“Citizen Kane” and “The Godfather” top the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest movies ever made. James Cameron’s “Titanic” still holds the record for biggest box office take, and “Annie Hall,” “Star Wars,” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” are part of Roger Ebert‘s personal pantheon.
But almost a decade after consumers began legally downloading movies on the Internet, none of those titles is yet available for digital purchase or rental.
While download sites like iTunes and Movielink offer recent releases and scads of library titles, there’s a void when it comes to some of Hollywood’s greatest — “The Wizard of Oz” and “Schindler’s List” among them — and some of its top-earners.
Of the 25 most successful movies at the U.S. box office, adjusted for inflation, just five are available in digital form. Fans of “Forrest Gump,” “101 Dalmatians” or “Jaws” can either buy the DVD or troll for pirated digital versions on underground peer-to-peer networks.
Renting and selling pics online was a piddling business in 1999, when CinemaNow started offering basic genre titles like “Leprechaun.” But in June, Apple said its iTunes store was selling and renting 50,000 movies a day, and services like Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace and Amazon.com’s Unbox are growing rapidly.
Studio execs say many newer releases are still cycling through their pay TV, cable, and broadcast windows, preventing them from being offered online. For older titles, digital rights must be cleared.
“It’s a Herculean task for us to try to get our library of 4,100 movies cleared,” says Douglas Lee, exec VP of worldwide digital media at MGM.
Wringing the maximum possible revenue from DVD and high-def DVD sales is another consideration.
“We work as a team within the studio to make sure we’re making the pie as big as possible,” says Malik Ducard, VP of digital distribution for North America at Paramount.
This means many titles that have not yet been released on Blu-ray (like Paramount’s “Godfather” trilogy, most classic Disney animated films, or MGM’s older James Bond titles) aren’t likely to show up in digital form any time soon.
Studios say certain older titles perform well. “Casablanca” and “Blade Runner,” just released in digital form, show up in iTunes’ list of top 100 movie downloads, and Lee says cult pic “The Princess Bride,” from 1987, also sells steadily there.
But don’t go hunting for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Nashville” or “Amadeus.” They can’t be bought or rented — legally.
” ‘Seven Samurai’ is one of my favorites, and I’ve never seen it on a download site,” says Jim Flynn, founder of iArthouse, a download site stocked with independent and foreign films. Flynn says savvy Internet users know how to find nearly any movie using sites like isoHunt and the Pirate Bay.
“The pirates in general have a download exclusive,” he says. “These movies are available as downloads — just not legal ones.”
Studios say they’re working as fast as they can. “We’re conscious of piracy, and it feeds into some of the aggressiveness we have to really get our content out there into the digital world, so that there’s an option,” says Ducard.
Other notable films among the AFI-chosen classics, critical faves, and B.O. champs that can’t be legally downloaded or streamed on the Web:
It’s a Wonderful Life
King Kong (1933 or 2005, though the 1976 Jessica Lange version is available)
La Dolce Vita
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Saving Private Ryan
Shrek 1, 2, and 3
The Sound of Music
2001: A Space Odyssey