The Paradox of Classic Film in the Streaming Age

It has never been easier to consume classic film, and yet it has become much harder to actually become a true cinephile -- to embrace film history and dive deep. That is the central premise of a lengthy Vox article from October, partially titled "The age of streaming is killing classic film." It's an eye-opening read as someone who considers himself part of that apparently dying breed -- the kind that points straight at something that has been in front of your face for awhile. If there's a chalk outline around classic cinema, the main culprit is the rise of streaming services. As the article points out, the catalogues of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu tilt heavily toward more recent films. They generate more interest from consumers, and when you have to pay recurring licensing fees, every cent you spend and every bit of consumer interest counts. I kind of knew all that. What I hadn't considered was the effect of losing your local Blockbuster on all of this. There were no recurring licensing fees for Blockbuster to store a copy of Citizen Kane on the shelf. There was only the spot it took up on the shelf. All of a sudden, all those spots are gone. As such:

[T]he third way — to accidentally evolve into a film buff — has essentially gone extinct. In the ’80s and ’90s, classic films were everywhere, even if you weren’t necessarily looking for them. There were lots of TV channels that simply played old movies in the afternoon, as a way to save money. Video stores were everywhere, and they had shelves devoted to “the classics.” And in the VHS era, at least, so many movies were released on cassette — even more than have since made it to DVD, to say nothing of Blu-ray or streaming.


“The industry has always been biased toward recency,” [David] Bordwell says. “The old VHS store had the new releases on the wall, then certain shelves for ‘sort of recent’ releases, then the back shelves for the back catalog.”

But at least that back catalog was there, was still physically present, in a way it just isn’t on streaming services, which boast very small collections of older films that rarely include the biggest classics of them all.

As the article points out, there are still other ways for a budding film buff to get their fix. There is the family member serving as gatekeeper/tutor. There is the vastness of the Internet, where, with just a little research, someone can begin to understand the classic influences on current films and just start exploring. But there is no way to do this accidentally anymore, which means something has been lost.

I'm not going to sit here and weep for the Blockbusters of the world. On the balance of things, I'd much rather have Netflix and Amazon Prime, which put thousands of films, including many that are rare and would not otherwise be seen, at my fingertips than I would go back to a world of Blockbusters just so a few more copies of Casablanca are lying around.

But I do think it's important to recognize that at least one good thing (though probably more) was lost in the process of thousands of brick-and-mortar rental places shuttering. And I think it's important, as a consequence of all that, to champion classic film whenever possible. Talk about the classics with your friends. Encourage them to seek out cinema's seminal works. Loan them your copy of City Lights. Buy a subscription to FilmStruck (or wait, like I am, until it can stream on more devices). Send them to our Film 101 series. A void has been left. We've got to fill it.