, whose account I still mooch off of—don’t give me that look, I’m a college student, I don’t have money). And while fewer people are paying for DVD rentals, the number of streaming titles has shrunk considerably (from around 6,500 in July 2015 to approximately 4,600 late last year), with an ever-increasing slant towards Netflix Originals and newer releases.

If you take an Introductory Psychology class, one thing that will probably come up is that when it comes to relationships one of the biggest (if not the biggest, period) factors is proximity, as in, how easy is it to have a relationship with this other person? When it comes to what we watch I’d say the same forces are at work. Back when Netflix was synonymous with red envelopes, one of the major appeals besides the convenience and the monthly vs. per-movie pricing was how much larger a selection it featured in comparison to a Blockbuster store. It opened up a world of movies where foreign classics and recent Hollywood releases were equally accessible, and while in a certain sense (read: DVDs) that hasn’t changed, what has changed is our notion of convenience. Nothing short of streaming instantly on the closest rectangular device truly counts as convenient anymore. As such, the convenience factor of Netflix, once a great equalizing factor, is now the exact opposite.

And then there’s Filmstruck. Filmstruck is great, but what I’m talking about here is not how streaming Netflix now has less appeal to the sorts of people who subscribe to Filmstruck than it used to, but how streaming Netflix is no longer the sort of place where people might discover that they are the sort of people to whom a service like Filmstruck might appeal. After all, most people are not like Greg Gaines from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—they don’t have robe-wearing hipster dads to introduce them to the best hits of the Criterion Collection at a young age.

One of the great things about modern cinephilia was that, at least for a while there, it seemed to be shaking off some of its more elitist undertones, back when people could construct a respectable cinephile starter kit via Netflix in its most prevalent form, whether that be DVDs during the reign of red envelopes or in earlier years of streaming (after all, “I don’t have Netflix” has become what “I don’t have cable” used to be; that is, not completely unheard of, but surprising to hear). But what I had taken for granted for a trend is starting now to seem more like a passing fad. You might say that you don’t hear too many adolescents bemoaning the loss of older films from the streaming Netflix catalogue while they’re busy binging the latest season of The 100 and whatever else it is the kids watch these days (then again, part of this whole thing is the issue that you don’t miss what you don’t know you’re missing—but that doesn’t make it less of a loss). You might even have a point. But thinking back on the fourteen-year-old STEM magnet school attendee I once was, who started teaching herself the basics of film theory from library books after she had her mind blown by watching Fritz Lang’s M on streaming Netflix, I can’t help but feel a little sad.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.