Questions of streaming, ownership and why the closing of FilmStruck is a disaster for film buffs
The announcement that WarnerMedia will shut down FilmStruck, a 2-year-old streaming service that showcases classic and art-house films, at the end of November landed like a slap in the face this week to lovers of films made before the year 1990. For the service’s estimated 100,000 subscribers — an audience barely acknowledged by streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu — the news prompted plans for a monthlong marathon of the remaining material on FilmStruck watchlists and, more important, resurfaced tricky questions around preservation and access.
In a news release, WarnerMedia — which in June became an AT&T property after the takeover of Time Warner — called FilmStruck a “niche service” and noted its intention to “redirect this investment back into our collective portfolios.”
FilmStruck was one-of-a-kind — a decidedly non-algorithmic, often cheekily inventive, ever-expanding collection — and it kept getting better. The same day as Warner’s announcement, the service, a partnership between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection, began showcasing 19 classic films by the French-born film noir and horror director Jacques Tourneur, as well as five films by an emerging director, the dancer-choreographer turned filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall.
Earlier this year, it expanded its collection of Warner Bros. library titles (like “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane”) and doubled-down on its original programming, which included mini-documentaries with and about major filmmakers. The service wasn’t just interested in showcasing films, genres and movements of the past, but in finding creative ways to hook a new generation of curious, avid cinephiles.
“What I liked about FilmStruck was, it wasn’t just about presenting ‘old’ or ‘classic’ movies,” says Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who hosted an episode of “Adventures in Moviegoing” for FilmStruck, in which he highlighted films from directors Claire Denis and Lucrecia Martel.
“There was a curatorial element to it,” he says. “There was a vision, and they were building toward something, and it was lovely to see that they had the resources to build toward those things. I have no doubt that something like FilmStruck can come again and present these films, but these things need time to develop.”
The service had its blind spots, but it allowed subscribers to pursue a graduate degree’s worth of film studies at their leisure and made many of the greatest films convenient and portable. Some wouldn’t be available any other way — at least not legally. Take, for example, Ernst Lubitsch’s sly, note-perfect 1946 romantic comedy “Cluny Brown,” which can’t be found on DVD or Blu-ray.
Streaming makes media ephemeral, while distracting us with access.
“It never felt like a site that existed primarily to monetize a studio’s library,” says David Schwartz, chief curator at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. “It had the same approach that great film programmers strive for: a sense of selectivity and connoisseurship. What other streaming service offers 16 films by the great Japanese director Mikio Naruse — films which are rarely shown anywhere in the U.S.?”
While it lasted, FilmStruck also projected a heartening sense that Turner and Warner Bros. cared enough about their cultural heritage to make the classics easily accessible to a mass audience. For a while, it seemed less important to purchase and own pricey Criterion Blu-rays or to leave the house to see a digital restoration at the American Cinematheque, since so many desired titles were now available at a moment’s notice. But that was a mistake.
Streaming makes media ephemeral, while distracting us with access. Just because most of the content on FilmStruck was the opposite of disposable doesn’t make it any less likely to disappear. Just because I could watch three different versions of “A Star Is Born” on my phone’s FilmStruck app doesn’t mean that they belonged to me.
For what is ownership, when it comes to the cultural products we love? Is a digital file purchased from iTunes owned? Is a DVD owned? And if we are not the ultimate owners, can we depend at all on private companies, even ones with as rich an artistic legacy as Warner Bros., to preserve their culture and keep it available? One hopes that something as valuable as Turner Classic Movies — which shows classic films in their proper format, 24 hours a day — can survive on cable, but I’m old enough to remember when AMC felt a sense of fidelity to American Movie Classics, and the Sundance Channel and IFC showed noteworthy indie films around the clock.
Yes, there remain other home video options for cinephiles. Kanopy, a free streaming service that’s accessible through many public library systems (including the Los Angeles Public Library), offers a whole host of Criterion titles on demand — and even a few prized collections that FilmStruck can’t touch, like the complete filmography of documentary legend Frederick Wiseman.
What is ownership when it comes to the cultural products we love? Can we depend on private companies to preserve culture?
There’s MUBI, a lovingly curated service that shows only 30 films at a time. The Library of Congress lets you stream hundreds of free films on its National Screening Room website. There’s the underutilized resource of interlibrary loan, and Netflix’s old-fashioned DVD-by-mail service still ships an encyclopedic array of discs. If you live in L.A., video stores like Cinefile, Vidéothèque and Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee will still cater to any taste.
But if the dominant streaming services remain focused on the present, there will be no way for mass audiences — and eventually even niche audiences — to remain in touch with our past.
In the wake of FilmStruck’s announcement, some movie fans recommitted themselves to building their DVD and Blu-ray collections.
For Vanity Fair film critic K. Austin Collins, these collectors will eventually run into the same problem. “What people who prioritize physical media take for granted about ownership is that someone has to make it,” Collins says. “We’re all drinking from the same tap, here: physical media, like streaming options, rely on institutions making them available.
“But with a future that is leaning pretty hard toward streaming, you really can’t depend on that in perpetuity, can you? A company obsessed with the bottom line has no reason to keep selling DVDs of Nicholas Ray films, does it? I see a future in which physical media dweebs are just as poorly off as the rest of us.”
The closing of FilmStruck is a bracing reminder that corporations have no particular commitment to art, even when they own it. Noted Collins, “When you forget that movies are an art form — there to entertain, for sure, but also a part of our history, our culture, our ideas, our political and emotional lives — you lose all sense of why widespread access to movie history is a good in and of itself.”
One could argue that every serious film fan now has the duty to be a historian. As the critic Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted, “The older I get, the more convinced I am that if film buffs don’t personally make an effort to keep film history alive, it’s going to disappear, because the corporations that officially own the movies don’t care. At all.”
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