Filmstruck hits the buffers
It’s with a measure of guilt that I write this week’s column, nine months after I reported on an exciting film streaming site that had been newly launched in the UK. “Is the future Filmstruck?” the headline asked.
Sorry, we jinxed it. The US-imported service, which specialises in classic and arthouse cinema, and has become particularly beloved by film buffs for its digital housing of high-end Blu-ray label the Criterion Collection, will cease operations globally on 29 November, the plug having been pulled by the bean counters at Warner Bros Digital Networks and Turner Broadcasting. If you’re one of the (evidently too few) people who took out a subscription, you have just under three weeks to gorge on a menu that runs the gamut from The Big Sleep to Force Majeure. The UK site was only getting started, with just over 200 titles in its library; the loss to film lovers Stateside, where the number had swollen to nearly 2,000, is especially sore.
The reason for the shutdown was delivered in chilly corporate-speak: Filmstruck was “largely a niche service”, its operators said, from whose demise they would “take key learnings… to help shape future business decisions in the direct-toconsumer space.” The real message beneath that waffle is colder still: “Who watches old movies any more? Sorry, folks, it’s just not worth it.”
The online cinephile community has rallied together in an attempt to prove them wrong. An online petition, Keep Filmstruck Alive, had gained 30,000 signatures at the time of writing, promoted by such filmmakers as Barry Jenkins, Guillermo del Toro and Rian Johnson. “We will find a way to bring it back,” Del Toro tweeted, though if he does, it likely won’t be with the help of Warner Media, which announced plans last month for a Netflixrivalling streaming service – to which Filmstruck was presumably regarded as a piddly distraction.
These are dark days for online access to classic or specialist cinema. The world of streaming, which once seemed to open limitless possibilities for archiving and access, appears instead to be narrowing, hampered by complex licensing restrictions and cynical commercial concerns. As Netflix pours ever more resources into its booming factory of original content, its pool of existing films – the service’s raison d’etre when it was a humble DVD rental service – is dwindling. (The first films that came up when I clicked on its “classics” header were Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Breakfast Club and the Barbra Streisand version of A Star Is Born.)
Amazon Prime Video has a deeper, albeit unpredictable selection, designed more for specific searching than idle browsing, while its subscription options are less streamlined and more expensive – with a number of additional film channels charging subscription fees atop your Prime subscription. Among those is Fandor, an extension of a robust service for classic, independent and foreign film in the US; the UK outlet’s library, however, has dwindled to a paltry few titles.
Bright spots remain, many of them frequently spotlit in this column. Mubi’s rotating selection of curated alternative cinema – 30 films on offer at any given point, with a new one added every day – remains invaluable, while its pay-per-view rentals selection is undervalued. The homegrown BFI Player continues to expand and diversify, while public domain archives such as Internet Archive and Public Domain Movies are murky goldmines. But the lack of a broadly well-stocked streaming service for subtitle-friendly viewers whose love of cinema predates Star Wars is sorely felt as Filmstruck exits the scene. Even many mainstream classic titles are far harder to track down online than they would have been in the video age.
Cinephiles who once hoped that digital technology would usher in an era of decluttered shelves are left to their libraries of physical media. (A good portion of my own DVD collection would be awol on the internet.) Even that security blanket is frayed, however. As something of a cosmically cruel joke, in the same week that the Filmstruck bombshell landed, John Lewis announced it will no longer be selling DVD players.
The Big Sleep (1946) with Bogart and Bacall, streaming now on Filmstruck, but not for much longer… Getty Images