The United Kingdom is home to some of the world’s most acclaimed and influential filmmakers, but there have been surprisingly few ways for American film fans to stream the best of the country’s cinema in recent years.
That’s something that the British Film Institute aims to change via BFI Player Classics, the organization’s upcoming American streaming service. BFI Player Classics, which launches on May 14 and will cost $5.99 per month, will offer consumers a library of over 200 British films from a range of genres and filmmakers. Though BFI Player Classics is launching in an incredibly crowded industry that doesn’t lack for specialization — established streaming services such as BritBox and Acorn TV are exclusively focused on British programming — the platform’s highly-curated library and singular focus on well-received British films could cause it to stand out from competing streaming services.
Robin Baker, BFI’s head curator, noted that BFI Player Classics aims to promote the best of the United Kingdom’s mainstream and indie filmmakers, including a variety of films that could circumvent subscribers’ expectations about British cinema.
“People have a preconception of what British cinema is like and it tends to come with a ‘Downton Abbey’ feel about it,” Baker said in an interview. “The reality of Britain and the nature of filmmaking is so far removed from it all being like that. A lot of what we’re looking at are the key British films that you can’t get on streaming services. Ones I’d highlight would be things like ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets,’ which is a well-known comedy in the United Kingdom that is a wonderful critique of Britishness and stars Alec Guinness in eight different roles, as well as ‘Went the Day Well?,’ which imagined the Nazi invasion of Britain and is a really brutal and savage film that contemporary audiences might be shocked to watch.”
BFI Player Classics does not boast original content or much in the way of contemporary films; the focus is very much on the best of the United Kingdom’s film industry from decades past. Baker noted that the streamer will offer around 200- 300 films at a given time from a wide range of genres and dates as far back as 1927, including titles from acclaimed filmmakers ranging from Alfred Hitchcock and Ken Loach to Sally Potter and Michael Powell. Around a third of BFI Player Classics’ programming is unavailable on other streamers, according to Baker.
Though BFI Player Classics aims to put a new spotlight on British cinema, the streaming service has technically existed in the United States since 2019. The American version of the platform, which already exists as BFI Player in the United Kingdom, launched on Roku in 2019 and made its way onto Apple platforms in 2020.
Paul Lewis, BFI’s head of live services, told IndieWire that BFI had long been interested in launching the streamer as a standalone service and argued that the stateside popularity of platforms such as BritBox and Acorn TV, as well as the classic film-focused TCM, proved there was a sustainable audience for BFI Player Classics. Lewis declined to state how many subscribers the BFI streaming service garnered on Roku and Apple but said that BFI aimed to acquire over 100,000 subscribers within a year of the platform’s direct-to-consumer launch. Lewis argued that the streamer’s library of decades-old cult hits and acclaimed films could cause it to stand out from competitors.
“If you’re entering the streaming market now, you can’t select all the obvious films because they’re on other carriers and you won’t be able to get the acquisitions for your platform,” Lewis said. “We’ve selected content that can’t be found elsewhere in the United States. There’s the obvious hook for cinephiles who want to find dig deep into British cinema, but there’s a mixture of content that appeals to all kinds of cinema lovers.”
The standalone version of BFI Player Classics launches on May 14. More information about the streaming service is available here.