The Availability Gap: What We Lose When Netflix Wins

As physical media dies a steady death, it’s taking a good chunk of film history with it. It’s easy — convenient, even — to assume that streaming services will fill in the gaps, but it’s not true, as you quickly find when you start searching for specific movies from the pre-streaming era rather than just looking for something decent to watch.

At KQED Arts, Jon Brooks runs the numbers, beginning with his unexpectedly convoluted quest to track down a copy of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a title he’d previously rented from Netflix’s disc-by-mail service:

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.

“Sweetback,” if you don’t know it — and if your film education has come in the online era, you may well not — is a bonafide landmark, the 1971 story of an African-American outlaw that director and star Melvin Van Peebles proudly (if a smidge hyperbolically) advertised as being “Rated X by an All-White Jury.” It’s in print on DVD, last issued for its 30th anniversary in 2001, but unavailable for streaming or digital rental, which leaves those who want to experience a pivotal moment in the history of black film with precious few choices: Hit up your local video store, which unless you live in an increasingly small number of American cities, you don’t have, pay $16.98 plus shipping to buy it from Amazon or another online retailer, or pray that your library has or can get a copy. (Okay, you can probably find a place to illegally download it as well, but let’s try to stay on the up-and-up for a moment.) As Brooks writes, Netflix is steadily winding down its DVD business, shunting many once-available titles into the dreaded “Long Wait” column, leaving us to do the detective work of hunting down which movies are available where and how.

The shift to streaming technologies is often viewed in terms of democratization: No longer do art house-deprived viewers have to wait months to see the movie their social-media friends in New York are raving about. But it’s hard to think of anything less democratic than a state of affairs where the price for a single viewing of “Sweet Sweetback,” or any of the untold numbers of movies waiting to strike a digital deal, has effectively jumped above $20. It’s not just Van Peebles, either: Brooks found 14 — fourteen — Woody Allen movies effectively unavailable through Netflix, including “Bananas,” “Deconstructing Harry” and “Bullets Over Broadway.” Want to see how “Bullets” stacks up against the recent musical version? Hope you’re ready to pay $12 and add it to your permanent collection.

With a few blissful exceptions, video stores are dead, and no amount of bemoaning over the current state of cinephilia will bring them back. What we can do is pester providers like Netflix to expand their offerings, maybe even at the cost of paying more than $2 a week, and pony up for alternatives services: Hulu Plus, Mubi, Fandor, NoBudge, Vyer Films, and on and on. It’s a supply and demand marketplace, but when a movie vanishes, it takes more effort to make that demand heard.

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