Last week, I tweeted about my surprise that I couldn’t find 1984’s The Flamingo Kid available to stream, rent or purchase online.

My experience mirrored that of Kate Hagen, who had previously blogged about her frustration trying to find a way to watch 1988’s Fresh Horses.

These aren’t obscure art films from the 1950s. Both of these movies definitely exist on DVD, which is why it’s surprising that they aren’t available to download from iTunes, Amazon or one of the many streaming services. (JustWatch is a great way to look up where a movie is available.)

Readers on Twitter chimed in with even bigger titles that are surprisingly unavailable digitally, including Cocoon, Willow, True Lies and Apocalypto.

This raised three questions:

  1. Why are these movies missing?
  2. How could someone fix this?
  3. How many other movies from the home video era (1980 onward) are unavailable to legally watch online?

I tackled the third question first.

Let’s make a list

I started by crowdsourcing a list of missing movies using a simple form. From that came a spreadsheet that’s currently up to 394 entries.1

A few patterns quickly become clear.

Very few movies of the past ten years are unavailable. That makes sense; they arrived in the era of iTunes and other digital services. For these titles, home video meant online, not just DVD or tape.

While a crowdsourced list can single out individual titles, I put out the call for a more systematic approach. Stephen Follows took up the challenge, which resulted in a blog post that tracks the availability of the 200 top-grossing movies for each year going back to 1999.

He finds that overall availability was pretty good:

Across all 4,000 movies, just under half are available to stream via subscription, 92% can be rented digitally and 95% can be bought digitally. The availability is slightly better for the highest grossing 50 movies, as opposed to the top 50 as judged by audiences and film critics.

For this cohort of 4,000 titles, just 120 movies can’t be streamed, rented or purchased digitally. That’s no consolation if you’re looking for Apocalypto or Basic Instinct 2, but it’s pretty good.

I asked Stephen to expand his search back to early decades. My hunch was that availability fell off a cliff starting sometime in the mid-90s. The results bore this out.

When looking at the 100 top-grossing movies from 1970 to 2017, you see the growing mountain of missing movies.

chart showing digital availability

The chart on the left shows films you can buy digitally on sites like iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.2 While there are peaks and valleys, the trend line is clear: with each decade, availability falls by double digits.

The chart on the right shows it even more starkly. As you head back in time from 1997, the number of missing movies skyrockets. When I looked at the list itself, I didn’t recognize many of the titles from 1970s. But some jumped out, including Sleeper, All That Jazz and Sleuth.

In all, Stephen identified 335 films that are unavailable. Is that list exhaustive and conclusive? No.

Particularly for streaming, films can fall in and out of license. And by design, this study is only looking at US availability for the top 100 films. That’s a tiny fraction of global film history. It’s like trying to define “books” by the New York Times bestseller list.

Still, it’s a useful place to start. These are movies that one would reasonably expect to find online, yet they’re missing.

Next steps

Now that there’s a list of unavailable movies, can anything be done?

I have a few ideas.

I’m a member of the Academy, so I’ve been talking with folks there about whether this is something that might fall under the Academy’s purview. It’s a form of film preservation, after all. If no one can watch a given movie, it’s functionally lost.

A more immediate way of getting some action would be to talk to some of the directors with films on the list and encourage them to get their movies released digitally. Ron Howard and James Cameron are obvious candidates.

Some of these movies from the 1970s may have never been released on home video. Getting them digitized and placed online is going to be a lot of work, and I honestly don’t know who’s going to take that challenge.

For films that do exist on DVD, my suspicion is that what’s keeping them off of iTunes and streaming is mostly murky rights issues. Some of these distributors have been bought and sold multiple times, so determining who controls the rights to a given movie can be complicated.

But sorting it out is doable. The same way chemists and colorists can save old film prints, I suspect lawyers and paralegals can save some of these missing movies. They’ll just need a framework for doing it, which is something I think the Academy might be able to provide.

But what about physical media?

A thing I’ve been hearing a lot over the past week is some version of, That’s why I still buy DVDs. Or That’s why we have videostores/libraries/Netflix-by-mail.

Physical media is one solution for making sure these movies aren’t lost to time. But a DVD sitting on someone’s shelf doesn’t solve the problem of me wanting to watch The Flamingo Kid tonight.

You can argue that we’re spoiled in the internet age. We expect everything to be available on demand at all times.

Well, yeah.

I don’t think we need to apologize for that. If I can watch Taken, why not Ransom? I don’t think we have a “right” to see any movie at any time, but in 2018 we have a reasonable expectation that mainstream movies are a few clicks away.

Plus, there’s a real economic incentive for figuring this out. Digital rental, download and streaming generates money for distributors, along with residuals for writers, directors and actors.3 If a film is only available on used DVD, it’s stopped earning income for its creators.

In no way am I arguing for the end of physical media, or video stores or libraries. We need all of them, plus a renewed focus on making sure movies are available in legal digital forms. Because of course, many of these films are available online through torrent sites.

Piracy isn’t an answer to the problem. But what we can learn from pirate sites is that there’s always an audience for a movie.

In the days of DVD, a distributor needed to sell a certain number of copies in order for the print run to be profitable. For online digital, that number is nearly zero. Once a film is online, it can keep generating money nearly indefinitely.

So let’s get The Flamingo Kid, Fresh Horses and 1995’s Circle of Friends online. It’ll be worth it for everyone.

  1. You’ll see duplicate titles and other garbage data on the list, which is one of the drawbacks of letting anyone add to it.
  2. The digital rental chart is nearly identical, except that very recent movies tend to only be available for purchase.
  3. And other guilds as well, through funding their pension and health plans.