Yesterday marked the shutdown of the subscription streaming service FilmStruck. A joint venture between Turner Classic Movies and specialty home video distributor The Criterion Collection, FilmStruck combined the programming of these two outlets to create a service that offered a remarkably balanced diet for cinephiles – a wide variety of classic cinema from Hollywood’s Golden Age via TCM’s vast library as well as the domestic and world cinema classics available through the careful curation of the Criterion Collection.
As a film nerd and as a writer, there is of course the temptation to romanticize the death of FilmStruck. It was too good for this world, so of course it had to die. But the cold hard reality is this – It was too small for a corporate world, so of course it had to die.
FilmStruck was a place where people could go to not only be entertained, but to expand their film knowledge. Heard about those Thin Man movies and want to check them out? They aren’t on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but the whole series was available on FilmStruck. Wanted to check out some key Blaxploitation films? FilmStruck had you covered. When the most recent version of A Star Is Born hit theaters recently, guess who had all the previous versions available for watching? That’s right, FilmStruck. The very recent passing of Bernardo Bertolucci and Nicholas Roeg reminds us that many of their films were only available for streaming on FilmStruck. Who is the next auteur whose passing will send people scrambling to see their work, only now to come up emptyhanded?
In the month from the announcement of it’s closing until the curtain went down at some point overnight, Twitter was buzz with people talking about trying to get their large To Watch queues while recommending titles to others to try and catch in the waning days left. So many recommendations and even if you were to quit your job and have coffee injected into you intravenously there still would not have been time to watch them all.
I personally zeroed in on a number of Gene Kelly musicals that I had not yet caught up with. While some services might have had at some point better known hits like Singing In The Rain, An American In Paris or On The Town, FilmStruck let me catch up with lesser titles like Les Girls and It’s Always Fair Weather. I even managed to squeeze in the non-musical The Black Hand, a rather atypical film for Kelly – he plays the son of a murdered Italian immigrant who vows to bring down the organized crime gangs in Little Italy – and one that feels more like a 1930s Warner Brothers crime drama than a movie from 1950 MGM Studios.
But my final film on FilmStruck was 1967’s Penelope, a light crime caper comedy starring Natalie Wood. An amiable enough film, though it does have that feeling other films of the mid-1960s had as Hollywood was trying desperately to figure out the changing youth culture but the decision makers were just a little too old to be able to fully understand it. (See Otto Preminger’s legendary 1968 dud Skidoo with Groucho Marx for this in full effect.) If you’re only familiar with comic actor Dick Shawn from his energetic performance in Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, you owe it to yourself to see his far more restrained, but no less ultimately funny, work here. Apparently, though Wood wasn’t happy with the film, fired her agent and manager and took a three year vacation from Hollywood. While not great, I am still glad I had the chance to see the film and add it to my overall film literacy.
At the time of its shuttering, FilmStruck reportedly had approximately 100,000 subscribers. Netflix, on the other hand, has an estimated 136 million monthly subscribers to its streaming service. That’s a difference in subscriber base on the magnitude over a thousand. And while they probably don’t have quite the same numbers as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime also have a subscriber base in the multiple millions. But Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are out there trying to appeal to the largest number of possible subscribers they can. A service like FilmStruck has a much more defined programming mission, making their offering much more niche than the wide-spreading buckshot blast that is Netfilx’s programming strategy. And as such, it is obviously going to attract far fewer subscribers and that translates into a much smaller revenue stream with which to try and keep the lights on.
So does this mean that niche or boutique services aren’t a practical model for streaming? On the contrary. There are a number of subscription-based services that are aimed at a small segment of movie buffs they seem to be plugging along just fine. Shudder caters to horror fans. CruncyRoll features a good variety of Asian genre films mixed in with their primary programming of anime. Fandor and Mubi both are geared towards indie cinema while Brown Sugar caters to blaxploitation fans.
Certainly all services, be they FilmStruck or Mubi, are in many ways a labor of love for those who work there. But these others have an advantage that FilmStruck didn’t – no expectations from a monolithic corporate overlord. Fandor, Mubi and CruncyRoll are all owned independently, so they answer only to themselves. While Shudder is owned by AMC Networks and Brown Sugar is owned by the Bounce cable outlet, those are smaller companies where expectations are most likely similarly scaled down.
(And yes, there is the irony of Warners – who owns Turner Classic Movies and FilmStruck – shutting down one niche service, while going full out with the launch of another niche service, DC Universe.)
But FilmStruck was too small a fish in too big a pond. The Powers That Be at Warner Brothers and corporate parent AT&T decided that the assets of FilmStruck could be used elsewhere. There are already plans afoot for Warners to launch a much larger, company branded streaming service in late 2019/early 2020. Presumably the classic films that were FilmStruck’s bread and butter will be just one part of this larger service. Maybe that’s a good thing as people who primarily subscribed to this new service for more populist fare may decide to check out some of the offerings that were previously available on FilmStruck. For their part, Criterion is taking their content and launching their own independent service next year.
The last film that FilmStruck recommended on their home page this week before shutting down was the 1939 classic Love Affair. A fitting choice, as I have stated before that running the service was undeniably a labor of love for all involved. But beyond that, FilmStruck was all about the love affair we have with movies and that’s going to continue long after today.