March 20, 2019 | Story | No Comments
Early on Friday, WarnerMedia announced it was shuttering FilmStruck, its streaming service that traffics exclusively in classic Hollywood and arthouse movies–everything from On the Town to Seven Samurai to Night of the Living Dead. In a statement, the company noted that the FilmStruck was “largely a niche service,” a fact that was actually part of the two-year-old streamer’s appeal: Drawing titles from the voluminous Warner Bros. catalog and the prestigious Criterion Collection, FilmStruck was one of the only services catering to incurable movie nerds, the kind of enthusiasts who could devour all three previous iterations of A Star is Born in a single weekend. It’s a huge loss, one with grave implications for what the streaming environment might look like in the future.
FilmStruck wasn’t the only casualty of the recent merger between AT&T and Time Warner: Last week, the newly minted monolith closed down the on-again, off-again digital comedy platform Super Deluxe, while the popular Korean-language provider DramaFever was axed just a few days prior. Both were dynamic, creatively vibrant outlets with dedicated fanbases.
But that’s not enough for WarnerMedia chief John Stankey, who’s made it clear his company and its providers can’t merely be huge–they have to be massive enough to accrue “hours of engagement,” he told employees at an internal meeting in July. That way, he noted, “you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”
What’s clearly not important in that new strategy is smaller platforms like Super Deluxe or FilmStruck–outlets that can’t possibly provide enough users (and user data) to make them worth the company’s time. It’s a pragmatic calculation, one that’s to be expected when we willingly appoint technocrats as our cultural gatekeepers. But it also seems short-sighted: If WarnerMedia’s plan is to roll all of its offerings into one giant stand-alone service–as the company is expected to do next year–it’s the niches that will make it stand apart from the countless other streams. One reason for Netflix’s success is that it strives to appeal to everyone–sitcom enthusiasts, true-crime lovers, baking-contest addicts. Its breadth of programming, from high-budget limited series to tiny documentaries, is what makes it feel essential to everybody.
If WarnerMedia had eventually rolled FilmStruck into its bigger service, it would have been an enticing add-on for movie lovers, who are largely underserved by the big streaming services. The film catalogs of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are barely curated and erratically arranged: They’re great if you randomly want to watch The Terminator on a Thursday night, but good luck finding too many older or more oddball offerings on those platforms. And with video stores dead, landing a physical copy of, say, The Seventh Seal requires far more legwork than it once did.
Which is what made FilmStruck so special: At a time when non-blockbuster movies are being devalued–both in theaters and at home–it was a smart, accessible portal into movie history. Most streaming services encourage passivity; they want you to sit back and turn over hours to your life to the screen, without having to search too hard. FilmStruck, with its clean interface and manageable line-up, allowed you to dig around. It was the equivalent of a knowledgeable but none-too-pushy video-store clerk, pointing you toward titles like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Purple Noon or The American Friend–the kind of classics that are all but buried on other services. And it did so with enthusiasm and lots of background intel (FilmStruck often included commentary tracks, a huge plus for at-home movie scholars).
Thankfully, there are other streaming options for cinephiles; MUBI, Kanopy, and Fandor offer up decades-spanning archives. But the sudden demise of FilmStruck should serve as a dire warning to anyone who believed the streaming era would open up our cultural history: The more we entrust our art to the tech-titans, the quicker it can disappear. FilmStruck closes at the end of November, giving you another month to mainline as many film-essentials as possible. Hopefully, its offerings will end up somewhere else. But even if they do, you may want to pull your old DVDs from the basement and dust them off. In a few years, they may be your best ticket to watching the classics.CULTURE