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

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.

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