Hollywood classics ignored online

Digital downloads only catering to newer films

“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:

Apocalypse Now

Double Indemnity


The Graduate

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

Pulp Fiction

Raging Bull

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Saving Private Ryan

Shrek 1, 2, and 3

The Sound of Music

2001: A Space Odyssey

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • 'Human Capital' Sells to Vertical Entertainment,

    Liev Schreiber, Maya Hawke's 'Human Capital' Sells Rights to DirecTV, Vertical Entertainment (EXCLUSIVE)

    Vertical Entertainment and DirecTV have jointly acquired the North American distribution rights to “Human Capital,” an official selection of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival from director Marc Meyers. The film stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maya Hawke. The ensemble drama follows numerous interconnected stories surrounding a hit and run, [...]

  • Robert Zemeckis

    Robert Zemeckis in Talks to Direct Live-Action 'Pinocchio' for Disney (EXCLUSIVE)

    Robert Zemeckis is in early talks to direct Disney’s live-action “Pinocchio.” Andrew Miano and Chris Weitz will produce through their company Depth of Field with Weitz penning the script. “Paddington” director Paul King had originally been tapped to direct but had to leave the project for unknown reasons at the beginning of the year. David [...]

  • Taron Egerton Elton John Rocketman Live

    Elton John and Taron Egerton Duet at 'Rocketman' Awards Season Event at the Greek Theatre

    “Rocketman” has officially launched into awards season. Paramount hosted a screening of the film with a live-performance of the score by the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra and a headlining performance by Elton John and the film’s star Taron Egerton. John and Egerton — who is in contention for Best Actor for his portrayal of the singer [...]

  • Quentin Tarantino (L) and US actor

    Quentin Tarantino Holds Firm, Won't Recut 'Once Upon a Time' for China

    Quentin Tarantino will not recut “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” to placate Chinese censors, Variety has confirmed. The decision likely means that the Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt buddy dramedy and ode to late sixties Tinseltown won’t be making an appearance in China — at least in non-pirated form. Tarantino previously ran afoul of [...]

  • Maleficent Mistress of Evil

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Flying Low With $35 Million Opening

    Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is heading for an opening weekend of about $35 million at 3,790 North American locations — significantly below forecasts, early estimates showed on Friday. The fantasy sequel should still win the domestic weekend box office handily, denying Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” a third consecutive victory. “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” will [...]

  • Naomie Harris Shriek

    'Venom 2': Naomie Harris Eyed to Play Villain Shriek Opposite Tom Hardy (EXCLUSIVE)

    Naomie Harris is in talks to play Spider-Man villain Shriek in Sony’s “Venom 2,” with Tom Hardy returning as the titular anti-hero. Andy Serkis is on board to direct, and Michelle Williams and Woody Harrelson are also reprising their roles. The original film was a huge hit for the studio when it premiered in 2018, [...]

  • David Weisman

    David Weisman, 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' Producer, Dies at 77

    David Weisman, who was Oscar-nominated as producer of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” died Oct. 9 in Los Angeles due to complications from West Nile virus. He was 77. Weisman had a long career as a graphic designer and photographer and co-wrote and co-directed cult classic “Ciao! Manhattan” about 1960s icon Edie Sedgwick. Born in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content