The Death of FilmStruck and the Continuing Life of Physical Media
A crappy week just got exponentially crappier with the sudden and surprising announcement that FilmStruck, TCM and the Criterion Collection’s streaming service dedicated to classic cinema, will be shutting down next month. The news was revealed on the company’s Twitter account:
When it closes its digital doors, FilmStruck will have been in business for just over two years; the site launched in October 2016 as the online home for Turner Classic Movies as well as the Criterion Collection. You can watch a few Criterion films right now on Kanopy, the free streaming site you access through your local library — another dependable source of classic films that not enough people take advantage of. Beyond that, no one knows.
It doesn’t even sound like Criterion knows for sure what’s next. In their statement about the announcement, Criterion said they will try “to find ways we can bring our library and original content back to the digital space as soon as possible.” That means that even if the Criterion Channel is back eventually, it won’t be right away. On November 30, your access to the Criterion Collection will shrink significantly — unless you still held on to your Blu-rays and DVDs.
That’s my big takeaway from the #RIPFilmstruck news, and any time a streaming service goes down: While these sites are wonderful while they are around, you have absolutely no guarantee that they will be around. FilmStruck had a passionate and loyal customer base; WarnerMedia saw the venture as “largely a niche service.” And that wasn’t enough for a giant conglomerate to keep it going.
(Side note: Who convinced Warners that streaming Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata was a business that was going to get them 50 million customers? Of course it’s a niche service! That’s why you create FilmStruck! To fill a niche!)
I know streaming has its advantages and conveniences, and no one knows how hard it is to store all those DVD and Blu-rays better than a film nerd who lives in a cramped New York City home like myself. The disadvantages of streaming, though, are too often overlooked. Instant access is fantastic, and a wide and varied selection of titles is wonderful. But if all that access and selection exists at the mercy of corporate managers who only care about their bottom line (and not even just profit, but massive profits the likes of which a niche concept like FilmStruck will never achieve) they are worth less in the long run than a pile of Betamax tapes. At least with the Betamax tapes, if you can find a player, you could watch them.
(You can find Betamax players on eBay by the way, and for less that the cost of a yearly subscription to FilmStruck. Just saying.)
If you find yourself reacting to this news and thinking “Okay, it sucks that FilmStruck is going away. But Netflix or Hulu or someone else will pick up the rights and put it back online,” you might want to think again. Increasingly, the trend in the streaming space is in companies making their own content available rather than licensing others. That’s why Disney is launching their own service next year — and why Warner Bros. is launching its own site as well, which will probably include some (but nowhere near all) of the titles on FilmStruck. Netflix got rich being the middleman in online viewership and now the studios are ready to cut them out of the equation.
Meanwhile, Netflix’s own “classics” section contains just 55 titles. That includes some genuine classics — The Godfather and The African Queen — and a lot of other more questionable choices. I love Clerks, but is that really a classic? (Yes, I can answer that question, me: No, it is not.)
Instead, Netflix’s focus is entirely on original programming. As licensing deals expire and classic titles vanish from the site, they are replaced by movies (and television shows) Netflix will own in perpetuity. And although Netflix’s films have gotten much better than they were even six months ago, that doesn’t much help people interested in watching things made more than 30 years ago. Netflix’s selection on that front is almost non-existent (and most of what they do have is tied to Netflix originals, like the World War II documentaries that are referenced in their series Five Came Back).
So don’t hold your breath for a new classic film renaissance at Netflix. Maybe if we’re lucky, Criterion will eventually launch their own Criterion Channel on their website, which is probably the only streaming home for that content that might be considered safe in the long term. But if you want to be really sure you can watch Criterion films, your best bet is still the same uncool choice it’s been for the last 20 years: Discs. Unlike FilmStruck, Warner Bros. can’t come to your home and rip them out of your collection anytime they feel like it. Now, if there was only some physical space that made these films available. Some kind of store ... devoted to videos. Not sure what you would call such a place, but it would be nice if one existed.
Gallery - Terrible Movies That Actually Won Oscars: