Maybe the long tail is just accidental overhead.

Zach Schonfeld writes at Newsweek about the slow death of the classic film:

Reed Hastings, the Netflix CEO who co-founded the company long before “streaming” entered the popular lexicon, was born during a fairly remarkable year for film. 1960 was the year Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho astounded and terrified audiences, influencing a half-century of horror to come. It was a year of outstanding comedies (Billy Wilder’s The Apartment), outstanding epics (Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus) and outstandingly creepy thrillers (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—a close cousin of Psycho).

But in the vast world of Netflix streaming, 1960 doesn’t exist. There’s one movie from 1961 available to watch (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single film from 1960. It’s like it never happened. There aren’t any movies from 1963 either. Or 1968, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock films on Netflix. No classics from Sergio Leone or François Truffaut. When Debbie Reynolds died last Christmas week, grieving fans had to turn to Amazon Video for Singin' in the Rain and Susan Slept Here. You could fill a large film studies textbook with what’s not available on Netflix.

Netflix’s selection of classic cinema is abominable—and it seems to shrink more every year or so. As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers. Netflix’s DVD subscribers enjoy a much wider selection (four million customers still opt to receive discs in the mail), but as the company shifts its focus to streaming and original content, cinephiles fear the cinematic canon is being left behind.

In 1999, Qwest Communications ran a commercial for their broadband infrastructure that featured a weary traveler stopping at a dingy motel in the middle of nowhere. The bored teenager behind the front desk describes the establishment’s paltry amenities, but to his question about entertainment, she responds “All rooms have every movie ever made, in every language, any time—day or night.”

At the time the commercial originally aired, we shared the traveler’s slack-jawed amazement (“How is that… possible?”), but that was the promise of the information superhighway. Nearly limitless distribution of digital media over an Internet that was expanding and getting faster would mean that we no longer had to be limited to what stores could fit on their shelves or afford to ship at least a pallet’s worth of. The future, we were told, lay in selling less of more.

Except that is not what happened.

More than twenty years ago, a friend of mine and I stood in the pen aisle at a newly opened Office Depot store. Looking at the wall of pens in front of us and trying to find one that wasn’t a cheaply made piece of plastic, my friend turned to me and said, “You know, I don’t want more choices—I want better things.” That is how I feel about Netflix, and with increasing frequency, about technology in general. The original promise of Netflix was basically to fulfill the prediction of that Qwest commercial—every movie ever made, any time, day or night. Instead, we have ended up with an unpredictable assortment of movies from the last year, some original content, and sci-fi shows of middling quality from Canadian TV.

We have ended up where we are because while the technology that Netflix uses is very cool and scalable, it also costs money, and Netflix needs to make a profit. We had the long tail there for a bit, but it turns out that is still overhead and as in any business, gets eaten away by the need to find efficiencies. Increasingly, we find ourselves in a world where businesses' need to make a profit is scouring away the better things that drew us to those businesses in the first place—Netflix's vast back-catalog that gets jettisoned as they seek ever-increasing subscriber numbers, newspapers' quality journalism and investigative teams that get laid off as ad revenues decline, and probably soon, high-profile "golden age of TV"-style cable dramas as changing market structures start cutting into subscriber fees.

If we want better things rather than just more choices, then we need to start thinking about how we make that the focus of our economic and creative ecosystems, rather than hoping that profit-driven models continue to accidentally create decent stuff.

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