While activists nationwide mobilized to get out the vote for the midterms, some of the luminaries of the country’s film community came together for a very different cause. As news that Warner Media would be shutting down classic film streaming platform FilmStruck by the end of November, efforts to reverse the decision erupted across the country.
After an online petition surpassed 25,000 signatures in a matter of days, some of the most prominent filmmakers in the industry sent a joint letter to Warner Bros. Picture Group chair Toby Emmerich to help save the platform. The directors and actors imploring Emmerich to help included Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Damien Chazelle, and Leonardo DiCaprio — but ultimately, three men drove the efforts to gather signatures for the letter: Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, and Rian Johnson.
So far, the attention has yielded some promising developments, including Criterion’s new plan for its own streaming platform in 2019, and reports that Warner Media may develop a new version of FilmStruck as part of its larger streaming ambitions next year. But with the entire future still unclear, the filmmakers have taken to elaborating on their mission.
Del Toro was in the process of evacuating his home in Thousand Oaks as forest fires consumed the region while organizing the letter, and the environmental duress led him to contemplate the FilmStruck situation in broader terms. “Much like people care for the carbon footprint and the duplication of natural resources, we are living in a massive deforestation of film culture,” he said via email. “Archival life is vital for films, especially classics, indies, and [international] film. Thousands of movies are not nor have they ever been available in home video and curatorial efforts are vital.”
When Wright first heard that FilmStruck was shutting down, he said in a phone interview, his first reaction was “that sucks.” He had grown used to FilmStruck’s careful approach to curating selections from its collections, which included both Turner titles and Criterion’s venerated library. “It’s like a cool library or that video store clerk who knew what to recommend the curious film fan,” he said. “Whether you live near a great rep cinema or not, platforms like FilmStruck did a great job of creating a library of great cinema; old, new, classic, cult, well-regarded and overlooked.”
Wright first took action after hearing from longtime FilmStruck presenter and Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone that Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese had already made appeals to Emmerich on behalf of the platform. Wright, who had worked with Spielberg on the screenplay for “The Adventures of Tintin,” sent the Hollywood heavyweight a note.
“I emailed Steven, and said, ‘Is there anything we can do? Because I know for certain that we feel equally strongly,” the “Baby Driver” director said. “Steven actually said, ‘You should write Toby.’ He’s someone we’ve all worked with.” Wright, who’s currently working on a documentary on L.A. rock band Sparks, quickly touched base with peers Johnson and Del Toro to split up the efforts of reaching out to more names. Johnson squeezed in efforts in between production of next project, “Knives Out.”
It didn’t take long for the letter gain traction, and it was first published in Deadline on November 12. “To be honest, if we had more time, that list could’ve been three times as long,” Wright said, noting that everyone from Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy to “Florida Project” director Sean Baker reached out to him after the letter ran to add their names. “It’s like your favorite library going away.”
As a contractor for Turner, Malone was one of the first people outside of FilmStruck staff to hear that Warner Media planned to pull the plug on the streaming platform by the end of November. “I surprised myself by getting more emotional than I thought I would,” she said during a film criticism panel at the Key West Film Festival over the weekend. “Not because of I was losing a job, but because of the wider implications of losing a service like FilmStruck. Not all theaters play these movies, so if you’re in the middle of the country, it can be really difficult to see independent films. Also, what gets lost with each iterations of technology? How many films end up falling by the wayside? How does that affect that we study, and how does that affect the film canon?”
Wright noted that FilmStruck’s curatorial approach provided a welcome contrast to the options on Netflix. “It’s not controversial to say that Netflix has a pretty pitiful classic movie selection,” he said. “That’s because, as they got more successful, studios started to pull the libraries and hatch their own platforms. So FilmStruck was doing something beyond just being a content provider; curation and context is important.”
Avid cinephile Del Toro said he maintained additional accounts with Fandor, another streaming platform with substantial classic film offerings, as well as accounts with Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. “I travel so much, so I have about two or 3,000 movies in the cloud, but some obscure selections are only available in one platform or another,” he said. “I have my physical media — I keep buying Blu-rays and keep DVDs — but I think streaming makes it easy and pleasurable to consult a film.” He had contributed introductions to several FilmStruck titles. “They listened to the users’ needs and desires,” he said.
Wright pointed out that the programing decisions on the platform provided the antithesis to Netflix’s recommendation algorithms. “As far as Netflix is concerned, I only like standup specials, apparently,” he said. “The key thing that FilmStruck was doing was having a place where you knew things had real quality, and they were also historically interesting.”
It remains unclear just how much of a long-term impact these efforts will have, but Wright said he hoped they underscored the value of supporting platforms that archive work in an ever-changing distribution market. “If you are not with a big studio, it’s really difficult to keep indie films in a good condition,” he said. “Many filmmakers are finding that their titles lapse out of circulation and essentially vanish. We shouldn’t assume that everything is out there forever.”
Malone was still processing the rapid impact of Wright’s efforts after she got in touch with him. “He really rallied the troops, got behind the cause, and that really helps,” she said. “I don’t know if that will change anything, I hope it does, but I’m excited about the conversation that’s there.” Her new book, “The Female Gaze,” surveys 52 films from female directors, and many of the titles are available in FilmStruck’s library. “Often, the films that get forgotten about or pushed aside are movies made independently or made by people of color or female filmmakers,” she said. “That has huge implications.”
Del Toro said he was initially shocked about “the way a service and a cultural link like FilmStruck could be disregarded,” and said he was concerned about the impact of “the 21st century short-attention span” on viewer interest in classic film. Membership for FilmStruck has been estimated at around 100,000 users, and the service will likely need to garner a much larger subscriber base in whatever new form it takes. Del Toro said he vowed “not to go quietly into that good night,” he said. “We have to keep the pressure on and not let this be a PR movie.”