The Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies announced today that they will be launching Filmstruck, a new streaming service including Criterion’s formidable catalogue as well movies from Janus Films, Flicker Alley, Icarus, Kino, Milestone, and Zeitgeist, in the fall. I’ve known it was coming for a while, and was thinking of it when I wrote last week that “the death of video stores leaves vital chunks of cinema history stranded in no man’s land: Unavailable to rent, either physical or virtual, but priced beyond what a curious viewer is willing to pay. (See, for example, the Criterion releases that aren’t available on their Hulu channel.) One has to imagine that gap will be closed eventually, but in the meantime, what’s a cinephile to do?”
As a reader promptly pointed out, the unavailability of classic films used to be a fact of life: Before VHS, if a movie wasn’t on TV or playing at your local repertory cinema, that was pretty much it. (There were 16mm prints available for home rental, but only for the hardcore.) But we live in a world in which art that isn’t continually reinjected into the culture might as well not exist. It was Prince’s right, both legal and artistic, to withhold his songs from services like Spotify and to keep them off YouTube, but the apparent result was that listeners who came of age after the millennium — after Prince stopped having radio hits, and after many people stopped listening to the radio at all — grew up in total ignorance of his music. For a movie like Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” or Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” to fall into a similar memory hole would be an artistic tragedy.
That’s why Filmstruck, which promises to do for art-house movies what TCM does for Hollywood classics, is such a crucial venture. The Criterion Collection is arguably the most valuable brand in the world of physical media: No one collects every Warner Bros. Blu-ray, but Criterion has a devoutly loyal audience of tens of thousands of collectors who are willing to pay premium prices even for movies they’ve never heard of, some of which will, realistically speaking, never even leave the shrinkwrap. Criterion’s not the only one consistently producing discs at such a high level; Milestone’s Shirley Clarke series, Flicker Alley’s early cinema collections, and Kino releases like last year’s set built around Jonas Mekas’ “Lost Lost Lost” are every bit as essential, and don’t get nearly as much attention. But they would seem to have the most to lose by making their entire catalogue, as well as the copious audio commentaries et al. that make cinephiles’ mouths water, available via streaming. It remains to be seen what effect Filmstruck will have on Criterion’s physical sales, but by making such a bold foray into the over-the-top space, and by taking many of their peers with them, they’re recognizing that 21st-century cinephilia won’t be tethered to the acquisition of 5-inch circles of plastic. (You can, however, have my Blu-ray collection when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.)
“City Lights” and “Seven Samurai,” along with hundreds more, are available on Criterion’s Hulu channel, but the slice of Criterion’s collection available via Hulu is far from complete, and though complete details on Filmstruck are still unavailable — the subscription price is notably missing from the initial announcement — it’s clear that “the Criterion Channel,” which according to the press release “will offer subscribers the most comprehensive Criterion experience ever available anywhere,” will be a separate add-on, perhaps comparable to the difference between ad-supported Hulu Plus ($7.99/month) and the commercial free version ($11.99). That’s still a bargain, but add it to monthly fees for, say, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Now — not to mention Fandor or Mubi — and the cost of cord-cutting starts to rival a cable bill. Whatever the cost of Filmstruck + the Criterion Channel ends up being, the chances are roughly 100 percent that the people who complain about the cost of Criterion discs now will complain about the monthly subscription fee.
Content (ugh) ought to cost something, or at least it has to if anything beyond the lowest common denominator is going to survive. I’d wager the people who complain about the price of a Criterion Blu-ray have no idea how much it costs to restore a decades-old film, or to produce the supplements that accompany it, pay writers for the booklet essays, etc. etc. etc. Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” was a cornerstone of the art-house boom, but until last year’s Criterion release, it had only been available as a poor-quality DVD, and even that had been out of print for years. There’s no question that Criterion’s resources, however vast, pale beside those of Sony, who released the earlier disc, but Criterion, along with the Academy Film Archive, spent the money to restore the films to their former glory, and Sony didn’t. That money has to come from somewhere.
Sadly, lecturing people about the importance of paying for things isn’t an especially compelling sales tool, which means Filmstruck will live or die based on its perceived utility — not so much how people use it as how much they like having access to it. Access is much of what we pay for now. We may not watch many movies on Netflix (especially since they’ve gutted their selection in recent years), but it’s good to know that we can catch up on “House of Cards” or “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” any time we want. Are there enough people who feel that way about movies, especially when they’re not heavily marketed Hollywood product? Filmstruck will be an important, and possibly critical, opportunity to find out.