Though it's a relatively wonderful life for TV cord-cutters, George Bailey, Clark Griswold and Will Ferrell's "Elf" is still available only on a pay-per-view basis this month. Festive streamers will have to settle for Santa Paws 2, which has yet to claw its way into the Christmas canon.
Most classic holiday films remain cordoned off as one-time rentals or purchases on digital platforms. It's a seemingly Grinch-like strategy - and yes, that film is available only on a pay-per-view basis, too.
Of the 25 greatest holiday movies as ranked by American Movie Classics, only five are available for streaming on Amazon.com, Hulu or Netflix this season. "Bad Santa" is an exception, along with a couple of old Bing Crosby vehicles, "Holiday Inn" and "White Christmas." It turns out, Hollywood's best holiday films are simultaneously too old and too good for streaming business models.
Older films hold scant appeal for buyers at Netflix and its rivals because they carry little sway in getting someone to sign up - or stay signed up. That's one of the reasons Netflix is rushing to have original, in-house content account for half of its catalog by 2020.
"The fun thing about something that's new is that people get excited enough to join," Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said at a Dec. 4 meeting with investors. "That's why we're kind of constantly reinforcing the excitement of that." In other words, the prospect of watching "A Christmas Story" for the 12th time is not as enticing as a new stand-up special from Jerry Seinfeld or the second season of "Stranger Things."
Older shows and movies, even beloved holiday films, fall into a category Sarandos calls bulk viewing. "We have them and people enjoy them, and it's fine, but . . . we don't put that much marketing behind it, because people really don't value us much for it," he said.
Hollywood's best holiday fare isn't cheap or simple to obtain. Broadcasters use Christmas the way sports leagues use championship games - a chance to create a sense of urgency in a crowd accustomed to watching whatever they like whenever they want. Bill Murray's "Scrooged," like the Super Bowl, just doesn't carry the same punch two weeks after the big event. Even if a company commits to purchasing a holiday film, obtaining the rights requires negotiating with multiple distributors around the world, which may have conflicting schedules. The economics around the whole process are "pretty lousy," said Sarandos.
"The 'not available' category this year is an interesting list," said Chris Thun, who tracks listings as vice president of product at Tivo Corp. "The folks who are managing this content most likely believe they can extract more value giving the rights to broadcast."
Indeed, "It's a Wonderful Life" is slated to play on NBC on Christmas Eve this year, right about when TBS kicks off a 24-hour marathon of "A Christmas Story." Walt Disney Co. will show "Elf" 14 times before Christmas on Freeform, a cable channel aimed at young viewers. The channel is giving a similar treatment to Clark Griswold's exploits in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
The dearth of classic films to stream isn't confined to holiday fare. Hollywood's most critically acclaimed work doesn't pop up often on pay-by-the-month platforms. Of the 25 greatest American films ever made, only six are available for subscribers to Amazon.com's Prime service, Hulu or Netflix. Of the most recent 25 Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards, only seven are available on the same streaming platforms.
There's little correlation between critical praise and streaming success, according to Rich Greenfield, an analyst at financial services company BTIG. In short: Citizen Kane can't pay its way. "There's a wide chasm between what is seen as the culturally best films and what you watch the most," he said. "It's like two different equations. "
This is why it's often so difficult to find something to watch on digital television; there's a cornucopia of good choices, but very little that's great. Studios are loath to give up the steady, dependable stream of video-on-demand revenue that comes from a film enshrined in pop culture's canon. To a company such as National Amusement's Viacom, "It's a Wonderful Life" is akin to a blue-chip stock kicking off a fat dividend at the end of every year.
Rather than purchase critically acclaimed dramas from others, streaming companies are attempting to make them. Netflix will spend up to $8 billion next year bankrolling 60 original series and 80 original films, including at least two animated features.
Christmas is on the Netflix original wish list. The company is reportedly casting Kurt Russell as Santa Clause for an original film next year and has purchased the rights to make "Jingle Jangle," a musical about a toy maker trying to perfect a wondrous invention in time for the holidays.
This year, however, if one insists not paying extra for holiday television, start with the seminal "Santa Paws." The sequel isn't nearly as good.