Criterion Collection president Peter Becker knew FilmStruck’s death was imminent, weeks in advance of news reports late last October. And long before industry luminaries ranging from Martin Scorsese to Bill Hader sent up flares to save the Turner Classic Movies streaming platform, Becker and his peers had a contingency plan to save FilmStruck’s Criterion Channel.
“Our question wasn’t, ‘What other big service are we turning to?’” said Becker in an interview from Criterion’s Park Avenue offices. “Our first question was, ‘Is it time to start our own channel?’”
By mid-November, the company announced plans for a freestanding streaming service that would launch in spring 2019. The Criterion Channel, now available to subscribers on nearly every major platform for $10.99 a month or $99.99 a year, hit that deadline with ease. When the Criterion Channel went live April 8, it meant that 1,634 films from one of the world’s most-revered film libraries were immediately available to stream on devices ranging from iOS to Roku. That number will fluctuate as the service juggles its own catalogue with partnerships with a range of studios, large and small.
For the first time, however, Criterion is going solo. Vimeo provides technical services on the backend, with Criterion employing a handful of full-time staffers committed to curating the service. The relaunch, which follows two years of outsourcing to FilmStruck and several more in which the Criterion Collection was housed by Hulu, illustrates the growing popularity of niche streaming platforms that have more manageable expectations than the studio-sized ambitions of Netflix, Amazon, Warner Bros., Disney, and others. After two years, FilmStruck amassed a reported subscriber base of 100,000 (though some insiders estimated half that amount).
Whatever the figure, it was one that hardly justified the overhead for the streaming service’s overseers. Becker said he didn’t fault corporate parent Warner Bros. for that conclusion.
“I think the problem was that, no matter how steadily it grew, and no matter how big it got, it wasn’t going to get big enough or lucrative enough to move the needle for a massive corporation,” he said. “They were saying, ‘Where do we want to focus our attention?’” The answer is, probably not on niches.”
Warners maintains a licensing deal with Criterion, and he credited the studio for allowing the service to carve out a deal that allowed its library to stream on the Criterion Channel. “They recognized, I think rightly, there was an important constituency that was excited about what FilmStruck was doing, and that it was maybe not big enough to warrant a corporate scale for the kind of attention it requires,” he said. “It’s a relatively modest size compared to the huge mainstream audiences that drive platforms like Netflix and Hulu.”
Becker was especially keen on maintaining the curatorial vision of the Criterion Channel. That first came to fruition on FilmStruck, and followed growing frustrations when the collection was buried on Hulu. “We put up nearly 1,000 films on Hulu for five years,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of making it available. It’s a matter of making it navigable, making it discoverable.” Sitting next to Becker in Criterion’s conference room, Criterion Channel programmer Penelope Bartlett added, “There just wasn’t much ability to curate within the online space.”
By contrast, the Criterion Channel is pure curation: The day-one homepage presented a dense library of mouthwatering options to a range of cinephiles, curated by Criterion staff and others, not unlike the previous iteration on FilmStruck. For its launch, users were treated to a splashy homepage showcasing a range of historical gems, from major works by recently deceased French New Wave auteur Agnes Varda to classic film noirs from the Columbia Pictures archive.
Bartlett’s programming includes packages for every day of the week, including a short film pairing every Tuesday, a Wednesday focus on female filmmakers, Friday double features, and a family-friendly Saturday matinee selection. Users also can browse through the sort of arthouse classics that give Criterion and its affiliated Janus Films library a word-renowned reputations, from “Seven Samurai” to “The Rules of the Game.”
When the Criterion library switched from Hulu to FilmStruck, the libraries overlapped for one day; with the end of FilmStruck, however, Criterion’s library was unavailable digitally for the first time in years. That situation mandated the accelerated timeline for a relaunch.
“The most important thing was to reconnect the audience with the movies that they love as quickly as possible,” Becker said. “That was the big picture that solidified all the decision making.”
Over the years, Becker has evolved into a kind of movie-buff Willy Wonka, overseeing the reputation for a sacred catalog that first took root when his father, William J. Becker, co-founded Janus Films in 1956. During the interview, Becker flipped through the app on an iPad, highlighting one option after another with breathless enthusiasm. He tapped through special features carried over from FilmStruck, like “Adventures in Moviegoing,” where filmmakers and actors present some of the library’s highlights (next up: Julie Taymor on “Baby Face,” among others), and “Art-House America,” in which managers from small arthouses around the country present some of their favorite films and share their facilities.
That lead to another topic: While the threat to brick-and-mortar theatrical venues posed by streaming services may be accelerating, Criterion provides more of a complementary approach.
“These audiences do need hubs,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to live in a city like New York, which has hubs like the Film Forum and the Metrograph and Lincoln Center, then you actually have living, breathing, every-night film culture with great programming to go to and all that stuff. But if you don’t, then this idea of an online cinematheque, being a hub for that community in the digital space, means a lot.”
Becker pointed to one upcoming Criterion Channel adaptation of a Metrograph series from last year, “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women Stories,” which series curator Nellie Killian will bring to the service in the coming weeks. “It’s frustrating to organize a rare screening in New York and get questions from people around the country asking how they can see it, when the answer is that they probably can’t,” Killian said via email. “Criterion is offering bring work to an audience of interested cinephiles all over North America, and providing the kind of context that helps people connect with films they might otherwise overlook.”
It’s not the sort of showcase you’ll find on Netflix. While it remains unclear how much upcoming streaming services from Apple, Disney, and Warners will rely on curation, Becker said he had no interest in subjecting the Criterion Collection to the whims of a soulless algorithm.
“I’m not saying that algorithms are terrible, but they’re not good engines fordiscovery,” said Becker. “They’re not going to lead you on an adventure.” He deflected when asked if he had fielded offers from bigger platforms after FilmStruck’s demise. (There were rumors in the industry suggesting overtures from Netflix, among others.) “Not so much,” he said. “We already recognized that it’s hard to get attention for something in a big diversified platform like a Hulu or a Netflix, and they’re doing a lot to engineer your experience and behavior.”
For Bartlett, the Criterion Channel provides the opportunity to push engaged users to explore a range of cinematic experiences. “We really want to bring in the people from FilmStruck who loved the classic Hollywood films,” she said, but also ticked off a list of experimental filmmakers and provocateurs likely to receive prominent placement as well. “We’re going to showcase Jonas Mekas and Hollis Frampton. And we’re going to to show really challenging contemporary films,” she said, citing the work of Austrian boundary-pusher Ulrich Seidl as one example.
There may be reams of anecdotal evidence that audiences exist for all of these movies, but Becker declined to cite a goal for the number of subscribers necessary to justify work on the platform: He said there wasn’t one. “Our goal is to make a service that is sustainable,” he said. “We never had particular growth targets. I don’t think that our motivation is fundamentally market-oriented at all.”
It doesn’t hurt that Criterion remains a physical media production company. Its treasured box sets and ostentatious special features continue to be a central factor in its operations, and Becker said Blu Ray sales have been up for the past two years. “If we stopped making Blu Rays, there would be a huge uproar. It would be insane,” he said. “It’s still our flagship line. It’s still, by far, the most important part of our financial picture.”
He noted the generations of collectors who invested in Criterion over the years, going back to its days as a VHS and Laserdisc company. “There has been new generation at each point,” he said. “I actually think the shutdown of FilmStruck led to this kind of survivalist sensibility, like, ‘Gosh, I have to get physical media of the movies that I really don’t want to lose access to, because I realize now in this digital world that everything, you can turn the switch on and off.’”
Becker was thrilled to turn the switch back on. Once he started showing off the Criterion Channel app, he couldn’t put it down, shrugging off the next meeting on his agenda several times over after talking for an hour straight. He was especially keen on the way the app used technology initially designed for browsing multiple seasons of a series. On the Criterion Channel, that functionality made it easier to toggle between films and their special features. It was especially visible on the Varda collection, which has enough behind-the-scenes glimpses of Varda throughout her decades-spanning career to fill a feature of its own. “We’re going train people so that’s where they’re going to look for multi-part series,” he said. “We’re really focused on how do we want to integrate these things.”
Becker said he was unfazed by the crowded field of niche subscription streaming services. Recent launches such as OVID.TV, Magnolia Selects, and Kanopy have plenty of compelling offerings, but the Criterion Channel is maintaining relationships with a range of specialty distributors, including Kino Lorber, Milestone, and Oscilloscope Laboratories. They benefit from the new home now that big streamers like Netflix have become less keen on acquiring older films for their libraries.
“Sometimes I’ll feel like a twinge of competitive jealousy when somebody gets to release a movie that we would’ve liked to release,” he said. “But everybody wants to come together to get these films seen. What matters is the audience’s consistent support. We love doing this and if we want to live to fight another day, we’ll want to do really good job of it.”