A Rant About Finding Movies

The year is 2003. The place, Austin, Texas. My wife and I have been living here for several months and in that time have joined numerous video stores. We started with Blockbuster and Hollywood video, which are close to our home. Stopping in what I thought think is a record store I find another location, still quite close to home, that has a more diverse selection of movies. Soon I discover I cannot find films I want, so I continue outward, always searching.

This leads me to eventually join ten video stores in Austin. I soon discover the strengths of the locations. The video store on Sixth street has an incredible selection of foreign films. Vulcan Video has the best selection of television shows. There is a location on 35th street that is fun to go to and I never figure out what it offers that sets it apart. The central library has a great selection of movies as well.

Which is why when discussing the film, Leonard Part 6, I did not think it would be difficult to rent the film and show it to my wife. I am intelligent, for once, in attempting to track down this film and I call the video stores to see if it is in stock. After I exhaust the places I have a membership to I take out the phone book, flip through the yellow pages and call everyone else. Soon Austin is exhausted and nearly am I. But I persevere. Somehow a place in Hutto, Texas, has a copy.

The man on the phone is confused by my request. He pronounces Leonard as ‘Leo-nard’. I ask him if he can physically check to make sure the VHS tape is in the store. Annoyed but willing, he does. When it is located I ask if he can set it aside for me, as I do not want to drive to Hutto and find it has been rented. He states he cannot do this and I will have to take my chances. Thankfully Leonard Part 6, even before what has come to pass with Bill Cosby, has been a long reviled film.

I live in North Austin so the drive to Hutto is not a long one. I have to choose between going through Round Rock or Pflugerville. I opt for Flugerville. There is little to say about Hutto. Leonard Part 6 is still there and I rent it. When I return it there is a decent sized baseball field nearby and I go and watch some of the game. It’s odd because I don’t like baseball, but it is a beautiful night and for some reason staying and watching is a lovely thing to do.

I recount this silly tale of tracking down a film because at the time it struck my wife as an absurd amount of effort all just to watch a movie. Over the past few months I have become increasingly annoyed with the amount of effort I am spending to find movies I wish to watch. I have also come to realize that unlike before streaming, I am often not choosing what to watch but I am being steered toward limited choices and selecting one of those.

Anyone familiar with the old, bad, video stores can appreciate that the images thrust upon us when we open our streaming services are similar to walking into the displays at Blockbuster. Between what accosted you just inside the door you also had to contend with the New Releases wall, which with Blockbuster would consist of a handful of titles with dozens of copies. It was marketing and it was effective.

Which is why I only went to Blockbuster or Hollywood video if I knew what I wanted beforehand or if what I was looking for was a new release and I desired to only make one stop to pick up a copy. Typically, depending on where I have lived, I would go to smaller more interesting video stores if I was looking for something to watch. I would wander through the isles, look at the displays and try and find something.

As much as people bemoan the loss of connecting with others in the video store what I miss was coming across title after title I had not heard of. Being able to pick up the box and look it over, coming to a conclusion as to whether I wanted to watch this film based on what was in my hand is something I miss. There is something lost in online browsing, of not having a tactile object in your hand and that makes browsing a lesser experience.

What also diminishes the experience are the limitations. I can appreciate that streaming services have licensing issues to contend with and that these issues impact which titles they can offer. It’s one of the reasons why I think streaming is poor choice compared to physical stores. While streaming services films are held on hard drives and have fewer concerns about physical space, they are undoubtedly hampered by financial concerns regarding licensing. Physical media, for whatever reason, is not affected by this.

Which is why, today in 2023, when I look at what Netflix DVD has to offer I am surprised at how many films I cannot find available to stream, anywhere, I can rent from them. Case in point: lately I have been watching the films of Park Chan-wook. He’s someone I did not take to when Oldboy was lavished with praise. I didn’t because the trailer made me think the film would not be to my liking. Having seen his recent films, The Handmaiden and Decision to Leave in particular, has ignited my interest in his older works.

Only, where do you watch his films? In an earlier post I wrote about the streaming services I use. There are quite a few (14?). Enough so that I often use two different sites, Just Watch and Plex, to try and find films I wish to stream. Between those two sites I am usually able to locate which service has which films. It is a clunky, horrible system for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, it means I end up having queues/watch lists/my lists on many different sites with the same films in them. Or I put a film onto one of these lists, don’t watch it right away and when I come back to see the film it is gone from the site. But returning to Park Chan-wook I’ve found it hard to track down a number of his films, including Oldboy, which is one of his best known works.

Several of his films are only available for streaming (by which I mean you don’t have to pay to view the film because the site is either free or you have a subscription) on one service. Amazon has The Handmaiden and Mubi has Decision to Leave. Oldboy and I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay are not available to stream/rent/purchase via any site at the moment. His television show, Little Drummer Girl (with Florence Pugh, Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgard) can be rented or purchased but not streamed. The film I have been most intrigued about, Thirst, must be rented or purchased.

So, I’ve driven that point into the ground. It’s true for many other filmmakers as well. Yet, if we look at the catalogue for Mr. Park on Netflix DVD we see:

Aside from The Little Drummer Girl they have the films I mentioned (and a few others) that I wish to see. The same is true for several other filmmakers whose films, for some reason, are difficult to find online.

So I write all of this because I know that physical video stores are not going to come back. As much as we get excited about certain things (Drive-In theaters during the pandemic) their time has passed. Most of us have gotten used to the convenience of streaming and don’t wish to go back to the old ways of in person shopping for something to watch. My frustration is that streaming hasn’t properly replaced the video store. We live in a strange, in-between time, where we are getting something half-baked that doesn’t please us but not everyone has realized this yet. Let’s call it the age of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”. For anyone who experienced that – we ate it because we were told butter was bad for us. We didn’t like the substitute but what else could we do? It’s time to wake up, people.

Part of me thinks it might be time to go back to DVD’s (Blu-rays) in the mail. Using Redbox again. The problem, as I have stated above, is that the streaming companies are playing weird games due to rights and licensing. Which means services have titles one month but not the next. That a site like HBO, which is owned by Warner Brothers, will have all the Harry Potter movies this month but not this summer. It also means they may never have movies from another studio because of some issue between them.

Which is not my concern, nor yours, dear reader. We just want to watch the thing we heard/read/saw a poster for. We’d like to see it sooner rather than later. We’d like to not be spending $80 a month in fees to over ten streaming sites that we need other sites to help up locate titles on. If we are doing all of this we’d like the movies to at least be available somewhere, especially if they are recent and well known.

When was this released again? We can’t even rent it right now?

All of this is to ignore the more common and irritating aspect of streaming which pertains to poorly designed sites that are difficult to navigate. Each relying largely on algorithms to shove films and shows at us each time we log in. Ever-changing posters which are meant to confuse and bamboozle us into thinking they have new items to watch, when in fact it is something we saw last month. Rating systems which do not improve the selections offered to us and do not remove them as future selections. Oh and reduced offerings and disappearing titles because the people running these streaming services have all over-extended themselves and are in dire straits financially.

So, in closing, a suggestion. Think about how much you are spending on streaming services. Think about what you watch and where you watch it. How you find what you are watching and if you are happy with the process. For me I find I spend a considerable amount of time, daily, pondering what I will see and where I will find it. I’m not saying having DVDs mailed to me is the future but I am wondering if fewer streaming services, coupled with mailed DVDs and relying more on Kanopy/Hoopla and my local libraries isn’t a better way to watch movies. I think it would be cheaper and probably less work.

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