FilmStruck’s Demise Reveals Downside of Streaming
We examine what the death of FilmStruck means for the future of classic movies, and our understanding of them, on streaming services.
FilmStruck is no more. Or at least it soon will cease to exist. These words should be daggers for film lovers everywhere. Launched only two years ago as a partnership between Turner and Warner Bros. Digital Networks, FilmStruck filled a void that most streaming giants with their greater and greater emphasis on new or original “content” have increasingly ignored. Benefitting from Warner Archive’s library of classic Hollywood cinema—the largest in the world—and Turner’s own catalogue built over decades from Turner Classic Movies, FilmStruck provided a curated array of classic cinema, as well as more modern and independent gems due to an exclusive deal with the Criterion Collection.
Yet Turner and Warner Bros. Digital Archives announced Friday that they were pulling the plug on FilmStruck, which will cease services on Nov. 29. Further it has already stopped taking new subscriptions as of Oct. 26, so if you wanted to at least spend a month plundering its treasure trove of cinema, then you’re out of luck unless you’re already a paying subscriber. In a tweet to followers, the official FilmStruck account stated, “It has been our pleasure bringing FilmStruck to you and thank you for your support.”
Yet if one looks deeper into what the demise of FilmStruck represents for streaming—the defining form of media consumption in this century—it paints a grim future for how we value our art and our history. Indeed, Variety dug a little deeper into FilmStruck’s fall this morning, revealing that this is, in part, the aftermath from AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner.
Citing two unnamed sources who say AT&T made the choice to kill FilmStruck even before the deal was finalized, the trade explains the rationale was “to streamline operations by cutting niche-oriented business ventures… the strategy aligns with the new WarnerMedia blueprint to shift resources to mass-market entertainment services.”
In other words, servicing film history and cinephiles is “niche” and the desire is to keep things “mass market,” and by extension solely concerned with the present. When one looks at the most popular streaming service in the world, Netflix, and their thin catalogue of “classic” cinema, the appeal of mass marketed ambitions is hardly reassuring. While there are genuinely great movies there, from The Godfather to Blazing Saddles, their numbers are few, and fewer still for movies made before 1970. For every The African Queen or The Third Man, there’s a dozen action movies and comedies from the ‘90s like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Clerks.
This is not to say that Robin Hood or Clerks are bad movies. But they also were wildly popular American movies during the lifetime of most of Netflix’s viewers. And by being shuffled to the “Classics” category, they’re already being placed on the precipice above obsolete. For despite streaming offering the possibility of servicing a large array of niches, to appeal to a mass market, they’re almost exclusively catering to the current, and to the new. This extends beyond original programming on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or HBO, and carries over to the emphasis of new releases placed on the service.
In order to stay competitive, each streaming service is trying to acquire rights for the newest and highest profile releases whose induction to streaming guides at the beginning of every month is reported with grand fanfare. This is why Netflix will likely be quite behooved when Disney launches its own streaming service next year and stops feeding its soon-to-be competitor with a steady trickle of Marvel Studios and Star Wars blockbusters. In effect, the new is given a higher commodity value over the old, which is why the “Classics” section is such a scattershot at other streaming services.
As a consequence, it is easy to imagine that many of the older and or even simply less mainstream movies will continue to fall beneath the waves of content acquisition in the pursuit of mass market popularity. There will still be alternative avenues, including the still highly valued Criterion Collection. It’s easy to imagine that Criterion’s dense library, which includes many modern films from popular directors like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, will be able to partner with another streaming service, such as Hulu. However, their library is unlikely to be as curated or celebrated as on FilmStruck, where the movies were the content and not just a back catalogue of filler.
This paints to another unpleasant prospect: If corporate packages with an emphasis on the broadest appeal is the future of streaming movies, then it is likely to affect the way future generations consume cinema. With the steady decline of physical home media, the collection of personal copies of movies, be it on Blu-ray, DVD, or VHS, will continue to become more of a niche hobby.
It also means that people being able to curate their own content to their wishes will continue to dissipate as they become more dependent on the release schedule strategies of streaming services and the companies that partner with them. Thus future generations may be less inclined to seek out the classics that defined the storytelling they love, simply because the option will not be available. Maybe a pop culture touchstones like King Kong will always find a home, but the chance to mine the filmographies of Alfred Hitchcock, and say explore his less famous Rope, or John Huston’s Bogie and Bacall gangster picture, Key Largo, will become increasingly rare, even though all of those movies have been at some point (or are now) on FilmStruck.
If streaming is the future of visual media, the most popular form of communication in the 21st century, and the classics that comprised FilmStruck are too niche to be a priority to merging corporate conglomerates’ bottomlines, then we’ll have a future that’s wholly forgotten the past. Future generations will not even have the option to know it exists.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.
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