Older films are getting harder to find

Popular streaming services like Netflix make it challenging to find films older than a few years. As these services increasingly dominate our movie watching time, fewer will be watching older movies. The net effect accelerates an already on the rise movie monoculture dominated by Disney, DC, and Fast and Furious. Fewer films that aren’t blockbuster franchises get made.

The problem starts with streaming service UI patterns, most of which have the same opening interface: a big highlighted promo area up top, followed by long rows of thumbnail content segmented into categories. As I wrote earlier, categorization in the rows can feel arbitrary. Navigating through a single row requires too much horizontal scrolling. In addition, the promo area dominates the visual hierarchy but rarely offers more than a single movie or TV series at a time.

So streaming UI makes browsing dicey for any film. Considering older films tend to be a fraction of the content on the opening page, they, in turn, become exponentially more difficult to find.

Even for those that get past the opening UI to run a search, a lot of older movies aren’t available. I checked Instantwatcher, a popular tracking database to help filter through content available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO. For Netflix, two thirds of the movies available were from 2015 or later; only 7% originated from 2000 or earlier. Under 2% were made before 1980. Amazon Prime fares slightly better: 18% of the movie library is from 2000 or before and about 10% from before 1980. Nevertheless, odds are you are not finding a film of interest if it’s more than a few years old.

The counterpoint to these library gaps is The Criterion Channel. It’s a relatively new streaming service that focuses almost entirely on older movies, particularly from the 60s and earlier. Still, as much as I value the brand, Criterion is a niche attraction. Marketing to attract new subscribers is minimal. The service’s editorial focus aims at an already converted audience of classic film lovers.

One might question the loss of older films on popular streaming services. Most older titles are still available with extra leg work. It might take a new service subscription, a one off rental for $7, or a Blu-ray, but it’s doable.

The problem with this argument is hypothetical availability doesn’t equate to a genuine audience. For preservationists, sure, that mail order Blu-ray is worth the wait. But for the overwhelming majority of the public, for whom paid subscription services dominate our viewing time, these movies are effectively gone.

For sheer entertainment value alone, this missing selection is a huge bummer. Take select output from the 80s and 90s. On the action side, there’s Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and Starship Troopers. John Woo in peak form with The Killer and Hard Boiled. For mystery, there is Peter Weir’s Witness and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. The beginning and the creative peak of romantic comedies, from When Harry Met Sally to Notting Hill. Granted, I have some bias considering many of these films played prominently in my younger days. Nevertheless, many are objectively great selections that would play well to a wide audience.

Additionally, classic movies can be a gateway into subject matter covered by small or otherwise independent movies from today. Solaris and Blade Runner pair against Ex Machina and Annihilation from decades later. Early output from David Cronenberg dovetails nicely with Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor from last year. So a void in classic movie availability can ultimately harm small budget films getting greenlit. Less availability for that 70s film means fewer views, which, in turn, means less demand for movies heavily influenced by the original.

Taken to its logical extreme, this indirectly helps the biggest bankrolled films of today: existing, four quadrant IP that can be sold and marketed at a mega global scale. Marvel, Star Wars, and Godzilla remakes become harder to avoid, while movies by small studios like A24 and Neon narrow their audience.

I don’t have a master plan on how to turn the situation around. Demand for select movies begets more demand. In parallel, a lot of great older movies will continue to fade into obscurity. Perhaps given the acceleration and fragmentation of the internet, this was inevitable. It still doesn’t mean this treasure trove of content is gone forever. Recommend older movies to your friends. Extol the virtues of Criterion Channel on social media. Every contribution can open up a new audience to something unexpected and cause them to seek out more films off the beaten path.