Any way to legally watch old (and new) movies?

This may be as much GQ as CS. I’m struggling to even know how to phrase the question but it’s something I’ve wondered about for a while.

There are thousands of movies from the early days of film making to the present day yet there seems to be no easy way of watching them.

There’s a lot of movies on Netflix or other streaming services but it’s only a limited number in the great scheme of things and they are only there for a limited time before they get switched out.

You can happen to catch a film when it comes on tv but that’s random.

Seems like there’s thousands of movies out there that are just sitting there gathering dust not being watched by anyone. Presumably they are all owned by movie studios and thats why there isn’t a free to watch service with all films ever made on it. But there isn’t a pay to watch service either.

You could probably buy individual films somehow but that implies you know exactly what you’re looking for.

It seems like there’s a gap in the market. It would be something like Netflix but with (pretty much) all the films ever made on it.

This was inspired a few years ago when one channel here was showing films from the 1950s every afternoon (and I was around at that time to watch some of them). The films weren’t well known and didn’t have famous actors but they were great movies with gripping storylines. It occurred to me that there’s loads of great movies out there that you never see and that you can’t seem to access (unless someone knows of a way that I’m unaware of).

there are free movies on Youtube , don’t know how many.

Yes. I meant to mention that there are public domain movies but this is still only a small fraction of all the movies there are.

This may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but your local library might have a collection of older films on DVD that you could check out and watch for free.

This. And, where I live, I can order any DVD from most any library in Massachusetts and pick it up at my local library within a few days.

That’s what I was thinking.

Also, if you have a DVR that allows you to search the guide (like a Tivo), go through that. Either scrolling through the station(s) that would play old movies or searching for specific movies/actors. I’ll do that from time to time and then over the next few weeks a dozen or so movies will record that I can watch when I have time.

Don’t forget that virtually every film made before 1948 has decayed or is in the process of decaying if it hasn’t already been restored.

And even post-1948, I can’t imagine the amount of film that was destroyed because its owners didn’t think it was even worth the cost of storage. The same thing is true with old TV programs. That’s why, for example, very little of the work of Ernie Kovacs remains, and only 107 “lost episodes” (sketches within Jackie Gleason’s other shows) of The Honeymooners have been restored, while at least 130 are known to have aired.

You could probably say the same thing for the companies that distribute old films/TV shows.

iTunes and Amazon will rent you pretty much any movie for $4 or so. The original disc service of Netflix also has pretty much any movie you want for a relatively low monthly fee (but some wait time to get discs out). I think the market is pretty well covered.

If you’re looking for something that will stream every movie ever made and costs like $15 a month, that’s never going to exist. It would require a bunch of rights holders all getting together and agreeing to cooperate in a way that makes them a lot less money than the status quo.

The Criterion Channel just launched as a subscription streaming service. Criterion has a history of bringing out classics, foreign, and art house films. This is their foray into streaming.

I don’t know about you, but I could happily spend the rest of my life on this site catching up on all the greats that I missed.

Also you can look at Kanopy and see if your library is a member.

Here’s a website with a list of 18 websites that allow you to stream movies for free:

The only one I’ve used is YouTube, but friends of mine have used Kanopy.

I don’t see why this can’t exist. As I said above, these movies are never being watched by anyone. They are just sitting in storage, maybe some of them appear on a tv channel somewhere every 10 years or so. What I am envisaging is something similar to what has happened with music where you can search for pretty much every band that has ever existed and then search all their albums. With a film service, you would be able to search by director or by actor or by year and find all the movies of that type.

Whilst there may be good coverage on Amazon or Itunes or in a library, it is still very patchy and still has only a small fraction of all the movies that have been made.

I’m not focusing on cost - it doesn’t have to be cheap. It could be an expensive service. My point is that this is not available for any price. Even a billionaire can’t get easy access to all movies.

Doesn’t Netflix’s DVD service (you know, their original business model) include the vast majority of old movies? I thought it was basically whatever is available on DVD. It’s not streaming, but it’s affordable and pretty convenient.

Because streaming rights for each movie has to be negotiated separately and each streaming service wants exclusive right to anything they use. Why would they want to pay for the streaming rights for Citizen Kane if another service already has it?

Songs are different: they’ve had mechanisms for payment long before there was an Internet. All they had to do was determine a rate. Movies don’t have an ASCAP or BMI.

Ok, I misunderstood what you were saying. You’re talking about the extreme long tail of movies. Movies that are old and obscure enough that they’re just sitting in vaults somewhere.

The problem is that there has to be enough interest in a movie that a studio can plausibly make back the money it takes to digitize and market and package it. There are a lot of movies that never made it to DVD for this reason. As the technology improves, I expect the cost of this process will keep dropping, so we should see older and more obscure movies added over time (assuming someone can find a good film copy to do the transfer). If copyright doesn’t get extended again, then archivists will probably start to digitize older things and make them available for free.

Even if you solved the economic problem, there are other reasons that a film might not be made available. For example, I bet you’ll never see Song of the South on Disney+, because the existence of that movie embarrasses Disney and has the potential to be a big PR disaster.

Are you willing to accept that there’s probably not going to be one single service that has everything, but that there will be multiple services that each have a different slice? Because that’s what’s going to happen. The economics of bundling are not optimized by having one all-inclusive bundle.

Oh yeah. No reason why it would all have to be on one service. The thing that puzzles me is the lack of availability.

At first you think there’s a lot of availability on the various streaming services etc but then, when you think about it, you realise the surprising thing is the enormous amount of movies that aren’t there. It’s like a huge gap or lacuna. There’s thousands of movies, more released every week, which you can’t rent or even buy. There’s a vast pool of them that don’t seem to be available anywhere.

At least with music, you can generally buy anything that’s ever been released. I don’t even know where you would buy obscure films from.

Seems like the rights holders could monetize their property by making them available somehow (I don’t know how exactly).

The vast majority of the movies released are crap. This has been true since the beginning. The market for viewing that crap is pretty small. The cost of negotiating rights, payment schemes, digitizing, and streaming is not insignificant. For much of that crap the economics don’t really work out that anyone involved makes any money.

As costs drop for digitizing and streaming, new stuff should be available fairly quickly. But as each year passes the older stuff gets less and less economically attractive. And much of it is probably simply lost.

There is a great service called PubDHub ( that hosts public domain movies, tv shows and various short subjects. You can watch some content for free or pay $4 per year for the “Gold” service. If you have a Roku device there is even a channel you can get and tie to your account. Otherwise you can watch online at the Website. You usually get a handful of new content every week. Some weeks this is skipped due to special circumstances, the last time was Easter week.

I have been a member for years and it is pretty cool if you like old movies.

Here is the FAQ page for more details.

Oh, there is also the Movies page at

As others have noted, it costs money to make films available. No one is going to pay to have that done if there is little or no chance of getting their money back. The movies you are generally referring to are not well known and consequently, there is little or no demand to see them. As such, they remain unavailable for authorized viewing.

The term “illegal viewing” is a bit complex thanks to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Please see:

My understanding is that the “Safe Harbor Clause" means content sharing websites (like YT) cannot be held legally responsible for the illegal actions (i.e., unauthorized uploads of copyrighted material) of their users, provided certain conditions are met. Where these conditions are met, does this mean it is “legal” to view such material once it has been uploaded? I doubt any viewers have been prosecuted for streaming - as opposed to downloading - movies online. Note as well that many content sharing websites are not based in the U.S. and therefore not subject to U.S. laws, making the issue of legality even more nebulous.

Moral and ethical issues aside, the point you raise would seem to have as much or more to do with knowing how and where to search online for the movies you want to see. As this lies outside the purview of the OP, I will leave it at that.