Making the most of Netflix as a classic film fan; or, finding the old in a sea of newness

We all know how wonderful the streaming service Warner Archive Instant is for classic film fans, but if you’re like me (read as: broke student) and your only option for streaming at the moment is to mooch off of a family member’s Netflix account (Thanks, dad!), finding films to watch can be a bit of a challenge. Still, I’ve managed to build up a queue of a few hundred films, most of which are pre-1970. In fact, the majority of my viewing is done on Netflix most months. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned in my few years as an avid Netflix viewer, for those of you who are thinking of joining the site or already have an account but haven’t really gotten the hang of how to make the best of it!

  • Organize by “Year Released”
    This one is kind of obvious, but don’t rely on Netflix’s top suggestions for you to find the classics within each genre category. Rating your favorite classics will certainly lead you to discover a few new-to-you flicks through the suggestion system, but they’re not always reliable. I find that the best way to build my queue has been to organize by “Year Released” and start at the bottom, where the silent films live. (Unfortunately, there isn’t an option of whether to organize in descending or ascending order by year, so you’ll have to do a good bit of scrolling… but it pays off.)
  • Browse and browse and browse some more!
    Don’t rely on the “Classics” category to give you the type of film you’re looking for! Browse through every genre category, adding to your queue along the way, and then browse the sub-genres of each category. Sub-genre browsing goes much quicker since there is some overlap between the two, but there may be films listed here that don’t show up in the main genre list, so it’s worth spending the time on. Building up a solid classic queue can be a bit of a tedious and time-consuming process, but if you like building watchlists or other movie-related lists it shouldn’t be too painful. (List-making, tedious research and film discovery happen to be three of my favorite things, so I always have fun browsing — almost as much fun as I have watching the films themselves. Nerd alert! Nerd alert!)
  • Step outside of your boundaries of preference
    Browse even within genres that you aren’t familiar with or don’t like as much. This is a good trick for two reasons: 1) Netflix has been known to mislabel films now and then, so they may be hiding from you in an unexpected place and 2) You could discover a new favorite film that you never would have expected to love.
  • …but follow your preferences, too.
    While you won’t find many of the films of big stars like Marilyn Monroe or big directors like Alfred Hitchcock on Instant, it’s a really great place to discover lesser-known talents, as well as international stars. If you watch a forgotten film and take a particular liking to one of the performances, visit that actor’s page to see what else from their filmography is offered for streaming. Chances are, if the performer isn’t a big name, there will be at least a few of their other roles available. Same goes for directors. Because they’re far less expensive to license, Netflix stocks a lot of forgotten/lesser-known films. (And remember: forgotten =/= bad! You will find some gems among the “forgotten” titles if you’re willing to give ’em a chance.)
  • Ignore the reviews… for the most part
    The reviews sections on Netflix can be hilarious to read but aren’t often helpful in gauging whether or not you’ll like a film. These reviewers are anonymous, and you have no idea how their taste level compares to yours. The reviews can, however, be very helpful in giving you a heads up about technical problems with certain streams. If subtitles are incorrect, the picture is too distorted, the dubbing is awful or TV episodes are out of order, you can bet there’ll be be plenty of front-page comments about it.
  • Check the “Recently Added” scrollbar regularly
    Netflix doesn’t add new content on any sort of schedule. As soon as they get the rights to something, it goes up on the site, so it’s good to check out the “Recently Added” feature every once in a while. Classics don’t consistently fill this area of the site, but it’s good to keep an eye out for when they do show up.
  • Beware of streaming expiration dates!
    Netflix’s rights to stream have to be renewed, and if the renewal doesn’t go through in time, the films/shows have to be immediately removed from the site. According to Netflix’s FAQ, copyright holders are given two weeks notice. At this time, viewers are also given notice in the form of a little red blurb toward the right-hand side of the queue that says “Until [Date of expiration].” If there’s something you’ve been putting off watching and you see this notice come up in your queue, watch it ASAP! When “streamapocalypse” occurred quite a few films from my queue got dropped, and I wish I would’ve have watched them in time, because some of them have been impossible to find elsewhere. (NOTE: It’s a lot easier to keep track of these if you set your queue to “manual” order. The “suggestions” order is a lot prettier to look at, but all you see is movie posters, so you may miss out on expiration info.)
  • Don’t fear Streamapocalypse II.
    Netflix’s selection is constantly changing. That comes with the territory of streaming. I was bummed when I lost so many titles from my queue, but so many titles have been added to streaming in their place that I don’t have anywhere near a shortage of choices. Expired licenses are just another opportunity to discover more films you wouldn’t have found otherwise, as a new selection crops up in place of the old.

Netflix may not be the best streaming service for those of us who prefer to watch old movies, but it can still be a great resource for classic-era film fans if you’re willing to put in some time and patience to build up your queue.

Got any other tips for how to dig up the classics on streaming services? Leave ’em in the comments section!

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5 thoughts on “Making the most of Netflix as a classic film fan; or, finding the old in a sea of newness

  1. Good ideas! I only just started with Netflix in the UK but I’ll bear this in mind if I start looking for classics. Nice re-design btw, looks good.

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  2. I’ve subscribed to Netflix for about a half-dozen years, and finding classic streaming films that I specifically look for has always been a challenge. But like you said, their library is so big now that I often see other good movies I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about (or knew existed). I’d probably get through a lot more of them if not for all the tv shows I’m binge-watching, haha!

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    1. Yeah, searching by title is really hit-or-miss and can be frustrating. Some stuff they only have on DVD, some stuff they don’t have at all!

      Netflix is definitely the prime source for TV binge-watching too, haha. I fall into that trap every now and then and have to remind myself, “Watch a movie! You’ve got a blog to run!” They have a decent selection of classic TV, too.

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