The Death of FilmStruck: When Film History is Deleted

by Daniel Nguyen

In late October 2018, WarnerMedia decided to shut down TCM’s FilmStruck, the subscription streaming service, saddening many film lovers around the world. Launched in November 2016, FilmStruck was already unique for what it was. Unlike Netflix or Hulu, according to TCM CEO John Martin, it worked with film distributors to stream “rare, classic, foreign, arthouse, and independent cinema.” It also became the exclusive home of the Criterion Collection’s own streaming service, The Criterion Channel, which supplied more than half of the entire library. The venture proved successful, as its initial library of 500 films tripled over its two years of service.

FilmStruck not only streamed movies, but they also presented special features that accompanied particular films. Among these were various commentary tracks and introductions from established filmmakers and critics, and the works of video essayists like Every Frame a Painting and Kogonada. FilmStruck would also recommend particular filmmakers like Werner Herzog or John Cassavetes, or highlight movements of cinema such as the French New Wave or Dogme 95. In addition to all of this, the FilmStruck Podcast was introduced in November 2017, making the FilmStruck experience a lifestyle of cinephilia.

All of this went away on November 29, 2018.

There have been a number of ideas suggesting how and why FilmStruck got its plug pulled, which mostly consist of corporate acquisition, licensing, and bookkeeping. I will set these aside to discuss two points.

Owning and Viewing Films at Home

Since the 1970s, the home video has provided the opportunity for average consumers, including film lovers, to collect and own films. From videocassettes and laserdiscs to DVDs and Blu-rays, the home video format has always been physical, but it is rapidly evolving into an online medium which is the subscription streaming service. The concept is phenomenal: for a monthly or annual bill, anyone can have unlimited access to an entire streaming library. This model has become so popular that the data speaks for itself: there are over 30 million Hulu subscribers, 85 million Amazon Prime viewers, and 130 million Netflix subscribers. For comparison, FilmStruck had about 100,000 subscribers.

It has been a meme in the Netflix community that Netflix regularly removes content because of the licensing contracts of the original distributors, which occasionally breaks a few hearts. Late last year, Netflix announced that the TV sitcom Friends would not be available to stream after January 1, 2019. This news was met with an outcry from the millions of Friends fans. Correlatively, imagine the shock of the fans of Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, or the Italian neorealism movement, and the fact that these film lovers can no longer access any of the masters’ films!

In regard to the FilmStruck shutdown, Director Edgar Wright tweeted: “Sometimes friends of mine are bemused by me still buying dvds and BluRays, clinging on to physical media. But here’s why: these streaming libraries can be gone in a flash. There’s few comprehensive film collections out there to stream classics. FilmStruck sadly was the best one.” Wright is correct in that FilmStruck was clearly the best one, but many fear it may have also been the last one.

Film Appreciation

FilmStruck grew from a heart of appreciation, as evidenced by the aforementioned content it provided. Not only was it a gift for the film lover, it lived up to its claim that it was “created by the film lovers.” It was not just for passive or casual viewers, but created for film lovers who live by cinema. Unfortunately, the attitude toward the moving image has grown more apathetic as each decade passes.

Edgar Wright isn’t alone. Other modern auteurs such as Guillermo del Toro, Sean Baker, Rian Johnson, and Damien Chazelle–all fans of FilmStruck–wholeheartedly champion its aims to spread appreciation for films. Within weeks after the announcement of the shutdown, these five, along with several other notable filmmakers and actors, popularized an online petition to save FilmStruck, which gathered more than 50,000 signatures.

FilmStruck was intended to bring about a new wave of appreciation for classic cinema in the 21st century. Partnering with the Criterion Collection, the FilmStruck team was serious in presenting a product that would give anyone the privilege to do a deep study of Kurosawa’s filmography or just rewatch The 400 Blows. That can’t happen anywhere else on the internet; Netflix won’t begin to curate Ingmar Bergman films when they can get 80 million views on a half-baked, buddy-cop fantasy movie. In this age of high-speed instant access, FilmStruck was the best option to allow people to begin or develop their knowledge of film history, and further understand what moving images can do and show.

And now it’s gone.

Revival..?

Soon after the success of the petition, the Criterion Collection announced a relaunch of the service, promising to resume operations as soon as February 2019, simply called the Criterion Channel. The rate remains the same as FilmStruck’s ($10.99 monthly or $100 annually), with a discounted rate ($9.99 monthly or $89.99 annually) for “Charter Subscribers” who pre-subscribe. This will all be managed by the Criterion Collection.

Charter Subscribers will also receive a special “Charter Subscriber membership card,” but the Criterion Collection should also send every one of them a laminated picture of Edgar Wright’s tweet, “it can be gone in a flash,” as a reminder that the subscription streaming-service model is far from a long-term guarantee. Perhaps owning physical media is the only safe bet. Last I checked, a DVD doesn’t disappear when the plant that produced it shuts down.

The 50,000 petitioners have proven that a love for movies can revive an entire streaming library of classics. Let’s hope that their love spreads so they can maintain it for more than two years this time.

Daniel Nguyen studies Cinematic Arts at HBU. When he's not faithfully attending the Church of the Nazarene, he can be found at the cinema.

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