One streaming platform is prioritizing classic catalog titles

Sunday, July 29th, 2018

I’m not at all nostalgic for video-rental stores like Blockbuster, but they did have their advantages:

Over five billion rentals have come through 40,000 Redbox kiosks since the company’s launch in 2002 — they now control 51% of the physical rental market in the US. But even the biggest Redbox machine only holds around 600 discs, covering up to 200 titles — no match for even a tiny video store.

Since 2010, the total number of feature films available to stream on Netflix has dropped from 6,755 to 3,686 as of writing this — a loss of more than three thousand titles. There are far more television shows available on Netflix than in 2010 — up from 530 to 1,122 — but that doesn’t make up for the massive decline in streamable films.

And, as BGR notes, “Not only is Netflix primarily focused on generating original TV content, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos a few years ago said that 66% of all Netflix subscribers don’t even watch movies.”

In 2018, over 375 million people subscribe to Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Streaming has become the dominant way in which most of us consume media, but little consideration has been given to what we’ve lost in saying goodbye to the tactile, human experience of visiting a video store.


Netflix’s current streaming catalogue of 3,686 films seems paltry when compared to even the most average Blockbuster, which stocked in the neighborhood of 10,000 titles. Amazon Prime’s streaming library is three times the size of Netflix’s, with 14,214 films now streaming — Amazon also offers an additional 20,265 titles via their rental service for an additional fee. Hulu has less than half as many movies as Netflix with 1,448 titles now streaming. On HBO NOW, that number falls to only 727 films.


No streaming service has been able to match the breadth and depth of a decades-old video store — at least not yet. Netflix’s disc rental service included 93,000 titles as of 2015 — a comparable library to somewhere like Eddie Brandt’s. But, disc rental isn’t a priority for Netflix: in 2016, they spent almost $1 billion promoting their streaming platform, but the physical rental service “doesn’t even have a marketing budget,” reports AP News.

And, even with 125 million streaming subscribers, Netflix still relies on physical media more than one might assume. AP News notes that Netflix makes “an operating profit of roughly 50 percent on DVD subscriptions, after covering the expense of buying discs and postage to and from its distribution centers…DVD profits have helped subsidize Netflix’s streaming expansion outside the U.S., a push that has accumulated losses of nearly $1.5 billion during the past five years [2011–2016.] The DVD service has made $1.9 billion during the same period, enabling Netflix to remain profitable.”

Besides Netflix’s physical DVD and Blu Ray service, the best, more accessible option for physical media rental for most is one of the 40,000 Redbox kiosks currently operating in America. While Redbox does carry many new release titles long before they reach streaming, when I looked up the Redbox closest to me in Hollywood, I found that only 168 titles were available in the machine, most of them from the last three years — not exactly an extensive selection, nor one that appeals to viewers interested in film history beyond the last decade.

The dearth of classic films and focus on new content becomes more apparent when taking a closer look at what’s available by decade on each of the major streaming services. According to JustWatch, two titles made before 1930 are now streaming on Netflix — they offer only 15 films made before 1950, 26 made before 1970, and 98 made before 1990. By streaming fewer than one hundred films to cover the medium’s first one hundred years, Netflix is doing an egregious disservice to film’s first century.

With four times as many titles as Netflix overall, it’s not surprising that Amazon Prime offers far more classic titles as well — 77 films on the platform were made before 1930; 661 before 1950; 1,292 before 1970; and 3,048 before 1990. But Amazon is the exception among streaming platforms — Hulu offers 115 films made by 1990 or earlier, and on HBO NOW, there are only 55 films that meet that same criteria.

There’s simply no question that new and exclusive content is the priority for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. 3,155 of the 3,686 films now available to stream on Netflix are from the last ten years — 85% of their entire catalogue. On Hulu, 75% of all movies are from the last ten years too. And while Amazon Prime certainly bests all other major platforms when it comes to “old movies”, 59% of their currently streaming films are from the last ten years as well.

But, one streaming platform is prioritizing classic catalogue titles: FilmStruck, which launched in late 2016. FilmStruck self-describes as featuring “iconic films of all kinds from Hollywood classics to independent, foreign and cult cinema. As the exclusive streaming home of TCM Select and the Criterion Collection, FilmStruck is the world’s largest classic film vault.”

FilmStruck partnered with Warner Bros. to (eventually) bring films like CASABLANCA, CITIZEN KANE, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? to a streaming platform for the first very time. Including Criterion Collection titles (which are available for a small additional monthly fee) FilmStruck’s catalogue is still growing with 1,975 titles available. But more than 86% of their library is from 1990 or earlier, providing film fans with exclusive access to essential titles that are being overlooked and de-prioritized by other streaming services.

The idea that beloved, superlative films like CASABLANCA and CITIZEN KANE can only be accessed with a subscription to an arthouse/classic focused streaming service is quite frankly insane. THE GODFATHER trilogy is now available on Netflix, but that’s only been the case since January of 2018. Even something as ubiquitous as STAR WARS is only available in its first, unedited iteration as a VHS box set from 1995 — and the original trilogy isn’t currently streaming anywhere.

And of course, most major streaming platforms are deep into the original content game. Netflix has released 25 original films and added 7.4 million new subscribers thus far in 2018 — that’s as many releases as the six major studios combined. They plan to release 80 films by the end of the year. The focus on new content creation over the preservation of and access to catalogue titles for most streaming services is quite clear.

There are many hurdles to making the classic available:

The biggest hurdle affecting deep catalogue home video releases, going all the way back to the dawn of the format, has been music rights, since from EASY RIDER onward, when pop song recordings became common on film soundtracks. Contracts only covered theatrical and TV, and even after they started accounting for home video, they didn’t factor the invention of DVD. Some of the earliest home video releases are the rarest now because they were put out before the lawyers realized you needed to make a new deal for the new media.

Now that there are only three major labels, with the downturn of physical media and the slivers of pennies that come from streaming, they and the artists they control get significant money from licensing to TV, film, and commercials, so their incentive is to take the studios for all they’ve got, feeling they have them over a barrel, since many times the songs are often so embedded in the films, they can’t be replaced, or directors won’t approve of the change. But in turn, studios are loath to pay the inflated music fees because they feel the cost spent in clearing the songs will not be recouped by whatever sales a title may have, and it’s cheaper just to do nothing.

The second biggest problem keeping movies off of physical media is ancient, expired intellectual property rights, usually involving books or plays that were originally only cleared for so many years because back then, nobody thought about repertory demand years after the fact. Warner Bros. has had a big problem with this in particular, a lot of Golden Age classics that they own — BEYOND THE FOREST, LETTY LYNTON, CEILING ZERO — can’t be cleared for video because the estates of the authors of those original source materials can’t come to terms about relicensing the story rights. This is what held up NIGHTMARE ALLEY for years, and likely also what has kept one of the greatest comedies of all time, Olsen & Johnson’s HELLZAPOPPIN’, in limbo.

Since the rise of “secondary studios” from the ’70s onward, lots of movies that went out through the majors are now reverting to other companies that are only interested in them as properties to be developed rather than preserved. Bristol-Myers-Squibb owns the original THE HEARTBREAK KID, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and SLEUTH, and they’ve done nothing with them since the early noughts Anchor Bay releases, aside from sell remake rights. We’re beginning to see that on a larger scale with Morgan Creek, Regency, Revolution, and others — the old deals are expiring, what new deals are being made are just cherry-picking the hits and leaving the deep cuts behind.


  1. Bob Sykes says:


    I’ve seen all of them. CASABLANCA is the only one I’ve seen more than once. Some like CITIZEN KANE and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINA WOOLF, I really didn’t like and would not recommend to anyone. And I’m not a fan of Orson Welles or Kubrick.

    If Netflix and Redbox, et al., are serving their shareholders, they are tracking what their customers want to see and giving it to them.

    This whole article is typical lefty puritanical nonsense. We know what you need, you are bad not to want it, and we are going to give it to you good and hard. Shut up peasants.

  2. Faze says:

    They are tracking what their customers want to see and giving it to them

    This is what you’d think. But having worked in pay tv for many years, I can tell you the rights situation is even more complicated than it is presented in the post above. Netflix, HBO or Amazon don’t show the films they or their audience WANT, they show the films they can GET. And that business is full of smart legal and financial people who play a long game.

  3. Kirk says:

    Isn’t there a huge difference between what the streaming services can sell, due to rights, and the DVD rental market? I thought that the rights were written differently for the two–The physical DVD has one set of rules, and the streaming stuff is treated almost like broadcasting, if I remember right.

    At some point in my life, I’ve seen a really lengthy and detailed explanation for all this, with a heavy helping of “Hollywood Accounting Practices” that explained a lot of the inner workings of this stuff. I wish I remember where the hell I saw it, so I could share it.

  4. Graham says:

    Interesting. I’m usually pretty pro-copyright and pro-IP rights but it gets insane, predatory and parasitic surprisingly fast.

    I am familiar with the music rights issue from the legendary case of WKRP in Cincinnati, a tv show first held up for years by music rights and then, as far as I can tell, only ever released with dubbed synthemusic in place of real songs. Surprising how distasteful I find that once I know about it. You wouldn’t think it that big a deal for a sitcom.

    I had not heard that DVD required separate deals from VHS. That’s legal cheeseparing at it’s finest. I suppose if the original home video deals were very specific and limited to VHS/Beta or to “tape”. Otherwise as a judge I’d have ruled DVD a subset of “home video” and any deal that said anything like “home video” would implicitly include them.

  5. Kirk says:

    Graham, I don’t think there is a difference between VHS and DVD. The difference is, if I remember right, between streaming services and the physical rental market. One is treated as quasi-broadcast, and the other is not.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    What’s the rationale for intellectual property again? To foster creativity. Supposing it doesn’t accomplish that, for whatever reason? Then respect for intellectual property will be an extremely hard sell, and piracy will be normalized. That’s why it matters that new movies aren’t as good as the classics. It also matters when they won’t even sell us the movies we want when they have them and we’re willing to pay for them. This is how they stifle their own competition.

    If new movies were better, none of this would matter so much. If new movies were cheaper, and old-but-good movies were sold, that would also help. It’s frustrating to pay good money for what turns out to be garbage. You feel like a chump.

    Market forces won’t help. Few will press for release of the more obscure classics, for the simple reason that they don’t know the classics even exist. Every other market is driven by information, but IP actually controls the information. It actively prevents an informed consumer.

  7. Kirk says:

    Harry Jones,

    One of the things I think they missed out on with copyright is that we should have set it up such that you only get copyright if you maintain the availability of your product at a reasonable price. If I can’t buy a new copy of a book for what it sold for originally, then the copyright should lapse automatically. The rationale behind copyright has been forgotten, and hijacked by the rent-seekers who took over the publishing, music, and movie industries.

    Hell, take a look at the whole “Hollywood Accounting Practices” world, and the entire legal justification for copyright goes away. According to Hollywood, even blockbusters like Titanic haven’t made a dime’s worth of profit. Ever. Which is how they screw naive actors, writers, and other creative types–”You’ll get a share of the profits…” “Oh, we never made a profit, after we skimmed off all our “costs”…”.

    The whole thing is immoral as hell. It’s no damn wonder that parasites like Harvey Weinstein grew up in that industry, and thrived in it.

  8. Chris says:

    Kirk, I agree. If they have these ridiculous copyright lengths then there has to be some requirement that the material is always for sale during that time in the original format and in all applicable media. You don’t sell, then no copyright. Pricing would have to be determined in some manner.

  9. Sam J. says:

    “…You don’t sell, then no copyright…”

    That’s a good idea.

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