Why is the curtain suddenly dropping now on FilmStruck, a vast, diverse, and tastefully curated archive of films spanning the past century and the entire globe?
By Matt Hanson
Cinephiles everywhere received the depressing news last week that FilmStruck, the online streaming service of the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies, will be no more as of November 29, 2018. The axe will fall exactly two years to the day after FilmStruck premiered as Criterion’s first attempt at independent streaming, which The Arts Fuse enthusiastically covered in an interview with the CEO of Criterion. For its many devotees, accessing Criterion and TCM’s vast, diverse, and tastefully curated archive of films spanning the past century and the entire globe was a chance to stroll through cinema heaven. The question is, why is the curtain suddenly dropping now?
WarnerMedia, the conglomerate that resulted from the AT&T/ Time Warner merger, explained in a memo how they have decided to “streamline” their operation. As several news outlets have explained, the ultimate goal for WarnerMedia is to shift resources towards mass-market entertainment services. The memo explains that TurnerMedia is “incredibly proud” of the “creativity and innovations” that FilmStruck produced and that it has a “very loyal fanbase.” Unfortunately, it’s merely a “niche market.” WarnerMedia vaguely promises to respect “key learnings” from FilmStruck, and sputters out with the slightly brazen explanation that it will “redirect this investment back into our collective portfolios.”
The logic of this statement is just about as tortured as its syntax. Evidently FilmStruck had a pretty loyal fanbase (laments for its demise have appeared in magazines and all over social media). So what if it’s a niche market? The case can be very easily made that niche markets stay that way — until they turn into major ones. See, for instance, the gradual mainstreaming of hip-hop. In film, look no further than Quentin Tarantino (for just one example) to see how a weirdo with eccentric tastes — which were the result of consuming just the kinds of movies FilmStruck offers — can become a household name. Even the memo itself admitted that FilmStruck had a committed and passionate audience; to date no hard data has proven that it wasn’t getting the subscribers it needed.
Whatever the memo’s allusion to “learnings” is supposed to mean (did Borat write this?), it would be naïve to believe that FilmStruck’s aesthetic wisdom will have any impact on the worldview of the corporate behemoth that just swallowed it whole. Sure, more people will want to watch Batman fight Superman than will be up for seeing Au Hasard Balthazar — but why can’t there be room for both?
When I recently assigned John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to my freshman composition students, one student innocently asked me if it was “young people good” or “old people good.” I told her that she’ll have to see it and find out. The past few classes actually got more involved in the story than I’d expected, so I hope it will go over pretty well this time around. But I knew what she meant — tastes have a way of changing, and only a grouch or an archconservative refuses to roll with the times, even a little bit.
But a corporation brusquely shoving all that celluloid off the platform not only does a disservice to the art and the artists who created it — it displays a willfully myopic neglect of imaginative possibility. Watching Criterion films reminds us how vital cinema history still is — yesterday’s blockbuster is today’s blockbuster, if you only slightly adjust your eyes. Different people go to the movies for all kinds of reasons, but essentially they all want the same thing. The great director Samuel Fuller once summed it up one word: emotion. Emotion can come alive onscreen in an infinite number of ways, filtered through a million different cultural lenses, a seeming paradox that gives the audience the best of both worlds — we get the chance to catch the look and feel of a particular time and place as well as the universality of the human condition.
It’s not going too far to say that limiting the exposure to the kinds of movies FilmStruck offered restricts people’s imaginative and emotional capacity. It’s censorship through market logic rather than by government decree, which still amounts to the same thing. It limits our capacity to see. Film (and art in general) at its best offers insight into worlds other than one’s own; it’s a way of accessing other possible ways of living. Watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy isn’t the same as experiencing Apu’s life firsthand, but it gives you a sense of what it takes to live through it, providing a glimpse into the kind of reality that millions of people experience every day.
So much of life these days is solipsistic, with innumerable clicks and beeps and likes and dislikes defining the contours of our daily consciousness. It does us good to get out of our heads once in a while, to enter the world of, say, a mediaeval Japanese emperor, a snappy New York gossip columnist, Italian clowns, Polish freedom fighters, a French assassin, a diabolical surgeon on a remote island, or a bunch of hip flunkies bantering in a New Orleans jail cell. Classic cinema is an invitation to art and the powerful worlds it creates. In other words, it’s not a fucking “niche market.” Try that on for a “learning” the next time you wonder why there’s nothing interesting going on at the multiplex.
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.
Erik Nikander says
I, too, will miss FilmStruck dearly, and I can only hope the folks behind it and Criterion will be able to set up a comparable service that isn’t under WarnerMedia’s bloodless, cowardly purview. Not only was it a wonderful resource for film fans, one that granted me easy access to so many weird and wonderful movies that I might not have come across otherwise (René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, the two non-Oldboy films in Chan Wook-Park’s Vengeance trilogy, Jim Henson’s early experimental works, and David Lynch’s bizarre and hilarious Dumbland animated series, just to name a few), it was also clearly a labor of love, curated with care. So many other streaming services are too eager to dump a load of garbage on its subscribers and make you dig for the good stuff (looking at you, Netflix), but Filmstruck always wanted to connect you right to the best of the best.
Matt Hanson says
Amen to that, Erik. Maybe — just maybe — if there’s a big enough outcry about this, proving that there is a steady and passionate market of people who want this kind of programming, it will reappear somewhere. I doubt it will be added to Netflix, or that Hulu will take it back. Maybe Criterion itself can fund and run its own independent streaming service? For now, we can only hope.