The Case for FilmStruck (and Against Netflix)

Netflix prioritizing the likes of 'The Ranch' over good movies leaves a hole in the marketplace, and that’s where Criterion and TCM's new streaming service comes in.

It’s not exactly shocking to learn that the selection of movies available for streaming on Netflix has decreased sharply over the past few years – anyone who’s spent any time seeking out quality films, particularly anything of an older vintage, can tell you that for free. But when the cold, hard numbers finally appeared last month, it was still a shock. Streaming blog exstreamist compared the overall title count for September 2016 with estimates (from sources inside the company) of the title count from their volume peak four years ago. They discovered that in that time, Netflix has slashed their streaming library in half, from nearly 11,000 titles in 2012 to the current total of 5,302.

If the extent of the damage is shocking, the overall intent has been clear for a long time. Last month, the company’s CFO confirmed “a multiyear transition and evolution toward more of our own content,” indicating that they’re “one-third to halfway” toward their overall goal: a slate that is 50% original content. That goal and the steep decline in existing films and television programs aren’t coincidental: it costs a lot of bread to make a season of Stranger Things or a new series of Gilmore Girls movies, and the easiest expense to eliminate are the licensing fees that enable them to stream movies – aka, the thing they originally got into the business to provide.

From a business perspective, it’s hard to fault the company for making the shift – they’re responding to what people watch, and these are all decisions that make sense for their bottom line, where subscription numbers are (presumably) more demonstrably boosted by people who want to binge Luke Cage than people who want to watch Citizen Kane. We can’t expect them to feel some sense of responsibility towards cinema, despite the large role they’ve played in putting our most reliable source of old movies out of business. But their willingness to prioritize the likes of Chelsea and The Ranch over good movies leaves a gaping hole in the marketplace, and that’s where FilmStruck comes in.

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The new streaming service, which launched today, is the result of a partnership between the cable network Turner Classic Movies and the home video imprint The Criterion Collection – two of the most valued brands in cinema circles. They’ll stream a wide selection of classic, foreign, documentary, and independent film, culled from the TCM library, a deep bench of indie distributors, and, of course, The Criterion Collection (limited at launch, but bulked up next month when the Collection’s current contract with Hulu expires). It won’t be a clearing house; the keyword here is “curation,” with new titles rotated in and out each week, and they’re launching with a selection of titles that, from a pure volume standpoint (around 500), looks small even compared to that slashed Netflix library count.

But what they’re streaming is awe-inspiring: carefully selected programs of (timely) political documentaries, banned movies, art-house horror, adult-oriented animation, WWII dramas, neo-noir, and foreign films remade for American audiences; staggering selections from directorial “Masters” Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, Charles Chaplin, Chantal Akerman, and Francois Truffaut, celebrated filmmakers Jane Campion, Mike Leigh, John Cassavetes, Pedro Almodovar, John Ford, and Guy Maddin; vehicles from “Icons” like Marcello Mastroianni and Ingrid Bergman; “Cinema Passports” of important films from Spain, Australia, and Cuba; and more, much more, all laid out in a sleek and user-friendly interface. (It is available on the web, Amazon Fire TV, iOS, and Android devices, with plans to hit Apple TV and other devices in the months to come.)

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The question of comparison is, frankly, laughable – but let’s check it out, just for fun. FilmStruck will let viewers stream 19 different Francois Truffaut films, from his 1959 debut The 400 Blows to his final picture, 1983’s Confidentially Yours. Netflix, on the other hand, isn’t streaming any Truffaut movies. (They don’t even offer 19 of his films for DVD rental.) FilmStruck offers up 25 Akira Kurosawa pictures; Netflix has one. FilmStruck’s “Icon” spotlight on Marcello Mastroianni features 16 of his most iconic films; Netflix currently streams no Mastroianni movies. FilmStruck has a special “Early Kubrick” selection of his first four films; Netflix isn’t streaming those, or, for that matter, any Kubrick movies at all (no 2001, no Clockwork Orange, no Shining). FilmStruck has a sidebar of Ingmar Bergman/Bibi Andersson collaborations, but Netflix can’t help you with any of those six films, or any Bergman picture, period. But hey, the first hit on “titles related to Wild Strawberries” is Maximum Conviction, a 2012 Steven Seagal vehicle, so there you go.

You get the idea. Look, Netflix is ubiquitous, and they’re certainly not some force of evil; they gave us 13th and Beasts of No Nation and Audrie & Daisy, and saved The Little Prince, and once upon a time, they offered movie fans the opportunity to explore and experiment with obscure titles and classic fare. But that time has clearly passed. A Netflix monthly streaming plan with a two-out DVD option (the physical media option still being a necessity, considering the dearth of catalogue titles they stream) sets me back $20 a month; a FilmStruck subscription with the Criterion Channel add-on is $11 per month (or a year up front for $100, averaging to $8.33/month). If you’re serious about movies, it’s no contest – even if it means missing the next season of Fuller House.