On a recent Friday night, filmmaker Evan Koehne and his group of fellow film enthusiasts gathered to watch “Stalker,” the influential 1979 sci-fi drama by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.
The handful of former roommates and college buddies huddled on a couch and camping chairs in the living room of Koehne’s Echo Park house to view and discuss the three-hour Soviet-era epic. The event wouldn’t have been possible without the classic movie streaming service FilmStruck.
So Koehne was stunned when the AT&T Inc.-owned film and television giant WarnerMedia decided to pull the plug on the small but beloved FilmStruck, a 2-year-old treasure trove for fans of old movies such as 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” and Francois Truffaut’s 1959 film “The 400 Blows.”
“I’m worried people won’t be aware these movies exist if there isn’t a way for them to be easily accessible,” said Koehne, 31. “I’m afraid kids today won’t seek these movies out if they don’t have this ease of access.”
FilmStruck’s demise at the end of this month has raised broader concerns among movie buffs about the future of cinema’s past. They fear Hollywood’s rapid embrace of streaming services and new, buzz-worthy content is making it harder for young audiences to discover the classics that shaped an industry and culture.
Streaming companies including Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are spending billions of dollars to create the kinds of next-big-thing TV dramas that draw subscribers, and aren’t so interested in hosting vast catalogs of oldies. Compounding the problem, video stores that once facilitated the discovery of esoteric films have mostly vanished, and younger viewers aren’t subscribing to cable bundles, let alone watching Turner Classic Movies. Another constraint is that it’s costly to convert old movies into streaming-friendly formats.
FilmStruck, experts said, represents the best option for people who want easy access to silent-era landmarks and art house oddities, serving as the online home of the lauded Criterion Collection, the New York-based group dedicated to the most culturally significant films. It helped users unearth gems based on directors or themes, such as “Japanese horror classics” and “classics of lesbian cinema.” .
The internet has turned aficionados into online detectives, scouring the web for physical copies of obscure film titles.
“What’s happening is the cinema of the 20th century is being erased,” said Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film studies professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “These films vanish from public view because there’s no one there to recommend them.”
In its announcement last month, WarnerMedia said that “while FilmStruck has a very loyal fanbase, it remains largely a niche service.”
Nonetheless, the suddenness of WarnerMedia’s decision, and the lack of information about its plans for making historic material available, angered users who pay at least $6.99 a month for FilmStruck. The move also got a big thumbs down from elite filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”) and Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”). A Change.org petition asking WarnerMedia to save the service has garnered nearly 50,000 signatures.
“Sometimes friends of mine are bemused by me still buying dvds and BluRays, clinging on to physical media,” Wright wrote on Twitter. “But here’s why: these streaming libraries can be gone in a flash.”
A spokesperson for WarnerMedia said the company expects Criterion Collection films will have a place in its upcoming streaming service, which will include films and TV shows from HBO, Turner and Warner Bros. Warner’s deep film library is part of what attracted AT&T to the Warner Bros. properties. However, the new streaming service is not expected to launch until late next year, and the company has not said how the collection will be packaged.
The unexpected decision has left fans scrambling to view as much classic cinema as possible before the site fades to black. Koehne, the Echo Park freelancer, has binge-watched such landmarks as Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” (1996) Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People” (1942) and Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) so far.
“I’ve been voraciously watching movies on it while I can,” Koehne said. “I’ve probably seen six or seven classics in the last week and a half.”
To film experts, FilmStruck’s doom reflects a long-term challenge of preserving films for future generations. Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, estimates that every time there’s a transition from one film-viewing medium to another — VHS to DVD; DVD to digital downloads; digital downloads to streaming — 15% to 20% of the existing material doesn’t make the jump because of the expense.
“It ends up being a vicious circle,” Horak said. “If the material doesn’t get out, less people know about it, and the group of cognoscenti gets smaller and smaller.”
Part of the problem is that the business of streaming classic films is challenging for media companies. Major movie studios still have teams tasked with restoring old films and finding homes for them on DVD, video-on-demand and streaming services. Companies, including Technicolor, master and restore early films so they can eventually reach new audiences.
If the material doesn’t get out, less people know about it, and the group of cognoscenti gets smaller and smaller.
But the process is often hobbled by the difficulties of working with old material. The rights to old movies, especially ones made by defunct studios, can be difficult and expensive to untangle. Additionally, the original materials are often incomplete or damaged.
A few years ago, for example, Technicolor was tasked with restoring a rare version of “A Trip to the Moon,” the 1902 silent picture. The negative was in poor condition, with missing frames and gouges that had to be digitally re-created in a painstaking process that took several weeks.
“We don’t always have access to a complete set of materials to work with,” said Bill Cole, Technicolor’s vice president of mastering and restoration. “We sometimes have to mix and match elements in order to create the best possible product, even when some of the elements are literally falling apart.”
When old movies are available online, finding them can still be a headache for viewers because of the number of services competing for attention, each of which has a different selection. Rights to old films frequently lapse and transfer to other sites, leaving it to users to navigate the patchwork of apps that stream movies.
Some Criterion oldies and indies are available on Kanopy, a streaming service for public library card holders, for example. Subscription service Mubi offers yet another model, making 30 films available at a time to users, with each film remaining online for a month. San Francisco-based streamer Fandor, which has a collection of 4,000 titles, offered FilmStruck subscribers a discount on its annual membership last month.
“As technology transforms the media and entertainment business, there’s a tremendous opportunity to build access to these movies,” Fandor Chief Executive Chris Kelly said. “We think there’s room in the market for more than one access point.”
Many beleaguered film buffs use an app called JustWatch, which helps people locate where certain movies are available online. But even that solution comes with difficulties.
Say, for example, someone wants to watch the 1977 Italian horror classic “Suspiria” before seeing Amazon Studios’ remake in theaters. A JustWatch search brings up only two results: the public library-powered service Hoopla, and the ad-based service TubiTV. Other movies, such as the fantasy cult classic “Willow,” the 1938 James Cagney crime drama “Angels With Dirty Faces” and 1932’s “Island of Lost Souls,” turn up no results at all.
“It’s frustrating for the audience,” said Daniel Kasman, director of content for Mubi. “The [dispersal] of content forces consumers to struggle to find good quality versions of the things they want to watch.”
For some, including Burbank graphic designer Zack Morrisette, 45, the hunt for rarities is part of the fun of fandom. He has frequented the bargain bin at his local Fry’s Electronics to satiate his hunger for classic B-movie monster flicks he used to watch on TV as a kid.
“If it’s something I’m really interested in, I’ll find it,” he said.
Annie Wilkes, a 31-year-old film editor living in Lincoln Heights, compares finding obscure films to being an archaeologist searching for ancient artifacts. She’s one of Koehne’s friends who often gather to watch the classics.
She’s hopeful that some tech or media company will figure out a business model to keep the classics in circulation.
“I know everyone’s shouting at the sky right now,” Wilkes said. “But I’m optimistic someone will crack the code for making these films available for streaming, and do it in a way that’s profitable for whatever conglomerate owns them.”