When I grew up, no one "owned" feature films apart from businesses and eccentric collectors. Many families made home movies, and some companies offered condensed versions of cartoons and comedy shorts on 16mm and 8mm for the home market. But the idea of purchasing individual copies of Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz seemed preposterous. For one thing, who had the space to store the eight to ten reels of 35mm stock that made up a typical feature film, let alone purchase and learn how to operate a 35mm projector? And how could the home viewing experience compete with an actual movie theater?
Standards changed after a generation grew up watching movies on television rather than in theaters. Hollywood was wary of television at first, concerned that it would cannibalize the filmgoing audience. But by the 1960s, studios embraced the medium as a new source of revenue. Late-night TV was how many film buffs first became acquainted with classic movies. When videocassettes first became available to home consumers in the 1970s, Hollywood again held back. Concerned about losing control of their product, studios tried to rent rather than sell movies. Vestron Video helped change the rules when it marketed Michael Jackson's music video Thriller as a "sell-through" rather than rental tape.
The revenue from videocassettes, and later from laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays, proved irresistible to studios, despite fears over bootlegging and piracy. For an industry desperate to keep control over its product, streaming is seen as a holy grail. Consumers "use" a product by viewing it, after which it returns to the copyright owners.
Streaming sites are evolving daily as studios and platforms jockey for position. Netflix has made some notable blunders in trying to switch to an all-streaming platform, but the conversion away from hard copies is inevitable. In a sense, storing movies in the cloud is like a return to the past when studios, and not consumers, determined how and when a film could be seen.
In the meantime, here are three sites that offer free streaming. (In case you missed the first post in this series, I outlined some other collections back in August.)
Affiliated with the University of South Carolina, University Libraries Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) combines its holdings under four major umbrellas. MIRC started in 1980, when it received a donation of the Movietone News library from the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. Fox Movietone News was one of the most significant producers of newsreels in the early twentieth century, and the University of South Carolina's Collection is arguably the single most complete moving-image record of American culture from that period extant anywhere in the world. While not complete, the holdings include all silent newsreel elements (nitrate) from the original Fox News library (1919 - 1930), and all outtake and unused film from Volumes 1 through 7 of Fox Movietone News (1928 - 1934).
MIRC also includes a collection of Science and Nature Films, Regional Films, and a Chinese Film Collection. The Moving Image Research Collections is open to the public at its facilities in Columbia, South Carolina. But you can screen much of the material online—everything from Chinese cartoons to Appalachian music.
The National Film Preservation Foundation also streams films on its site, for example, The Lonedale Operator (1911), a key title in the development of film narrative. Back in college we might have to wait an entire year to see The Lonedale Operator in a scratched-up 16mm dupe copy. Here is a pristine version preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. In The Lonedale Operator, you can watch D.W. Griffith working out the fundamentals of cross-cutting, of building suspense through montage, and see how he learned to define and contrast locations. Filmmakers today are still using similar techniques. Films on the NFPF site include cartoons, naval documentaries, and Spindale, one of the wonderful local titles made by itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters.
Today's third site is devoted to films from the Thanhouser Company. In 1909, actor Edwin Thanhouser converted a skating rink in New Rochelle, New York, to a motion picture studio. By the time Thanhouser Films went out of business in 1917, it had produced over a thousand shorts, ranging from slapstick comedies and children’s films to adaptations of David Copperfield and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Thanhouser films were distinguished by their excellent location photography, strong story lines, and accomplished actors.
In 1988, Thanhouser’s grandson Ned formed a non-profit organization devoted to restoring and preserving the studio’s output. In an e-mail, Mr. Thanhouser wrote: “As of today, I have found 224 surviving films around the globe at archives and in private collections; since there are some duplicate titles, there are 156 unique Thanhouser titles that survive.”
Mr. Thanhouser has made 56 of the surviving titles available for view on his website. He also sells copies of the original poster artwork for titles, and markets DVD collections of Thanhouser films. “I am working on another three-disc DVD set and online release of 12 to 15 films that is targeted for late 2012,” he wrote. “Of the known surviving Thanhouser films, there are about a dozen to 18 films that still need preservation as they are still on nitrate film stock.”
Thanhouser films can be extremely entertaining, like Her Nephews from Labrador. Because they're from Labrador, they're immune to cold, as the youths cavorting in an icy New Rochelle river prove. If you think Shark Week is a new invention, check out In de Tropische Zee, shot in the Bahamas in 1914 and featuring a startling way to bait for predators. I saw Seven Ages of an Alligator a few years back and still have nightmares about it.