In theory, one of the best things about living in 2017 is that we have over a century of recorded entertainment that we can enjoy virtually anytime we like. But in practice, we’re still not there. And it’s all because video streaming services like Netflix only care about signing up new customers who just want completely new content like Stranger Things. That singled-minded drive is ruining Netflix.
Unlike just a few short decades ago, it’s now technologically possible for streaming services to deliver amazing old music from decades like the 1910s and gangster movies from the 1930s over those strange pipes we call the internet. But as a fan of old movies, it still feels like we’re in the Stone Age. Services like FilmStruck have cropped up to deliver fantastic classic films, but its collection of old movies is a tiny fraction of the history of film, to say nothing of the abysmal selection on Netflix.
Back in 2010, Patton Oswalt coined an term for the phenomena of having everything available to watch anytime you wanted. Oswalt called it Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever. The acronym didn’t stick, but this idea has been the promise of many generations that came before us. Futurists of the 20th century predicted that one day every piece of recorded media ever would become available in vast libraries delivered electronically to our homes. They were saying this even before the internet became a mainstream piece of American infrastructure.
As just one example, artificial intelligence pioneer Dr. Arthur L. Samuel wrote an article in 1964 for New Scientist titled, “The Banishment of Paper-Work,” that described just such a dream:
One will be able to browse through the fiction section of the central library, enjoy an evening’s light entertainment viewing any movie that has ever been produced (for a suitable fee, of course, since Hollywood will still be commercial), or inquire as to the previous day’s production figures for tin in Bolivia - all for the asking via one’s remote terminal.
But sadly we still haven’t quite lived up to that dream.
Why was my Noirvember (an unofficial month for movie fans who like watching old film noir movies) so difficult? Netflix doesn’t care about old movies at all. All Netflix cares about is driving new subscriptions to its servic, a the company has calculated that shows like Stranger Things make people want to sign up. That’s not so much the case with old classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or pretty much anything produced before 1980.
“The fun thing about something that’s new is that people get excited enough to join,” Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told investors last week according to Bloomberg. “That’s why we’re kind of constantly reinforcing the excitement of that.”
As Bloomberg reports, there’s virtually no correlation between what’s on streaming services like Amazon Prime video streaming and Netflix and the historical and cultural significance of the movies that are made available. Netflix plans to spend $8 billion in 2018 to produce roughly 60 original shows and 80 original films—all for the express purpose of exciting the masses who only care about new content. It would take only a tiny fraction of that budget to license older films and make them available to a new generation of film lovers.
And when it comes to the absence of classic movies, it’s not like we’re talking about just small films with little known actors. Want to watch something like the Humphrey Bogart film Deadline USA (1952)? You can order a DVD of the film from Spain, but it doesn’t even have a US disc release, let alone a streaming option. Pirates are in luck, because somebody recorded the film off of Turner Classic Movies and made it available via torrent. But Gizmodo would never advocate such a thing, of course.
Last night, I was out at dinner with my dad and two brothers when a Dean Martin Christmas song came on. It started a discussion about Christmas music (none of us are huge on it) and Dean Martin (we all love him). My dad and I agreed that Dean Martin was a great actor and I mentioned that I’d recently seen some great movies starring Martin, including Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959). My two brothers, 31 and 28 years old respectively, were shocked that anyone would care about old movies.
“How do you watch old movies?” the 31-year-old asked, unable to grasp the appeal.
“On a TV,” I replied.
We’re all smartasses in the Novak family.
But that pretty much sums it up. My brothers watch shows like Stranger Things, and my dad’s perfectly happy with catching snippets of old movies on TCM for his nostalgia hit. My dad is the only one of the four of us who has consistently had a cable subscription. Fans of old movies like me, a 34-year-old who’s secretly 90, have far fewer options.
And as long as the market research at Netflix shows that new original content is the way to drive new subscriptions, we’ll remain a long ways from Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.