I really miss Game Day. (You probably don’t, but I do.) The 1999 Richard Lewis-starring, hard R-rated sports comedy (featuring a group blowjob and grizzly courtside gun violence, among other insights into the athletic world) wasn’t exactly a hit, but discovering it at Blockbuster when I was a kid, it felt like a revelation: a filthy sendup of what every other sports film had told me was sacred, with a stoned, stripper-addicted college basketball coach (Lewis, perfectly awful as always) hanging onto faded glories at its center.
Game Day basically doesn’t exist anymore. While Lewis is busy sending up himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, fans of his scuzzy 1999 gem are left to buy a $30 DVD from a “discount” vendor on Amazon (one reviewer calls the movie a “sports cult classic,” and they’re not wrong!). The independent distributor of Game Day, York Pictures Inc., appears to be defunct (its last credit was in 2004), and the home video company that originally released said DVD, Digiview, fell into bankruptcy after a lawsuit over technology patents filed by Warner Bros. All of which means that it’s much harder to watch a movie people still love now than it was at the turn of the millennium. Which seems… odd.
You don’t have to know Game Day to know the bigger problem here: You want to watch a movie or show from the not-so-distant past that sneaks its way back into your mind or that someone recommended. You try the streaming services. Nope. At least an overpriced rental or purchase on iTunes? Not there, either.
“I was looking for The Flamingo Kid. I had never seen it but knew that it was a Matt Dillon movie and was a pretty big hit,” says screenwriter John August (Go, Big Fish, 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, the new live-action Aladdin) of his passionate frustration with digital unavailability. (Of note: The Flamingo Kid made $23.9 million at the box office in 1984, or roughly $58.3 million in today’s dollars, and was that year’s 29th highest domestic earner.) “I ended up having to Amazon a used DVD and wait a few days to see it. It just felt really strange to me that in 2019, a movie that was popular was just not available to stream or download anywhere.”
This got August thinking, then talking. He tweeted his surprise and got a flood of responses from people who couldn’t find even bigger hits in the digital ether, at least legally, then got the help of a researcher who’s compiled a detailed spreadsheet of availability for the highest-grossing movies going back to 1970. More practically, there’s also the invaluable JustWatch, a site and app that tells you where you can stream or digitally view the title you’re hunting and for what price, or if indeed it’s nowhere.
The holes are stunning: Cocoon, Kevin Smith’s Dogma (with Matt fucking Damon!), the original Dawn of the Dead, Apocalypto, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. For context, you couldn’t be sentient during the ‘80s or ‘90s without hearing about Cocoon, Ron Howard’s wild, Oscar-winning fantasy in which Florida retirees are rejuvenated by aliens. It grossed $85.3 million worldwide—over $200 million now—and was in the domestic top 10. It would also make a pretty delightful couch watch (how many people watched it when it was on endless cable rotation). But for all intents and purposes, it’s been unceremoniously disappeared.
August tried soliciting a response from Howard, whom he personally knows, and got crickets. “I was surprised he as a filmmaker wasn’t pushing [companies] to get these movies out there,” August says. “This isn’t Orson Welles. There are movies by filmmakers alive today people can’t watch.”
The most pressing question here is: Why? The answer is both messy and all too straightforward. For one, we live in a content age of absurd abundance. Netflix, Amazon, and now Disney and Apple are throwing billions at creating original streaming content that people may or may not watch, often without profit, because you know… that’s the future. These services don’t feel especially pressed to offer back-catalogue binges unless they’re going to bring in massive numbers.
But that’s only a small piece of the puzzle. “In almost all cases, the real issue is rights,” August says of his industry’s more labyrinthine problem. Obtaining and purchasing rights to stream a title, thus giving its makers more money, sounds easier than it is, he says. Sorting through who controls which rights, and where they might be today (especially if a company like York has vanished), can get... complicated. A movie or show may not have licensed music for home video; a home video license may not cover streaming. Perhaps the most famous example of the latter issue is Beavis and Butt-head, which to my and other Mike Judge obsessives’ chagrin has never had a proper digital release complete with all the music videos (plus accompanying wonderfully idiotic commentary) because MTV never secured the clips past broadcast.
“It’s more of a human problem than a technical problem,” August observes. “The way this gets solved is to pay a bunch of paralegals to go through contracts to get this figured out. The challenge is that it’s not really worth it for any one service to spend the money to get the rights to Flamingo Kid.”
Navigating that legal morass gets even harder when companies have folded or ownership has changed hands, sometimes in bizarre ways. Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Sleuth (1972) starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine are improbably owned by the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, which once dabbled in entertainment buying but now isn’t exactly gung-ho about making sure titles are seen as it’s busy marketing much more profitable life-saving medicines, hence the movies’ absence. The ‘90s indie film boom was fueled by a lot of scrappy production companies that have long since gone out of business. People also die, and paperwork, prints, and digital copies get lost.
“[It’s a case of] no one knows who’s allowed to sign off on this being allowed back into the world,” says video editor Travis Weir, who works on digital packaging for movie releases. “Sometimes it’s easier not to have that conversation.”
The other flying elephant in the room is Disney. The behemoth has just in the past year swallowed 21st Century Fox and Hulu whole in addition to launching Disney+, making it not just by far the market leader in movie and TV production (it would prefer not to be called a monopoly) but also a powerful digital distributor. You could buy the ‘90s Lion King for $20 on Amazon Prime Video if you want to watch it tonight, but the only way to stream the movie is by ponying up $7 a month for Disney+. There’s no reason to expect that to change. Mickey Mouse, as part of its notorious “vault” strategy to artificially stoke excitement around major releases, has quietly put both Disney and Fox titles under lock and key. Good luck watching The Simpsons unless you have a cable subscription—or, again, Disney+.
“Everything is getting increasingly siloed,” August says. “When we had everything available on iTunes or in the original incarnation of Netflix [with DVDs by mail], you knew that you could rent any given movie or buy it for a reasonable price. I’m worried that we’re going to miss not just the 100 biggest movies, but also movies that were time capsules.”
You don’t have to feel entirely hopeless. August doesn’t.
“If you look at the Criterion Collection, they make sure important movies are always available. I’m just looking for the Criterion for unimportant movies that are still interesting,” he says. “I feel like Apple has the resources to do some of this work, but they’re not doing it.”
Hollywood, however, is cyclical. Apple may tire of overspending on splashy but ephemeral fare like The Morning Show, and enough horror heads may demand the inalienable right to play Dawn of the Dead on a loop. While there’s “realistically not a lot an individual can do,” August notes, sending a message helps (hey, it worked to revive Community). And while the ease of entertainment consumption may seem like a trivial political issue, voting to support measures that stop favoring giant integrated conglomerates with near-total copyright control also makes a difference.
Services like JustWatch can certainly play a role. When I brought up the idea of a button to inform JustWatch of unavailable titles users are desperate for to its founder David Croyé, he perked up.
“That's a good idea,” Croyé says. “We could have a most-requested movie and TV show list on JustWatch so companies who bundle licenses in bigger catalogues get the information about which titles they should try to get the rights for.”
Then there’s the pipe-dream solution.
“Maybe there’ll be a billionaire who will take it upon himself to spend money to get these rights cleared up,” August says. Stranger things have happened. Billionaires, you’re on notice. Game Day deserves it.
The final year of the ‘10s might have been its best for movies. But don’t take our word for it: we ride for The Goldfinch.
Originally Appeared on GQ