We take a look into the frustrating phenomenon of films we want to watch disappearing from streaming platforms. 

We’ve all been there. We spot that film we’ve long wanted to see, set aside time to stream it later and then, when we’re ready to go, we find that it’s disappeared. Gone and seemingly forgotten. In a digital world in which storage is almost infinite, platforms have seemingly bottomless pits of cash, and the market just keeps growing (according to Grand View Research, the global video streaming market is expected to be worth $224bn by 2028), why does material need to be deleted? And why so apparently suddenly? These are questions that many of us may have pondered.

The answers lie in the arcane world of licensing.

How films arrive

It all begins here. Filmmakers and studios enter into licensing contracts with the streaming platforms, through which we view their work. On the face of it, you might think that such licences are straightforward. A studio allows Netflix or Amazon for instance to show its product – how complex can that be? Well, ‘very’. This is largely because agreements reflect a number of variables including… a limited time period. Normally a period of years, rarely ‘in perpetuity’.

A limited geographic territory: rights to films in different countries may be held by different companies so, just because a friend in the US can watch a film on Netflix US, we shouldn’t assume that we can on Netflix UK.

Exclusivity or sharing: platforms will pay way more for exclusive rights of course because it makes them the only game in town if we want to see that film. In 2016 Disney did an exclusive deal with Netflix which meant that if you wanted to see the latest Disney film anywhere else, you were out of luck.

Commercial terms: primarily a fixed single payment or a variable pay-per-view revenue share. This is important to the specific platforms because of their differing business models which include subscriptions (e.g. Netflix, Britbox, and BFI Player), advertising (e.g. Channel 4 and ITV) or pay-per-view transactions (e.g. Google Play Movies and Dogwoof on Demand.)

The combination of all these inevitably creates complexity and volume. A single film will likely have many licences.

These licences are acquired by the streaming platforms: a) directly with the creator companies such as the film studios, b) via distributors, or c) via automated content marketplaces (it’s a measure of the complexity of the process that these exist at all: like the financial comparison sites we all use for our insurance and the like, they’re there to take the legwork away).

Negotiations will undoubtedly reflect a tug of war between the content creators (who likely see themselves in the driving seat given that the platforms have nothing to show without them) and the platforms (who similarly likely see themselves in the driving seat because the creators have no audience without them). The extent of this will of course vary according to the films themselves – are they current hot property or older material being relicensed? Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

It’s clearly very much in the interest of the bigger platforms with the necessary resources (such as Amazon Prime and Netflix) to create their own films and TV shows so that most of this goes away. There will be significant new costs in production as well as residual payment commitments to actors and suchlike, but the resulting film becomes a company-owned asset. We can see this shift to owned ‘content’ everywhere we look.

And how they depart

Looking at the terms of licences above makes it pretty obvious why some films disappear: the contract expires, the creator sets up their own streaming service (such as Disney’s creation of Disney+ or NBCUniversal’s launch of Peacock, both of which meant that their material on other platforms headed for the exit), or the platform decides that the cost is too high.

Where platforms decide to walk away from film content, they will have calculated the risks and benefits. Like so much right now, this is largely down to (big) data.

As the leader, Netflix is a good example. The company’s data mining teams access users’ viewing history (what we watched, how long we watched it, the device on which we watched it, whether or not subtitles were used, how we rated it, what we search for, that sort of thing) and use it to make suggestions to us personally for what to watch next. Importantly here though, it also uses the aggregate data to set the price that it’s willing to pay when it’s in the market. This process of course identifies winners and losers: you may personally love a film, but if Netflix users overall don’t then chances are it’ll ultimately disappear.

When is a purchase not a purchase?

Discovering that a film is no longer available just as you’re about to watch it is one thing, but how about finding out after you’ve bought it? That’s the very situation that led David Andino to sue Apple in 2020, after a film he bought was no longer available to him. He argued that, had he understood that licence withdrawal could remove what he’d purchased, he would not have chosen to pay the premium charged to ‘Buy’ rather than ‘Rent’.

Apple attempted to have the case dismissed for reasons including its view that the argument “fails to consider common sense and the everyday experience of buying digital content.” The judge disagreed, saying that “it seems plausible that reasonable consumers would expect that their access couldn’t be revoked.” He also saw it as plausible therefore that consumers have been “misled.”

Similar legal action in the US was taken against Amazon just a few months before the Apple suit. Again, the argument revolved around the meaning of the word ‘buy’. These cases will make their way through the US legal system. Their outcome – regardless of the current position which looks favourable to the consumer and threatening to the platforms – is still some way off. The implications are of course enormous for the businesses and for us film fans.


Reducing the risk

In the meantime, many of us are seeking ways to limit the risk of losing out. Beyond keeping our eyes peeled for pre-warnings we may also think about signing up for multiple platforms. Where the platform is pay-per-view (such as YouTube), that is likely practical.Where they are subscription-based, however, it becomes a significant question of money. Signing up to just Netflix, Britbox, Apple TV, and Prime Video will set you back around £28 per month, which is a very big ask for many (probably most) of us.

It might also be a question of safety. Once a title disappears from the known platforms, it may appear on some lesser (or un-) known ones which raise questions of legality and worse. It’s far from rare for these to be identified as sources of viruses and malware. In any event, these approaches would only protect you where films disappear from one platform to reappear on another. Often, they disappear from streaming altogether. With the likelihood that downloads will become ever rarer as streaming becomes increasingly ubiquitous, this problem is only likely to grow.

Back to the future

Until the situation changes – and there’s not much sign it will anytime soon, if at all – maybe a better option is to look back at the humble old DVD and Blu-ray disc. After all, once you own it you can return to it whenever you want. Fans of the formats also point out their unique benefits such as extra content (less so now, but there’s still a lot out there to explore), the likelihood of disc being the format of choice for older niche films that won’t be streamed (or that may be more susceptible to withdrawal), the irrelative cost compared to those multiple streaming fees, and the fact that they can become valuable collectibles. Not to mention of course the statement that your disc shelf makes about you.

On the negative side however is the thorny issue of how long they’ll be around. DVDs first appeared in 1997 and Blu-rays some ten years later, so – in these days of planned technological obsolescence –they’ve done very well and many of us don’t expect them to be around for much longer. It was rumoured at one stage that Warner Bros was planning to imminently phase out production of both in favour of its releases going to cinema and its streaming service. No confirmation was ever forthcoming, but it felt plausible then and now.

DVD Blu-ray

It’s tempting to take bets on what disappears first: the discs or the devices on which they’re played. So far, both have proved rather more resilient than many expected (their demise has been predicted many times before), but some film fans are nevertheless preparing for the worst by transferring their disc content to hard drive or to the cloud in preparation for a solely digital world (although there are legal obstacles there that’d comfortably fill another article).

The bottom line

There are probably only a few films that we really don’t want to miss, and even fewer that we cannot imagine being without (I certainly have my list). As film fans, however, those titles are obviously particularly important to us – rather more important than the lawyers and business managers at the centre of all this would appreciate. The risk is unlikely to ever completely go away, but there are some things to be done today and some hopes for change tomorrow.

Images: BigStock

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