Bounty and Loss in the Streaming Era

Two things happened this fall that have given me a lot to think about in terms of my typical subject matter in this space. The first was that I canceled my satellite-TV service and cast my lot with the "cord cutters," the growing number of Americans who rely solely on Internet streaming for their movies and television shows. The second was that Video Americain, the hallowed cinephile-treasure-trunk video-rental shop in my adopted hometown of Baltimore, finally closed after years of declining business.

And now it feels like I'm standing on the lip of a new era of film-nerd-dom, one defined by both dizzying bounty and by gradual, possibly irrevocable loss. The boom in streaming offers the tantalizing promise of watching anything we want anytime we want anywhere we want, as long as there's Wi-Fi. But in forsaking physical copies—and physical copying, and warehousing—of films, what are we giving away?

Take the example of The Housemaid. Two years ago, home-video distributor MPI sent me a promo DVD of Im Sang-soo's 2010 film of that title. It looked like a South Korean take on the wearyingly familiar "erotic thriller," but I popped it in the player. What I discovered was a film that uses the tropes of straight-to-video Skinemax noir to scourge the banal evil of the heedless rich and their trampling of those less affluent and powerful (i.e. almost everybody). Very Occupy, very potent. The few write-ups I read, other than my own, mentioned that it was a remake of an older Korean classic of the same title. This I had to see.

But I couldn't. Video Americain didn't have a copy, and neither did Netflix (no streaming at the latter either). That's because it appeared that the original, released theatrically in 1960, had never been released on home video here. A Web search found an all-region DVD copy of dubious origin and quality for sale on Amazon for a ridiculous price. The blurb on the item page mentioned that the transfer was from a version of the film that had been recently restored.

The good news, for me at least, is that the restored version of the 1960 film is now available as part of a new box set from (who else?) the Criterion Collection. Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project collects six films from around the globe restored under the auspices of the title auteur and non-profit organization—films, like The Housemaid, that have been largely unseen and unknown here. Even the restored version of Kim Ki-young's original reveals heavy damage to parts of certain reels. A taut domestic thriller with sharp camera work, it proved worth tracking down, though its melodramatic vision of predatory female sexuality (in this version, the middle-class male householder is the unfortunate victim) likely relegates it to curio status.

But how many more such obscure gems will we see anew, especially with the remuneration waning for making such an effort? DVDs and Blu-rays remain relatively hearty sellers compared to many other physical media, but sales are still down 30 percent over the past decade, according to Forbes. While it will be distressingly easy to find physical copies of, say, This Is 40 for many years to come, more obscure titles are likely to continue to fall out of print and perhaps not return. Or never come into "print" at all. The Warner Archive, which revolutionized the long-tail obscure video market with its burn-on-demand DVDs, is shifting rapidly toward the streaming business, which has the benefit of being even more low-cost, but what about the thousands of titles where clear rights and a good negative may prove elusive? And those negatives aren't getting any younger.

And maybe this is a moot question in an era when people seem content to watch films on their iPhones, but can streaming quality reliably compare to a Blu-ray, or even a DVD? About eight months ago, it turns out, someone uploaded the 1960 Housemaid to YouTube, where I could have seen it if I'd thought to look there. YouTube has, in fact, become a trove of gray-market cinema, including rough streams of unreleasable oddities like Robert Frank's scabrous Rolling Stones tour film C--ksucker Blues and Thom Anderson's meta-cinema documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. As it happens, I ended up watching the 1960 Housemaid not on Blu-ray, or even DVD, but via HuluPlus. Netflix isn't stocking the Criterion version either, and I can't stop by Video Americain on my way home anymore.

Yes, this is a textbook first-world problem, and I'm thrilled to have gotten to see a number of obscure titles thanks to the streaming boom—for example, Thomas McGuane's tres '70s adaptation of his own novel, 92 in the Shade, popped up on Netflix streaming. But now it's gone, and there's no inkling when, or if, it will ever return to digital circulation. Last week the Library of Congress released a study that found that nearly two-thirds of all feature films made in America during the silent era have been lost forever. I wish I felt some confidence that we'd learned anything since then.