A few months ago I encountered a dilemma I thought had been permanently solved in the age of everything/anywhere media: I really needed to see a particular movie, and I couldn’t find it for rent. I was slotted to write an essay on Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the seminal black independent film by Melvin Van Peebles, but it was unavailable on Netflix’s DVD service, my longtime resource for such fare.
This was weird, because I had rented it once before from Netflix, in 2009.
What had happened to it?
I tried Amazon streaming and iTunes, but no dice. I would have run down to my local video store, but I don't have a local video store. I struck out at the San Francisco Public Library as well, leaving me with two choices: I was either going to have to buy the DVD, eating into my fee, or try to download it illegally.
Luckily, I found a last-minute solution when my wife borrowed Sweetback from a library in Marin. But the entire process took about a week, leaving me with less time to write about the film. (Update Sept 23: The San Francisco Public Library does have the film now, apparently. Someone has also posted it on YouTube. I actually talked to Melvin Van Peebles today and asked him if he'd given permission to anyone to put the film on YouTube. "No," he said, "but if I run into them in a dark alley they'll be sorry.")
The episode was disconcerting. I had started using Netflix around the millennium because it seemed like a great idea with no downside (the eventual disappearance of video stores notwithstanding). I was paying a fortune in late fees at my local disc-o-mat, and Netflix’s so-called "long tail" strategy of amassing a vast array of niche content in addition to popular titles appealed to me, as did having the ability to get what looked to be every single movie ever released on DVD delivered straight to my door. And rarely did Netflix disappoint when there was something I wanted to watch, no matter how esoteric.
Which is why I have remained one of the doddering, AARP-eligible movie fans who have never moved to Netflix's streaming service, despite the company’s best efforts to push me in that direction. True, I sometimes feel like my grandmother, who often mistook cell phones for electric razors, but I have my reasons, the main one being the considerable dearth of content on the streaming side. Here’s a for-instance, and as random benchmarks go it’s not bad: IndieWire reported last year that only six of the movies on Spike Lee's list of 86 essential films were available on Netflix streaming. (Lee later revised the list, and Netflix currently streams eight of those 94 films.)
The meager selection is so notorious that The Onion targeted it this year. From the humor website in January:
"In a swift and unexpected departure from their present business model, officials from Netflix revealed Wednesday that the company is currently considering adding a good movie to their online streaming service.....“We feel the addition of a popular, above-average, well-made film would provide a nice counterbalance to our existing library of poorly received sequels, totally unknown indie dramas from four or five years ago that you’ve never heard of, and horrendous direct-to-DVD horror features.”
Now Go the DVDs...
And now it seems, while still nowhere as haphazard as the streaming selection, the company’s once reliably complete DVD selection is becoming less so all the time. After my Sweet Sweetback dilemma, I began to note that some DVDs that used to sit patiently awaiting their turn in my queue had dropped down to the "saved" section, where the time of their availability is listed as "unknown.” I think it is safe to say, you can translate that as “never.” Earlier this year, I mentioned this incredibly shrinking DVD phenomenon to John Taylor, the buyer at San Francisco's Le Video, and he told me Netflix's DVD collection was now absent a growing number of significant titles, including a passel of Woody Allen films.
Woody Allen? I checked, finding all unavailable as DVDs or Blu-rays: Bananas, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, and September. And just a few months later, additionally AWOL from Allen’s oeuvre: Love and Death, Celebrity, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Small Time Crooks, Bullets Over Broadway, and Take the Money and Run. (Via streaming, you can watch only Annie Hall, Scoop, and Manhattan.)
While Netflix’s legacy DVD service still fares relatively well on the Spike Lee test, 11 films from his original list, or 13 percent, are listed as unavailable or “Very long wait.” Watching the mailbox for a “very long wait,” experience shows, is like waiting for The Great Pumpkin. Such staples of home consumption as La Strada, Raising Arizona and The Road Warrior are included in the missing.
Cinephiles in a Bind
Mark Taylor is KQED’s senior interactive producer for arts and culture and teaches media theory and criticism at USF and the Art Institutes of California. He’s on Netflix’s five DVDs-at-at-a-time plan, which costs $27.99 a month ($33.99 including Blu-ray) and has long used Netflix to preview films he’s considering teaching in class. But he says he can no longer rely on the service for research the way he once did.
“My experience is that you end up with a bunch of things that have a very long wait and then they never come,” he said. “Things that were once available aren’t anymore.” Nine of the films at the top of his DVD queue are very long waits, he said, "sitting there forever."
Netflix didn’t want to talk to me about their movie catalogue, leaving me to rely on the speculation of a couple of video store folks that the company’s DVD selection is shrinking most likely because it is not replacing damaged disks.
“Things go out of print and become much harder to find,” said David Hawkins, co-owner of Lost Weekend Video in San Francisco. He said that when something is no longer available through the usual outlets, breaks or is stolen, any store has to make a decision about whether to invest in purchasing a copy at prices that can be exorbitant because of its scarcity. (Which still wouldn’t explain why Netflix doesn’t have DVDs like Bullets Over Broadway, Celebrity or Sweet and Low Down, readily available to purchase on Amazon.)
In any event, for those who still rely on Netflix's DVD service, the conventional wisdom is it would be wise to prepare to be cast adrift entirely. Netflix says it now makes more than twice the profits from streaming than from DVDs. Last quarter, its DVD business lost another 391,000 subscribers, leaving the total number of physical-media dead-enders, still excited by the sight of a fresh red envelope in the mailbox, at 6.3 million in the U.S. That’s compared to about 35 million streamers. Last year, Netflix started closing its distribution centers around the country and recently it stopped shipping on Saturdays. The Guardian reports that Netflix has spent no money on marketing its DVD business this year. Summing it all up, Businessweek wrote last October: “The writing is on the wall ... At some point, there’s an end of the line for Netflix’s DVD business. We just don’t quite know yet when that point will come.”
Where Have All The Good Films Gone?
If and when the inevitable does happen, and Netflix sells off its vast supply of DVDs for drink coasters, what will cinephiles like Mark Taylor and I do? Wait for streaming to become as robust as the DVD service once was?
Unlikely. The death of Netflix DVDs could very well spell the end of the golden days of one-stop shopping. Check out this 2013 Netflix PR video communicating that the company should no longer be looked upon as a massive movie library. What it really is, it says, is the “Internet’s largest television network.”
With every title we add, we remain focused on our goal of being an expert programmer (vocal emphasis in the video) offering a mix that delights our members rather than trying to be a broad distributor. We’re selective about what titles we add to Netflix .... we can’t license everything and also maintain our low prices. So we look for those titles that deliver the biggest viewership relative to the licensing costs. This also means that we’ll forego or choose not to renew some titles that aren’t watched enough relative to their costs.
What Netflix is talking about here is not just the absence of exotic fare like Sweet Sweetback, it affects a lot of newer films, too. And that is not going to change anytime soon, writes Farhad Manjoo in his New York Times piece from March called "Why Streaming Sites So Fail to Satisfy.”
“(W)e aren’t anywhere close to getting a service that allows customers to pay a single monthly fee for access to a wide range of top-notch movies and TV shows,” he writes. “For those of us with even slightly selective preferences, we’ll have to pick between different rental and subscription services offering different catalogs of programs, none very extensive, at vastly different price points.”
The reason? Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle put it this way in January:
Old-fashioned video rental stores, and Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service, are governed by something called “first-sale doctrine”: Once I sell you a physical copy of a movie or song, you can do whatever you like with the physical object, except copy it or show it publicly... But streaming is governed by a different set of rules for digital content. You can’t stream a movie to someone unless the rights holders have agreed to let you do so. ... Essentially, Netflix cannot afford to buy the rights to all the movies you want to watch.
"The renting of videos was not a permissions-based business model," says Ted Hope, a film producer and former head of the San Francisco Film Society who is now the CEO of Fandor, a subscription streaming site that focuses on independent and art films. "Any store could buy and rent videos. So it was ideal for access; you could find anything, and every city had one of these great video stores that specialized in breadth of content. The irony is we now get to hear about everything better than we ever did, but accessing it is a real challenge, because the licensing model hasn’t evolved at the same pace of technology. Consumers are at this moment where there's a gulf between what’s affordable for a platform and what licensers expect to get."
Back to the Video Store?
Megan McArdle wrote in that same article that Netflix’s movie library “is no longer actually a good substitute for a good movie rental place.”
You can't get most of the esoteric stuff online whereas a place like San Francisco's Le Video, run by certified film nuts, is packed with obscure titles you've never even heard of. Ah, Le Video. Mark Taylor still makes the trek across the city from his Potrero Hill home when he can’t procure a film more easily. “Le Video has everything,” he says, exaggerating only slightly. The store, renting videos, DVDs, and Blu-rays since 1980, is home to some 80-90,000 titles, still available even in its less roomy incarnation.
So, considering the jejune grab bag of films available via streaming, and assuming streaming may one day be the only game in town, you wonder: Could there be an opportunity for video stores to become relevant again?
Michael Fox is a local film critic who used to regularly frequent Gramophone Video on Polk Street to review films for the CinemaLit film series he runs at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco. "If I wanted to check out The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, for instance, I went to Gramophone," he said.
So where does he find those films now that the store is closed?
“I’m just not seeing those movies," he said. "I try and research, do more reading online to get a sense of the picture, or talk to people whose opinions I trust, which is not ideal.”
The few remaining local video stores in San Francisco are barely getting by. Still, they are not devoid of patrons. At Lost Weekend Video on Valencia Street recently, maybe 10 customers entered the store over the course of an hour. I asked one, Cass Cantine of San Francisco, why he still got his movies there. “Local video stores like this have exactly what I want to see when I want to see it,” he said.
What about Netflix?
“Netflix doesn’t carry what I want.”
A recent analysis of the video rental industry by business forecasting firm IBIS World held out some hope for brick-and-disc stores, provided they can adapt. While the report said the industry is in “the declining stage of its life cycle,” it conceded that “some niche, specialized stores will be able to maintain a profit.” For example, the report said, stores might offer a deep collection of genre or locally relevant films.
Gwen Sanderson, co-owner of Video Wave in Noe Valley, says for those who want to simply rent a film as opposed to purchasing, many titles are still only available through video stores. She mentions The Seven Percent Solution, a Sherlock Holmes movie starring Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud, unavailable on Netflix or iTunes and purchasable on Amazon for about $18 (and not carried by the San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, or Berkeley public libraries -- still resources for many).
“There are hundreds like this,” Sanderson said. “If we close, people will have to buy them to watch them. The reality is we’re going to leave a lot of options behind that are available to us in our current collection.”
I asked her if she thought video stores could retool themselves as repositories of harder-to-find titles. “I don’t know if we can address that in time to save our business,” she said. But renting rarer films for a higher fee might be one option, she suggested.
Still, if you really want to see a particular film...
... I have found you probably will be able to find it online -- somehow, some way -- though your ability to overcome technical obstacles, overlook inferior image quality, and tolerate dipping into the louche world of illegal downloading will dictate the quality of the experience. Technology reporter Alex Hearn of the UK's Guardian stuck up for physical media recently when he wrote, “When it comes to discs, a flaky broadband connection or buggy BT Homehub can't derail the experience -- something that can't be said for streaming. There's little worse than settling down for an evening movie and watching it buffer for five minutes, before playing 30 seconds then buffering again.”
Still, it’s a mark of just how much stuff is out there that I was able to find several films online that interviewees in this piece mentioned were unavailable. And with tools like Google’s Chromecast I could even stream them to my TV.
Looked terrible. But you get used to it.