Almost half a century ago, if you had enough disposable income and a certain amount of technical agility, you could have your own YouTube channel. Sort of. You could share your videos with friends who came over to your place to watch them, or you lend them to pals who had hardware similar to yours.
Sony introduced the Portapak, a 20-pound camera-video recorder pairing, in the late ’60s. The music journalist Lisa Robinson and her husband, Richard Robinson, a writer and record producer, were among the first Manhattanites to adopt the technology. “We schlepped that damn thing everywhere,” Ms. Robinson recollected. They taped live shows and their own parties — “we recorded Lou Reed and the rock critic Richard Meltzer doing an acoustic version of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ at our house.” When Sony introduced the Betamax VCR the next decade, they taped television shows and showed their tapes to friends on an early projection TV.
The Betamax format compelled a micro approach: early cassettes could record only an hour’s worth of material. Once the Sony rival JVC introduced the VHS format, which could record two hours on a single cassette, and subsequent refinements yielded variable recording speeds, the idea of Hollywood movies on home video became a practical reality.
Movies on home video created a new and highly lucrative revenue stream for Hollywood. But as I learned in the mid-1980s when I worked at the consumer electronics magazine Video Review, as much money as home video made, the movie industry always hated it. The idea of consumers actually owning motion pictures was anathema to them. This never changed; as the DVD format took off in the 1990s, I remember one conversation with an insider, who said, “Hollywood can’t wait to stop making little aluminum discs.” Nobody, in my experience, would ever speak of this on the record. Indeed, beating the bushes to even get a home video executive to do so now, I came up with nothing.
Which brings us to movies on streaming video, which this new column will be addressing regularly in Arts & Leisure and online. By streaming I mean theoretically unlimited access to movies, in the form of digital files viewable on a wide variety of personal devices, from a home-theater projection system to a phone, accessible to consumers via an ever-growing number of à la carte services. Even if you buy titles for permanent use, as several services offer, they’re not physical things that you have in your home; you can’t really lend them out. (Yes, many services allow multiple household members to log in, but it’s not as if you’re going to extend that privilege to a random acquaintance.)
True ownership once again rests relatively securely (piracy aside) with the corporations that own the copyrights. While corporate interests love it, creative artists are more skeptical. “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film,” the director David Lynch lamented almost a decade ago. His words have not been widely heeded. Recently, in The Washington Post, a writer boasted that he not only watches streaming television series on whatever device he likes, but that he does so at double speed.
This is called consumer choice. Which has many, many discontents. The expectation that streaming video would yield a garden of nearly endless cinematic delights to the waiting world is in some respects starting to pay off; sites like Fandor, Mubi, the Warner Archive service and the newly introduced Filmstruck look like individual Edens to serious movie buffs, but the bigger players — like Netflix and Amazon — seem less concerned with what looks to them like niche interests.
In October, Matt Zoller Seitz, a TV and film critic for New York Magazine and rogerebert.com, observed on Twitter, “I do worry that the cultural dominance of Netflix, which no longer cares about older films, is destroying cinephilia as we once knew it.”
Credit20th Century Fox
This started a still-continuing conversation on and off the amorphous entity known as Film Twitter, yielding observations like “The film selection on Netflix is much worse than your average Blockbuster. It’s like a gas station DVD collection.”
The service has 47 million subscribers in the United States, and its movie library is affected not only by the limitations of particular licensing deals, which means that the number of titles is constantly contracting and expanding, but also by what subscribers actually watch. To use the contemporary buzzword “curated,” Netflix would argue that it does indeed take a curatorial approach to movies, but one that’s appropriate to a consumer product rather than a museum. It does not see its mission as a conservational one. And the hard truth about the future of streaming services is that even those with the loftiest stated ambitions will be obliged to balance those ambitions against market demand.
Because of Netflix’s interface, its jam-packed welcome menu, and the sheer amount of material that turns up in browsing — not to mention what Mr. Seitz terms its cultural dominance — a lot of users have the impression that the service is one-stop entertainment shopping that has everything. That’s simply not true. And Netflix doesn’t aspire, or pretend, to have everything, either.
In the department of unintended paradox, however, one of the most heralded recent original TV series on Netflix is “Stranger Things.” This sci-fi/horror story set in the 1980s draws on a rich swath of cinematic influences from that era, including “E.T. The Extraterrestrial,” the first two movies of the “Alien” franchise, John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “Firestarter” and more — none of which is currently viewable on Netflix. (“E.T.” was offered by the service, and was recently discontinued; Netflix has an agreement with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin to offer a group of its titles, and that film is likely to return to the service soon.)
One of the more potentially head-spinning features of streaming video is that this state of affairs could change almost overnight. I won’t ask for any credit should some eager Netflix programming exec put together a “Deeper Into ‘Stranger Things’” movie package.