Nov 292016

FilmStruck’s streaming service isn’t just an archive, it’s also an opportunity to reframe and refresh what these films can still do long after their initial release.


By Matt Hanson

Television is doing very well these days. Netflix and Hulu are constantly producing original programming and dynamic HBO shows like Game of Thrones are worldwide smash hits. A very receptive and passionate audience clearly exists for the plethora of TV programming that is now more varied and widely available than ever before.

All this is well and good, but it does beg an important question — whatever happened to the movies? A quick perusal of Netflix or Hulu confirms that neither seems to care nearly as much about movies as they do for TV, and that the film they offer are often less than eye- and mind-filling. What’s a self-respecting cinephile to do?

Thanks to FilmStruck, not to worry. The ideal online haven for film buffs old and new has arrived, courtesy of the recently launched joint streaming venture between the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. Their extensive libraries of classic foreign and domestic films are now available online at a monthly or yearly rate, limited only by one’s passion, curiosity, and possible agoraphobia.

For the past thirty years, the Criterion Collection has been one of the best ways to discover the innumerable pleasures of classic, foreign, and contemporary cinema. Given this commitment, has never been easier or more appealing to engage with the visions of auteurs such as Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Godard, Bunuel and many, many more. The movies Criterion selects are often rare, controversial, or unjustly ignored. Prints that have been physically damaged  over time (or allowed to decay) are lovingly restored. The rich clarity of Criterion’s restorations and the dazzling range of its choices knocked me for a loop when I was just starting to discover that there was more to movies than the dreck at the multiplex. It’s a revelation I’ve yet to recover from, and hopefully never will.

FilmStruck’s streaming service isn’t just an archive, it’s also an opportunity to reframe and refresh what these films can still do long after their initial release. Criterion’s customary supplements to the films include scholarly commentary, interviews, filmmaker tributes, documentaries, and related short films — and many of these goodies are available online. Given Criterion’s impressive track record for rediscovering classic films, the possibilities posed by this streaming channel are exciting. It could even make a TV-saturated viewing public interested in movies again.

The Arts Fuse spoke to Criterion president Peter Becker from his office in New York about what inspired the creation of FilmStruck, what’s on the site, and how the streaming space might evolve over time.

The Arts Fuse: What prompted Criterion to establish it’s own streaming site?

Peter Becker: I think it feels like a natural evolution for us. We’ve been serving an audience and growing with that audience for thirty-plus years by presenting films in a way that we thought was right: the way the filmmakers wanted them seen, making sure we have interesting supplements that enhance the viewing of the film. Obviously, streaming is a very important medium; it’s how many people take in a lot of different media, from movies to TV shows to news, so the idea of having our own streaming space was very attractive to us.

Streaming gives us an amazing diversity of options, which is a great thing. These big streaming sites have really become almost like utilities in our lives. There are tons and tons of media available, but there isn’t always a sense of somebody specifically curating for you, and that seemed to us to be what we should be doing.

A streaming service could just be, you know, a series of poster shots from movies and you pick one and that’s it. But for us, I think the Criterion channel and FilmStruck both take slightly different attitudes towards helping people find their way to a good experience with the help of actually having human curators thinking on the behalf of viewers. That’s what we’ve always been trying to do with our library, so this has really been a very natural evolution.


Toshiro Mifune in a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.”

AF: Does FilmStruck represent the entirety of the Criterion collection? From what I’ve seen so far it looks like there’s a lot of the titles available, but I noticed a few that are missing.

Becker: Sure, the deal is that FilmStruck, the primary service, which is $6.99/month, features a rotating selection of films, about 500 at a time, about 200 of which at any given time, that percentage, are drawn from our streaming library. Our library is well over 1,000 films at this point — it’s about 1400 films or so total.

Our streaming library is going to be available with unlimited access to premium subscribers to the Criterion channel. And that’s for $10.99/month. That’s with all the benefits of FilmStruck, plus the entire Criterion channel. In time, we’ll triple the number of films between them, but it will also give you access to what we’re producing exclusively for the channel because it’s a whole new opportunity.

I should say that our streaming library does not include every title that we’ve released on disc. There are still some films that were up on Hulu that haven’t made the transition yet, but we expect to be fully uploaded by early next year. And when we’re fully loaded — right now we’ve got about 900 films up there — by the end of the first quarter next year we’re expecting to see about 1400 up there. We’re uploading as many as we can each day.

We’re also excited that we get to program films that were never available to us on disc, some from licensors who, for one reason or another, had to do their own Blu-Ray releases. We were very excited about those filmmakers and wanted to bring them to the attention of our audience.

An example of that is a program we’re going to put up as part of a series called “Meet the Filmmakers.” Its a new 48-minute documentary about the Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, who is just fantastic. The documentary will be accompanied by a quite complete selection of her work, and her work will cycle through the service for about six months. But the documentary about her will stay there under this ‘meet-the-filmmakers’ rubric.

We’re going to be doing this with more contemporary filmmakers on a continuing basis. So the library of Meet the Filmmaker documentaries will grow and become a channel asset in the long run. And when those films premiere, they will also be accompanied by the documentaries. So we’re really interested in the possibilities of that kind of programming, and we’re excited about the kind of service that presents our films in a different way.

We’re concentrating on what we as film lovers would want — how to make the Criterion channel an additive experience. It doesn’t just offer permanent access to the Criterion channels; it’s also taking a slightly different approach.

Another example of this is Observations on Film Art, where we’re having David Boardwell, Kristen Thompson, and Jeff Smith, the authors of Film Art, which is the classic film school 101 textbook, present film school micro lectures. These will be about 5-7 minutes long and focus in on a specific aspect of film art. For example, Jeff is talking about musical motifs in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. The idea to explore how classical musical motifs are used in a Hollywood score: here’s a few minutes about what to look and listen for, and here’s a few minutes about the film. It’s great from our perspective, because instead of just choosing a film by choosing to click, why not tune in and maybe learn something?

A scene from David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive."

A scene from David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.”

AF: How does Turner Classic Movies fit into this?

Becker: Well, we couldn’t have done this without them. TCM brings so much to the table at this point. They obviously bring a great deal of experience in terms of programming. They have programmed for years now, so they have a lot of expertise in that department. They also bring enormous reach given their long association with Hollywood studios. Those connections have certainly made the amount of licensing that FilmStruck and the Criterion channel require much more possible.

But more than that, they’ve also been responsible for building the platform and bringing it to market, and that’s a major undertaking. It’s still in the early days, so there are many improvements to come. As with any startup, there are lots of things that will appear and need changing and refining, in terms of how we see people using the platform and what problems they’re having. We’re also currently on a much smaller range of devices compared to where we eventually will be. I know Apple TV is rolling out very soon, and as we appear on more devices I think we’ll see a broader array of people appreciating the services and what they’re good for. This is very much at the beginning for us.

AF: Does this include IPhones?

Becker: We’re already on IPhones. We’re on IOS devices, so IPhones, Ipad, Android devices. We’re on Amazon Fire devices, exclusively for what they call “the 10-foot experience” which is watching on a television set. It’s still only the beginning of what we want to do.

AF: Will a Criterion title be available for streaming on the same day as it’s released on disc?

Becker: Sometimes. It depends on what the source of the title is. As I say, this is not meant to be, and never was meant to be, the equivalent of owning every title Criterion has ever released on disc. It’s a very different thing. If it were just the entire library I think ultimately it would almost be boring, but it’s also not really feasible.

So, for example, when Mulholland Drive comes up on the service, it will be up until the end of January. It will cycle in and out, to be replaced by other films. We are especially excited to show it as a complete edition, with all of its supplements. Showing commentary tracks is something only Criterion and FilmStruck can do right now. You can’t do that on any other streaming service that I know of, and switch between them on the fly. That’s something that’s as essential to the mission of Criterion as anything else we do — that goes back to our first commentary track back in 1984, for King Kong.

At Criterion we have always said that we wanted to be a company that was driven by a mission, not a medium, so what does it mean to bring this mission into a streaming space? And for us, a lot of that has to do with bringing forward a lot of real thinking about programming, not just algorithmic prediction but actual thinking — what would be interesting to watch? What would be interesting to pair on a Friday night double feature? What classic or contemporary short would go with what feature? We’re playing with a weekly rotation to get people interested in the idea that we might all be watching the same things at certain times.

When the double feature comes on, it will be archived so you’ll always be able to go back and check them out — provided that they don’t include licensed titles that have expired. One of the first hurdles we have to jump over is to do a better job letting people know when movies are going to be cycling in and out of the channel.

A scene from trilogy

A scene from the new 4k restoration of Marcel Pagnol’s “Marseille Trilogy.”

AF: What format are the films going to be presented in? Will they appear in a DVD or Blu-Ray level of clarity?

Becker: Wherever possible, we’re going to show the movie in the highest resolution possible. If we have it in HD, it will be in HD on the channel. If we don’t have an HD version of a film, or we haven’t gotten a chance to restore them yet — there are lots of films that haven’t been restored yet — we’ll certainly make them available in the best available version we can lay our hands on. In many cases, that’s going to inspire us to look back and say ok, well, how can we give this version a revisit. Whatever we have on the channel will definitely be the best available version.

AF: What kind of impact do you think streaming will have on your physical disc sales?

Becker: The Blu-Ray edition is always going to be the flagship release of any film. As far as we’re concerned, that is the definitive edition. There is no way for us to offer, through a streaming service, the level of image fidelity that we can offer through a Blu-Ray. The other thing is, we try to make our Blu-Rays art objects in their own right. If you look at some of the things we’ve produced this year — the Guillermo Del Toro box set, or the Dekalog box set, it’s not as if we’re backing off in any way from making very elaborate Blu-Ray presentations of films.

We are absolutely dedicated to that marketplace and we don’t see it eroding as a result of all this. Hopefully there will be people who see the streaming service as a useful and exciting addition to their Criterion experience. People can use their subscriptions to see movies that they haven’t decided about and want to preview them. Just to be able to browse around and investigate films outside of what you already own as part of your own physical media collection is pretty compelling.

For me, I’ve discovered an awful lot of cool stuff we’ve prepared for the channel that I’d forgotten about. And we’re going to make that material easier for people to find on the channel. There’s an encounter with John Cassavetes from 1965-ish, around the time he’s editing Faces. It’s in the house where he’s editing the film and he’s brash and smart and young and everything that we expect John Cassavetes to be: iconoclastic, fiercely independent, unstoppable — you can really feel it. It’s that kind of encounter with a filmmaker we find really useful in its own right — it’s not accessible to people who might not have actually bought the box set or the edition of Faces, but who might have an interest in that filmmaker.

AF: What about the effects of streaming on cinemas?

Becker: Well, in a sense you’re not only talking about Criterion you’re also talking about Janus films. They’re our partners, we share a lot of resources, and we share a lot of staff. And Janus Films has really been, as a theatrical brand, dramatically reinvigorated over the last, I would say, ten years. Starting with the release of Revanche, the Goetz Szpillman film that was nominated, and then Le Havre, which was nominated, and The Great Beauty which won an Oscar. And there was the huge stunt that we did with A Hard Day’s Night all across the country on the 50th Anniversary of its premiere in London. Those and a lot of other things have put us in a different league as a theatrical releasing company.

And a lot of what has been possible has been possible because Janus has been doing very high-resolution 2k and 4k restorations of the classics library. And now, in the age of DCT (digital recording component video videocassette), audiences can benefit from those restorations in a theatrical context, and that was never true before.

Personally, I love the Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy, they are incredible films from the ’30s that are very hard to see, and they’re opening in New York early next year. They look glorious — they were restored in 4k — and they are hopefully going to reintroduce Marcel Pagnol, a great French novelist and filmmaker, to an audience who hasn’t been able to see those films except in very muddy, old, and murky video transfers for quite a while. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a good reason why we’re seeing more and more repertory theatres open up across the country. So I’m very bullish about movies in theatres, and we’re very passionate about theatres as the ideal way to see a movie, in the dark, with strangers.

A scene from "Revanche."

A scene from “Revanche.”

AF: What about the guest curators? I enjoyed the Adventures In Moviegoing segment with SNL’s Bill Hader. Do you have any others in mind?

Becker: We do.  We haven’t announced any yet, but I will give you a preview. There’s already one in the can with Roger Corman that looks at him not only as an auteur producer and director of films, but also a distributor of classic films. A lot of people don’t realize that he distributed films by people like Fellini, Antonioni, and Kurosawa. So it’s a great opportunity to talk to him as a movie lover and a moviegoer, and there’s a selection of films that will go with the interview. There are actually others that are on the way, but I don’t want to tip you off just yet. They will be coming along pretty frequently.

We are looking forward to having people outside the film world getting involved as programmers — I think there are lots of writers and artists and magicians and paleontologists and doctors who have passionate lives in cinema and that’s all that’s really required to do this kind of programming well. As we go forward, we’re going to be tailoring each of these to the sensibilities of a particular person. I think the feature is only going to become richer and more interesting. I’m personally really looking forward to what Adventures in Moviegoing is going to be in the future.

AF: What are your plans for developing original programming, such as shorts, documentaries?

Becker: I mentioned Observations on Film Art, which is sort of our mini film school. But there’s also Master Class; the first of those is a conversation between Kirsten Johnston and Michael Moore about the unintended consequences of documentary filmmaking for the filmmakers and their subjects. It’s a fascinating conversation that took place at the Traverse City Film Festival, before a very small audience. Thanks to the channel we’re able to bring that conversation to a broader audience and keep it available as a part of our channel offering.

What we are after is an intimate encounter with filmmakers, so we can learn about them — their sensibility, how do they think, about their environment. The idea is to have that very personal encounter be the thing you carry into seeing their films.

Ultimately, FilmStruck and the Criterion channel is really about adapting the kind of publishing approach that we’ve always had to a new medium. How do we do this? What does it mean to be Criterion in a streaming space? Streaming presents different opportunities, so we’re trying to make the most of those. We’re trying to be thoughtful about what the possibilities of the medium are for the audience, and we are really excited about focusing on how we can help to further a serious conversation about film.

Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.


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