Netflix finally cares about old movies again

There was a time, more than a decade ago at this point, when Netflix was the greatest platform in the world for catching up on classic movies you always meant to see, or discovering something fantastic. But as the streaming wars got more competitive and crowded, legacy-release movies started showing up in fewer and fewer places. Thankfully, with the streaming war waning slightly, with companies like Disney and Warner Bros. emphasizing theatrical releases over streaming, Netflix is getting back into the classic movies game.

The streaming service announced on Wednesday that it’s starting a new series called Milestone Movies: The Anniversary Collection, which will highlight classic movies hitting major anniversaries this year. First up, the site has already launched a series of 50-year-old movies from 1974, including Blazing Saddles, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Conversation, California Split, Death Wish, Chinatown, The Parallax View, and more notable critical hits.

New collections will follow in April, July, and October, with movies from 1984, 1994, and 2004, respectively. Netflix has not yet released the planned titles for these later mini-packages.

Netflix hasn’t historically been big on curating its own content. It rarely packages new additions to its platform around any kind of consistent theme, as opposed to using its algorithm to batch movies into specialized subgenre lists like “Cerebral Movies” or “Award Winning Dramas.” It doesn’t even look like there’s a good place to find the Milestone Movies collection on the streaming portal itself: You have to go to the announcement page for links to the full list. Still, with this new collection, it’s clear that Netflix is aiming to make itself a destination for classic movie lovers too, not just fans of Netflix originals.

Obviously, just because movies like The Conversation weren’t streaming on Netflix for the last few years doesn’t mean they weren’t available anywhere. Most mainstream classics are streamable if you search for them. But just because a movie is on the Criterion Channel, Max, or Paramount Plus doesn’t make it easy to watch: It’s rarely worth subscribing to a new service just for the one movie you’re in the mood for.

But as studios like Paramount, Universal, and Warner Bros. start to realize that streaming services aren’t the piggy banks they were hoping for, all these classics (and dozens of lesser movies that range from great to awful) are are once again being licensed for streaming on Netflix, still the most popular streaming service worldwide.

And that’s the true value of great movies being on Netflix. For all the things the service isn’t great at, like giving shows time to develop or letting its best movies come to theaters, it’s a tremendous tool for helping people discover movies they otherwise might not watch. Last week, 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings was the fourth most popular movie on Netflix. Meaning no offense at all to Sir Ridley Scott, but it’s certainly among his lesser movies, and more importantly, it’s one that no one has thought much about since it came out. But there it is in 2024, with thousands of people streaming it on Netflix.

Now that companies are licensing movies to the streaming giant again, and Netflix is paying for them, maybe the streamer can bring that kind of attention to great movies. After all, if the abysmal Cold Pursuit can stay in the Netflix top 10 for a month, why can’t Chinatown?