How Soon Will the Movie Streaming Bubble Burst?

Criterion's new streaming channel (and FilmStruck replacement) is terrific. But how many film streaming services can survive?

The Criterion Channel launched on Monday, and there was much rejoicing. Film fans (including this one) lost their collective minds last fall when FilmStruck – the streaming service featuring films from Criterion, Turner Classic Movies, and more – crumbled to the ground after barely two years of operation, as TCM overlords AT&T deemed it a “niche service” with not enough subscribers to warrant the (seemingly minimal!) investment. But the Criterion Channel will help fill that FilmStruck-sized hole in your streaming heart, with a wide variety of titles included in or adjacent to its namesake Criterion Collection; the launch programming includes collections of films by Ozu, Ackerman, Bergman, Fellini, and (just in time) Agnés Varda. And they’re boosting some outside acquisitions as well, including a selection of eleven film noir classics from the Columbia vaults.

It is, to be clear, a wonderful service, more than 1400 cornerstones and discoveries, and an essential subscription for any film lover. But it’s also impossible to escape the initial frustration felt upon its announcement: that we’re now paying close to the cost of a FilmStruck subscription for what was but a section of that service. And while the self-contained nature of the Criterion Channel means they don’t have the same kind of P&L-peering communications conglomerate to satisfy, it’s worth wondering if we’re going to get our hearts broken again – particularly considering what’s happening with streaming movie services in general.

Last week, for example, I received an email announcing the launch of Music Box Direct, a streaming platform launched by specialty distributor Music Box Films, promising “a curated selection of content including foreign and independent films, documentaries, and international television, with new content added every month.” Late in March, I got one informing me of the launch of OVID.tv, offering “more than 350 quality documentaries and art-house films from the collections of its founding content partners.”

Three days before that, I was informed that Gravitas Ventures, “a leader in global independent film distribution,” had launched its own streaming service, Gravitas Movies, “boasting at least 1,000 movies from leading film festivals and filmmakers”; around the same time, I was made aware of Magnolia Selects, which “aims to be the go-to destination for cinephiles and film aficionados with its unique curated library of independent and critically acclaimed films.” Oh, and back in October, indie distributor Film Movement launched “Film Movement Plus,” an “ad-free monthly subscription service” with “250 acclaimed, festival features and 100 short films.” And this is all on top of the existing movie streaming services of note, including MUBI, Filmatique, Shudder, Brown Sugar, the struggling but still breathing Fandor, and many, many more.

At risk of putting too fine a point on it: what are these people thinking?

Each of these services runs you $5 to $10 a month, which I’m sure everyone involved believes is a perfectly reasonable amount of money to ask for their wonderful libraries. And it is, theoretically. But take, as our model for analysis, the case of FilmStruck. Even with the considerable name recognition of Criterion and TCM, subscriptions couldn’t keep them afloat – and hey, I’ve recommended plenty of Magnolia and Gravitas titles, but they’re not exactly brand names. FilmStruck also had not only those giant libraries, but titles from Kino, Mileston, Flicker Alley, Grasshopper Films, and other boutique distributors; these folks are expecting us to go all in on a much smaller pool, simply because they’re so proud of their assets.

But more than that, this business strategy is unsustainable. One of the main motivations for cutting cords and embracing streaming services is financial – cable bills have grown so monstrous, and are so often funneling funds towards channels you’re not even watching, that the frugal a la carte streaming model made sense. But a dozen indie platform subscriptions at $5 to $10 each is death by a million cuts, and make no mistake, these channels are all going after the same audience, which (it seems safe to say) has a limited budget. Plus, not everyone wants to subsist on indies and docs alone; most folks are already paying $8-$12 (or more) per month each for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and/or Hulu. Add that all up, and the savings of cutting that cable cord are gone.

Also, lest we forget, Disney and Warners will be dropping their own super-streaming services soon, featuring the titles they’ve (respectively) let lapse from Netflix, or kept hold of when FilmStruck folded. And that’s really what we’re looking at here: after a brief period where the film choices of the major streamers were limited but varied, content providers are now determined to cut out the middle man (while the previous middle men are devoting all their resources to becoming content providers themselves). The resultant period has, in many ways, been a boon to viewers: whatever micro-specific thing you like, there’s probably a streaming service devoted to it, full of stuff that’s impossible to find anywhere else. But there are only so many hours in the day to watch streaming movies, and these things all have to make money eventually. It’s hard not to wonder how quickly we’re all either going to have to go simple, or go broke.