Save the Champagne, No One “Saved” FilmStruck

The corporate response to the outcry over the service's end is a master class in PR spin.

In an early scene in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman, Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is describing what he does to his new, erm, acquaintance, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts). After clarifying that he neither makes nor builds anything, he explains that he buys companies “that are in financial difficulty,” and then he “sells them.” But not the whole thing: “I break it up into pieces… and then I sell that off. It’s worth more than the whole.”

Vivian gets it pretty quickly. “So it’s sort of like, um, stealing cars and selling them for the parts, right?” “Yeah, sort of,” he replies. “But legal.”

To the best of my knowledge, Pretty Woman never appeared on FilmStruck, the indie/foreign/classic streaming service that’s disappearing from your devices today, but I have a feeling the people who’ve worked hard to make it (bar none) the finest movie-watching platform available would see something of Edward in the folks at AT&T and WarnerMedia, who decided to pull their plug after a mere two years (and only nine months after the addition of the name-brand classics in the TCM Vault) – and whose attempts at P.R. damage control are proving sadly effective.

The outcry over the conglomerate’s decision to shutter FilmStruck was unsurprisingly loud and righteous, but mostly confined to what they dismissed as its “niche audience” of Film Twitterers, film buffs, and film critics. It was only, it seemed, when filmmakers – the people who affect their bottom line – raised a ruckus that the suits got concerned. Heavyweights like Guillermo del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Barbra Streisand, Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sofia Coppola, and David Oyelowo signed letters to Turner and Warner Bros. Digital Networks asking them to reconsider, while Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese reached out privately to WB chairman Toby Emmerich to intervene. In the press coverage of these moves, the FilmStruck shutdown began to look like a money-focused media company ending a culturally and historically vital operation, simply because it wasn’t making enough money.

So within a day of running those letters, Deadline was dutifully reporting on “something of a compromise” from WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey: “a new iteration is in the cards for FilmStruck… it will be part of a package of streaming services from WarnerMedia that at present is scheduled to be launched in the fourth quarter of 2019.” The next day, Turner/Warner’s partner in FilmStruck, the Criterion Collection, announced it will launch a stand-alone version of FilmStruck’s Criterion Channel in spring of 2019, “picking up where the old service left off.” It will be “wholly owned and controlled” by Criterion, though its library “will also be available through WarnerMedia’s new consumer platform when it launches late next year.” And thus, the celebrations began. FilmStruck was saved!

Except, yeah, no.

It’s difficult to not see the WarnerMedia item as anything other than a previously determined property-maximization plan, reframed as a response to bad press. The initial statement announcing FilmStruck’s demise ended thus: “We plan to take key learnings from FilmStruck to help shape future business decisions in the direct-to-consumer space and redirect this investment back into our collective portfolios.” If you break out your business-school-slash-tech-jargon-to-English decoder ring, that seems to be a mush-mouthed promise to make some/much of this content available in other iterations, albeit as a wiser “investment”; they’re basically saying they have to figure out how to make more money off of these movies.

And all these new announcements are is fulfillments of that promise, just earlier than perhaps intended. A Criterion Channel subscription will cost $10.99 a month or $100 a year ($9.99 a month or $89.99 a year for early charter subscribers), which is a helluva value unless compared to a Criterion Channel + FilmStruck membership; it’s the same price point, so you’re ultimately spending as much money for only part of the same content. And we don’t even know yet what the subscription price will be for Warner’s super-streamer channel, which will, yes, presumably include (at least part of) the TCM and Warner Archive libraries that were such a vital part of FilmStruck, but may well exclude the libraries of Grasshopper Films, Kino, Milestone, Flicker Alley, and many other, small distributors that made licensing deals with FilmStruck only. But hey, it’ll probably have some terrible DC direct-to-digital origin story movies!

Which is not to say that this product wasn’t worth more than we were paying, or that the Criterion Channel isn’t something we should support (go sign up for it now; I sure did). But watching the powers-that-be break up FilmStruck is dispiriting, because no one making these decisions seems to understand that it was this particular combination of elements — not any single component — that made FilmStruck so valuable. It wasn’t just those two libraries, but the combination of sources. It wasn’t just the TCM or Criterion brand, but the curation of programming unique to FilmStruck, piecing together astonishing playlists of LGBTQ movies, African cinema, works by female directors — areas that are, it should be noted, sorely lacking in the Criterion and/or TCM libraries proper. And it wasn’t just the movies, but the original supplements and special features; some were imported from Criterion discs, but plenty were created specifically for this platform, by knowledgeable and creative people who are now out of a job.

So take a moment today, as this incredible cultural resource vanishes from your browser, to recognize what we have, in fact, lost forever. AT&T and WarnerMedia had a very good thing, and could have chosen to keep it going long enough to expand its audience and increase its cultural footprint. Instead, they’re selling it off for spare parts, waving around the rose in the back of the limo, and still trying to climb up the fire escape for the feel-good ending. But Edward Lewis had to earn that ending. And to do it, he had to eventually figure out there was more to life than making more money.