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The age of streaming is killing classic film. Can Turner Classic Movies be its salvation?

It’s never been easier to see classic movies — but it’s never been harder to become obsessed with them.

Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart star in Casablanca, one of the greatest movies ever made — and one you can’t pull up on streaming very easily.
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Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

David Bordwell, one of America’s foremost film scholars, has been thinking back on something the famous film critic Roger Ebert said to him a few years before Ebert died in 2013.

“Roger always used to like to say, ‘When we were coming up [professionally], Casablanca was a much newer movie than Godfather is now,” Bordwell tells me.

Indeed, when Ebert began his film criticism career in the late ’60s, Casablanca, perhaps the greatest film romance of them all, had only just turned 25. The Godfather, by contrast, will turn 45 in 2017.

That can be a weird gap to comprehend for someone like me, who came of age in a film culture dominated by memories of the New Hollywood period of the ’70s (epitomized by Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epics).

But the reason I’m talking to Bordwell at all is that, as we exit the age of physical media and enter the age of viewing on-demand, I’ve noticed something troubling: Classic films are being left behind.

That includes Casablanca. It includes The Godfather. It includes hundreds of other films whose age doesn’t matter, because they hail from a nebulous past.

Fire up your streaming service of choice, be it Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu. Look for Casablanca. Look for The Godfather. Look for Citizen Kane, the grandfather of classic American film. You likely won’t find any of them, even though your garden variety Blockbuster probably would have had copies of all three back in the ’90s.

And Casablanca, The Godfather, and Citizen Kane are incredibly famous; if you simply go looking for “any” old movie, the search can be even more futile, because Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu primarily focus on more recent fare. Sure, you could rent Citizen Kane digitally, or you could buy a Blu-ray. But will you, if you’re already paying to subscribe to a service that offers you oodles of options for a single monthly fee?

“In a way, it’s more convenient to get these movies, because you can just get it sitting at your computer, but you’re not going to consistently get what you want in the same way [as you could in the video rental era],” says Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for Turner Classic Movies.

This is the great paradox of classic film in the age of streaming. If you already know you’re a film history buff, it’s never been easier to devour title after title, either on demand or on Blu-ray or on specialty cable channels and streaming services.

But the gap between “casual film fan” and “film history buff” has never been harder — or more expensive — to bridge.

One of the main ways people become interested in film history has been largely eradicated

The Godfather
The Godfather isn’t shown on TV nearly as much as it used to be.
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I first noticed this problem a few years ago when discussing it with a film professor friend. In just 10 years, he said, the shift in students’ casual knowledge of film history amounted to a massive step in the wrong direction.

Sure, he couldn’t expect his incoming freshmen to have seen everything, but in the 2000s, they had heard of Alfred Hitchcock and Citizen Kane and Marilyn Monroe. In the 2010s, they knew plenty about contemporary films but very little about the classics, and were far better versed in the history of TV.

He blamed Netflix — and others in academia I’ve talked to over the years, while not painting as dire of a picture, have stated that for many students, if a title isn’t readily available on Netflix streaming, it might as well not exist. For as great as Netflix, Hulu, and their ilk can be when it comes to simple convenience, they’ve eroded one of the three main ways people become film buffs.

The first is perhaps the most common: Most classic movie fans are introduced to these films by some sort of gatekeeper (a family member, usually), and then further their education on their own. (In the ’90s, that might have meant poring over home video guides. Now, it probably means reading Wikipedia or IMDB.)

According to Turner Classic Movies general manager Jennifer Dorian, this typical trajectory is easily supported by data from a survey the company recently conducted.

“Every single person says, ‘Oh, I started watching [classic films] with my older brother.’ ‘I started watching it with my grandma.’ ‘I started watching it with my dad.’ It’s almost always a learned affiliation,” Dorian says. “Classic film is taught, a lot of times, from generation to generation.”

But while generational hand-offs are still the primary path that young people follow to become interested in classic films, it can’t be the only way to create future audiences of classic film fans. Not every family tree has a movie nut lurking in its branches — though many might have a prospective movie nut.

Thankfully, the second way for people to embrace classic film fandom remains quite viable: The nascent film buff starts out loving contemporary films, then wants to start tracing their roots. It’s not such a stretch to leap backward from Marvel superhero movies to the classic blockbusters of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and then to even earlier films. This track is a bit more self-guided, but it still exists — and as long as filmmakers continue to find inspiration in what came before, it’s safe.

But the third way — to accidentally evolve into a film buff — has essentially gone extinct. In the ’80s and ’90s, classic films were everywhere, even if you weren’t necessarily looking for them. There were lots of TV channels that simply played old movies in the afternoon, as a way to save money. Video stores were everywhere, and they had shelves devoted to “the classics.” And in the VHS era, at least, so many movies were released on cassette — even more than have since made it to DVD, to say nothing of Blu-ray or streaming.

These days, the overall number of classic films that are available on either physical media or to stream is smaller than it used to be. And as streaming services shift their business models, that’s even more true.

“Each new technology, there have been fewer films that have made the transition. … As Netflix decides it’s going to become HBO, it’s cutting down on [its DVD-by-mail service],” says Matthew Dessem, a film journalist who’s written about movies of the past for sites like Slate and the Dissolve and author of the book The Gag Man. “I’m not concerned about the cost of [these services], but it is the case that you’re getting less from them.”

The reason you’re getting less is simple. Streaming services have only so much money with which to license streaming rights. Consequently, they tend to focus that money on acquiring what’s new. In and of itself, that isn’t remarkable.

“The industry has always been biased toward recency,” Bordwell says. “The old VHS store had the new releases on the wall, then certain shelves for ‘sort of recent’ releases, then the back shelves for the back catalog.”

But at least that back catalog was there, was still physically present, in a way it just isn’t on streaming services, which boast very small collections of older films that rarely include the biggest classics of them all.

And yet the more I researched this issue, the more I realized that all roads led to one place, the one major curator of classic film left in mainstream American culture and the one outlet that’s still well positioned to do something about classic film’s future: Turner Classic Movies.

TCM is navigating the journey from TV network to lifestyle brand

Attendees of the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood file into a screening of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

TCM came up in literally every interview I conducted for this article, usually unprompted. If you have even a casual interest in classic film, TCM is your primary source. It’s no longer just a TV channel. Increasingly, it’s a brand, a lifestyle choice.

The network began in 1994 as a way for Turner Entertainment founder Ted Turner’s massive library of classic films to find a home on television. They had previously been screened in a piecemeal fashion on his other networks, TBS and TNT, but a single channel devoted to classic films would be a better place for them.

Nowadays, TCM doesn’t own an actual library. Turner Entertainment was gobbled up by Time-Warner in 1996, and today, TCM licenses films like any other network. But this gives it maximum flexibility when selecting its programming. The network can stack classic horror films from all eras right next to each other in October, and its annual celebration of Oscar winners in February can run the gamut from obscure Best Picture nominees to better known Visual Effects winners like, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“At any given time, my hope is to have one movie that you might have seen a bunch of times next to a movie that you might not have heard of,” says Tabesh.

TCM doesn’t run commercials, making its monetary model largely dependent upon two things: cable carriage fees (the amount of money your cable provider pays to carry TCM — probably a few cents per customer) and its rabid fan base.

“[Our fans] don’t want us to change what we do, because what we do matters to them,” says TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, whose job is basically to introduce and help curate the films the network screens. “[They’ll say], ‘I had cancer, and I got chemo, and I was wiped out, and for eight weeks, I watched TCM.’ Or ‘My mother or my father was sick, and I sat with them [and watched TCM].’ … There’s nothing cynical about that. That is a meaningful human moment that they want to relate to me or to [fellow host] Robert [Osborne]. I’m certain that doesn’t happen anywhere else on TV.”

Since TCM doesn’t air commercials, it’s not Nielsen-rated, which means it doesn’t have an automatic method for collecting demographic data on its audience. From surveys and attendance at events like the network’s annual classic film festival in Hollywood, general manager Dorian breaks it down into three categories: 1) those who enjoy classic film on a nostalgic level (i.e., they were alive when these films were released), 2) those who are serious film history buffs, and 3) those she dubs “retro vintage lovers,” who are younger people into the classic styles the films celebrate.

Gaining a better understanding of its audience is where events like the film festival come in, but it’s also the reason the network’s “products” include everything from dedicated merchandise to special screenings in movie theaters to a classic film cruise to, of all things, a classic film-oriented wine club.

TCM isn’t just a network and the best curator of classic film out there right now; it’s a brand, and one that you can proudly associate yourself with to whatever degree you consider yourself a classic film fan. And those fans are dedicated not just to classic film, but to TCM in particular.

“I’m addicted to Game of Thrones,” says Mankiewicz, “but I don’t feel a connection to HBO. Our fans, in addition to believing in us and feeling that we’re a part of their lives, I’m fairly sure we connect them to their own past, to their parents’ history, to their grandparents’ history.”

TCM is canny when it comes to the future of classic film and is launching its own streaming service

Ben Mankiewicz (right) was only the second host TCM ever hired.

In an era when classic movies are too often sidelined, TCM’s pivot toward becoming “TCM: The Brand” is about the smartest move it could have made. Being a fan of classic film isn’t just a thing you are anymore; it can also be a lifestyle choice.

“People want extensions,” Dorian tells me. “They want to get together; they want to live the classics. They want to not just have [these films] be something passive they watch on TV.”

TCM fans are incredibly protective of the network and what it broadcasts; they’re also quick to make that known to the network’s executive staff and hosts. Mankiewicz, who began working for TCM in 2003 and was only the second host it ever hired, tells me it took about five years for the network’s fans to fully warm to him.

“They were, like, ‘He’s new. You’re not allowed to change what you do at TCM, and if this guy represents a change, we’re not for it,’” Mankiewicz says, laughing. “And after about five years, they were, like, ‘All right. They’re still showing the movies we love.’”

That tremendous affection was on full display when I attended the network’s 2016 film festival, where strangers would meet in line and become fast friends.

There’s often a natural skepticism around the idea of TV networks extending themselves into lifestyle brands. It usually ends up making programming blander, as networks chase shows that will reflect well on the brand, not necessarily shows that are well made. So far, however, TCM seems to be using its powers for good.

Take, for instance, its commitment to diversity in a field that doesn’t always welcome it. (The network’s third regular host, added just this year, is Tiffany Vazquez, both its first female host and its first host of color.) For as much as we might think of classic film as a world of primarily white faces (because it was), TCM has also done an admirable job of highlighting filmmakers of color and women in film and a broad swath of diverse experiences from Hollywood past.

That’s the ultimate intelligence of TCM: For as much as it is necessarily focused on the past, it’s always got one eye on the present and the immediate future, on the aspect of film history that viewers of the moment might be most interested in engaging with.

That eye trained on the future has now turned toward the network’s new streaming service, FilmStruck, a shot across the bow of the recency bias of Netflix and its brethren. Carefully curated by the network’s crack team, FilmStruck will also house the library of the Criterion Collection, a DVD and Blu-ray company dedicated to preserving the best of classic and contemporary arthouse film. The service launches in November.

“I work with a bunch of classic film fans, who also happen to be film nerds, who love independent film, art house film, foreign film, and they observed that it’s still, in this day and age, hard to find certain films,” Dorian tells me. “It’s in spotty collections, across the competitors, and there’s no one putting together a predictable, you-know-what-to-expect, treasure trove of this flavor of film.”

I’ve been playing around with the FilmStruck beta a bit. Its library is solid, though it felt a little paltry at first glimpse. (Having Criterion’s streaming library present will largely solve this issue all by itself.) Yet the deeper I dig, the more its curatorial nature stands out. It reminds me of the excellent, similarly curated horror movie service Shudder in many ways, and I suspect that as time goes on, FilmStruck’s library will grow deeper and more compelling for casual viewers. As a day-one subscription service, FilmStruck is just fine. As a proof of concept, it’s phenomenal.

But it still doesn’t solve the question of how to reach out and grab all those would-be film buffs who don’t know they’re film buffs yet. In fact, it plays into a concept I’ve heard several times in conversations around this piece: the walled garden.

How do we broaden the audience of classic film fans in an era when “classic film” is placed behind closed doors?

FilmStruck will be a real boon for classic film fans, but it’s just another way classic film is becoming cut off from the larger film ecosystem.

In reporting this story, Mankiewicz was the first person I talked to who described these various services as “walled gardens,” but the concept is one I’ve been wrestling with for a while.

As the streaming era makes it more and more difficult for burgeoning film buffs to “discover” classic film in the first place, is it equally troublesome, at least on some level, to lock it away behind a subscription fee? How will the genre ever attract new fans, ones who maybe don’t have that proverbial grandparent ready to introduce them to the good old days of Bogie and Bacall?

In the analog era, watching a specific classic film required more effort than simply streaming it from your laptop. You had to go to a video store, or set a VCR for a TV airing.

But on the flip side, if you just wanted to take in any older film, the options were nearly endless: They popped up on television regularly, and they were readily available on the shelves of video stores and libraries. There was a sense of cross-pollination then — of the old and new living somewhat alongside each other.

“By the time home video and eventually DVD came around, you felt like a king,” says Bordwell of the rise of VHS. Streaming has bolstered the ease of watching stuff — but, Bordwell says, “Now, the problem is the king has so many different ways to pass the time.” And most streaming services’ algorithms are going to keep pushing you toward newer releases as the best way to spend that time.

Of course, there have always been and will always be new cinephiles, new movie buffs who start to trace the influences that gave birth to modern films and end up winding their way back through the medium’s history. And it’s not like the streaming era has suddenly caused a newfound reticence to, say, watch silent films or movies in black and white.

That’s why Bordwell thinks the ultimate solution to the classic film paradox may be one of curation. Right now, there are so many voices out there, all of them focused on what’s supposed to be important, that there’s no one curatorial voice for budding film buffs to turn toward in the way that, say, Roger Ebert was for many of my own generation. And arts journalism — which has always been tied to what’s new — has only gotten worse in that regard.

“If you’d like to write an appreciation piece on [’40s film] The Big Sleep or something, [your editor] might say, ‘Well, you have to hook it to something contemporary,’” Bordwell says. “Arts journalism is tied to reportage, which is tied to the moment.”

In that sense, it’s heartening that FilmStruck weds the already curatorial aspects of TCM to the streaming world so many of us already know well. It might even prove the key to solving this problem.

Yet it’s also still another subscription to pay for, another garden to wall off. Being a classic film buff has always involved some form of expense or another — all those video store late fees! — but the more it becomes a commodified lifestyle choice, the harder it is to simply stumble upon it.

Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that these cultural walled gardens exist, especially if you live in an area of the country that doesn’t have a rich repertory theater scene, or even a video store. Would anybody really like to go back to the era of Blockbuster? Or the era before home video? Of course not.

“I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. I could only see some films when they came to the university there,” Dessem says. “If I had wanted to see something really obscure, I would have had to go to a bookstore or something. … A walled garden is better than no garden.”

And yet I hope we can find ways to throw the garden open to as many people as possible, and especially to those who may not have the expendable income to afford several different subscription services.

When I attended the TCM Fest last spring, I found the occasion vaguely transformative — and not just because I got to see favorite films like The Manchurian Candidate with the people who made them (in that case the great Angela Lansbury).

No, watching those movies in a dark room, filled with like-minded folks, reminded me that movies can be more than box office statistics, or casting notices, or trailers for coming attractions. They’re as important an art form as any out there, and one of the easiest ways to appreciate and remember that importance is to sink into the comfort of Rick and Ilsa’s longing gaze in Casablanca, or Michael Corleone’s haunted demeanor in The Godfather.

The movies being made right now are as vital and wonderful as ever — but they owe that status to the vital and wonderful films of the past. If we forget that, we risk forgetting why the movies mattered in the first place.

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