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Should Cinephiles Dump Netflix for Hulu?

It’s tough to be a cinephile in the digital age. Make no mistake — there’s certainly something to be said for the rise in sheer availability these days; it’s hard to even remember a time when your film viewing choices were limited to the lousy stock at your local Blockbuster, to say nothing of our forefathers, who could only take in film classics at revival screenings and on the local TV stations’ “Late Show.” The rise of DVD, the takeover of Netflix, and the influx of streaming options amount to a film fanatic’s dream: just about every movie, available either right now or within a couple of days.

And yet… all this talk of going all-digital makes us movie nerds nervous. As much as we like the streaming world, there are still a few analog bones left in our bodies; we like to hold our movies in our hands. The psychology of the fanatic and the collector pretty much go hand in hand — so some of us have overflowing DVD racks, while others go old school, cultivating libraries of 16mm prints and even, God help us, VHS tapes.

But, more and more, it’s looking like the streaming model is taking over. Netflix Instant Viewing has become the gold standard, of course; the purveyors of little red envelopes have become the dominant force among online movie providers — and, it could be argued, a real traffic clogger on the Internet in general. (We were just as shocked as you were to find out that Netflix accounts for a jaw-dropping 20 percent of all peak US Internet traffic.)

However, the Criterion Collection, the label of choice for any movie geek worth his/her salt, made an interesting announcement this morning (and no, it’s wasn’t that they’re finally releasing The Magnificent Ambersons). Company president Peter Becker took to their blog to announce a new partnership with Hulu Plus, beginning with the streaming of 150 titles today and eventually swelling to more than 800 films. Since the collection itself is only up to spine number 565, that would indicate that they’ll be including titles from the secondary “Eclipse” line (that initial 150 includes several of those, including The League of Gentlemen, The Model Couple, and Mr. Freedom), some films that haven’t been officially released through the label yet (many of those are in the first batch as well, including multiple Chaplin features, Peter Weir’s The Plumber and The Cars That Ate Paris, James Ivory’s Hullabaloo Over George and Bonnie’s Pictures, and The Challenge), and maybe even a few debuts, if that’s what Becker means by “films so rare that they have never been seen in the US in any medium.”

“For the true cinephile,” Becker writes, “this should be a dream come true.” He may very well be right. But the announcement is also an interesting shot across the seemingly-unstoppable Netflix bow — and an aggressive move by Hulu to make itself a player in the online-viewing world, in which it dominates television but is seldom visited for film. “Why Hulu?” Becker’s post asks. “In short, because they get it… Nobody does it better.” Nobody, eh? Hulu doesn’t exactly gloat in their corresponding post, but they’re clearly thrilled with the move: “We’re honored to partner with Criterion to make all this cinematic treasure available to movie lovers, critics, and historians alike.”

So the online viewing environment just got a little more interesting for movie buffs. We’re not sure what this means for streaming of Criterion titles on Netflix — several of them are still up, including numerous titles streaming simultaneously on Hulu (The Wages of Fear, Grey Gardens, Seven Samurai, Diabolique, M) and several that haven’t made it to Hulu yet (The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion). It should be interesting to see what happens to those titles.

But in the meantime, has Hulu changed the online movie game? Let’s put Netflix and Hulu head to head — with the cinephile in mind as their specific target audience — to see who’s ahead (and for how long).

Selection: Well, Netflix has the clear advantage here. (For that matter, Amazon Video-on-Demand has them both beat, but you’ve got to be willing to pony up cash for every movie you watch — a decidedly á la carte option in an all-you-can-eat buffet environment.) But taking a glance at two widely accepted (as these things go) top 10 lists — the American Film Institute’s 2008 top 10, and Sight & Sound’s 2002 critics’ poll — we find that the availability of most classic films leans towards physical media anyway:

AFI Top 10:
1. Citizen Kane – not streaming
2. Casablanca – not streaming
3. The Godfather – not streaming
4. Gone with the Wind – not streaming
5. Lawrence of Arabia – not streaming
6. The Wizard of Oz — not streaming
7. The Graduate — not streaming
8. On the Waterfront — streaming on Netflix
9. Schindler’s List — not streaming
10. Singin’ in the Rain — not streaming

Sight & Sound Critics Top 10:
1. Citizen Kane – not streaming
2. Vertigo – not streaming
3. The Rules of the Game – streaming on Netflix
4. The Godfather/The Godfather Part II – not streaming
5. Tokyo Story – streaming on both Netflix and Hulu Plus
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey – streaming on Netflix
7. (tie) The Battleship Potemkin – streaming on both Netflix and Hulu Plus
7.  (tie) Sunrise­ — not streaming
9. 8 ½ — streaming on Netflix
10. Singin’ in the Rain — not streaming

So out of 18 total titles, Netflix has six, and Hulu has two. Yes, we know, Hulu’s just getting started here. But still, no need to throw out those DVDs just yet.

Quality: For all of the pleasures of Netflix’s Instant Viewing service — and there are many — there is one major problem that doesn’t get much play, aside from on forum boards for grouchy movie buffs: their apparent lack of concern for films’ original aspect ratios (OAR for short). This has long been a contentious issue for cinephiles, who spent countless hours back in the 1980s and 1990s explain how, no, that VHS copy of Manhattan wasn’t giving you less of an image because of the black bars at the top and the bottom, it was giving you more, because the film was shot as a rectangle, and the TV was a square. We finally won that battle with the rise of DVD and widescreen HD televisions, only to find ourselves waging it again with Netflix, who frequently stream movies in cropped versions. Worst of all are the “Starz Play” films, which stream primarily in a 4:3 aspect ratio (aka “full screen,” aka “fool screen”), original image be damned. Their handling of foreign films — the lifeblood of the cinematic fanatic — is seldom better; just last night, your author finally got around to watching Oldboy, only to turn it off less than five minutes in because Netflix was only streaming the terrible dubbed version. Hulu’s track record is already better, but Criterion’s insistence on OAR and subtitling will certainly make the transition with their library.

Accessibility: Desktop, laptops, tablets, and phones are all very nice, but true movie fans aren’t hearing that; unless we’re on vacation or stuck at work (ahem), the second choice — behind a 35mm theatrical viewing, of course — will always be our living room set. While both Netflix and Hulu Plus are available on Roku boxes and Playstation 3, Netflix has a decided advantage in the sheer volume of Internet-connected Blu-ray players, to say nothing of TiVo and Xbox 360. Hulu’s blog says more of that connectivity is “coming soon,” but for now, Netflix has the upper hand.

Price: The cash outlay is the same — Hulu Plus costs $7.99 per month, the same price as Netflix’s new Watch Instantly Unlimited Plan (adding one physical disc out at a time adds $2 per month — $4 if those discs are Blu-rays). In other words, about half the price of your average DVD.

Conclusion: For now, while Hulu Plus is still building its streaming library and uploading its copious Criterion content, Netflix is still the way to go for film fans — but adding Hulu as a second option is looking like a progressively smarter choice. Either way it goes, there’s still a good long while before everything we want to see is available at the click of a button. So we’ll bide our time watching our old VHS tapes. Anybody up for a viewing of Mr. T’s Be Somebody or Be Somebody’s Fool? Alyssa Milano’s Teen Steam? Anybody?

(One last thing: we can’t talk about Criterion and resist the urge to post this great clip from Entertainment Weekly, circa 1985, in which Leonard Maltin tells us all about the company and their first two laserdiscs, Citizen Kane and King Kong. “Instant access to any scene!” Maltin crows. “A special audio channel with background commentary… and visual essays following each film!” Imagine that!)

UPDATE: One minute after this post went live (literally!) Criterion put up a note on their Facebook page that addressed some of the questions we (and many others) raised about today’s news. Check it out here.

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