A Self-Bundling Service for Cinephiles
On November 11th, Hulu lost the Criterion Collection. The library of more than eleven hundred classic, foreign, and art-house films had been my main reason for subscribing to the popular on-demand video service, back in 2013, and I discovered its loss by accident, when I went to Hulu’s Web site to watch Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With André,” a film I had been anticipating for some time. I found it missing; and, strangely, in the drop-down menu under “Movies”—Documentaries, Genres, Hulu Movie Night, Staff Picks—there was no longer any Criterion option at all. The Criterion films that had been featured in my “Top Picks for You” buffet were also gone. Dozens of titles that had been on my watchlist: gone. Streaming content comes and goes—there are Web sites devoted to tracking which titles are scheduled to expire on Netflix each month—but it’s much rarer for a vast trove of high-quality material to vanish all at once.
The reason for its disappearance was FilmStruck, a new streaming-video service launched in November by Turner Classic Movies and Criterion. Aimed at cinephiles, FilmStruck hopes to capture an audience unhappy with the experience on Netflix and Amazon Prime. In place of these platforms’ “brute-force curation,” the Criterion president Peter Becker said recently, FilmStruck offers guidance like that provided by film festivals and art-house theatres—a kind of thematic programming, based on a rotating selection of movies. “We think dropping people down in a world of choices in this time of media saturation is not necessarily the best experience,” Becker said.
The company thinks that it has identified “a vacuum where serious film lovers did not have a home in streaming,” as Jennifer Dorian, the general manager for TCM and FilmStruck, told USA Today. Netflix and Amazon, which is reportedly preparing to expand its Prime on-demand video offering to some two hundred countries, are focussed on TV shows and their own original series, she added. FilmStruck, therefore, “fulfills a specific film-lover need.” A basic subscription costs $6.99 a month, and you can add the Criterion Channel—programmed by the Criterion team, offering a huge selection of films and bonus features—for an extra four dollars. The service is available on the Web and on the usual panoply of devices, with Apple TV, Roku, and Google Chromecast integration coming soon.
While undoubtedly more niche than Netflix, FilmStruck may have a ripe opportunity. Not only are consumers switching from paid television to streaming video, but a growing number—sixteen per cent of American viewers, up from ten per cent three years ago—now subscribe to multiple on-demand video services. Rather than pay for cable- and satellite-TV bundles, these viewers are “self-bundling,” creating their own entertainment packages by combining Netflix with Amazon Prime, say, or Hulu with Netflix, or any of those with HBO Now. FilmStruck hopes to be added to the mix.
The question is just how many subscriptions people will buy. Even for self-bundlers, who are relatively affluent—they have a mean annual income of ninety thousand dollars, compared with seventy-six thousand dollars for average weekly viewers of streaming content—there is undoubtedly a breaking point. In addition to convincing cord-cutters to sign up for yet another streaming-video service, FilmStruck intends to lure aficionados still attached to physical media, who are accustomed to buying handsome Blu-ray editions of classic films. In doing so, it risks cannibalizing Criterion’s core business. Becker admits that while some people may stop buying discs after signing up for FilmStruck, others, he says, may use it as a kind of try-before-you-buy service, previewing films online before shelling out for physical media. (Even today, Blu-ray discs offer higher quality than anything a streaming service can deliver.) TCM’s consumer testing for FilmStruck identified an untapped market of movie buffs who typically spend eighty dollars a month on their viewing habit.
Becker believes the platform will allow Criterion to reach ten times the audience it is reaching now. “If you buy three Criterion discs a year, you’ve already paid for a year of FilmStruck,” he pointed out, “and a lot of our customers buy more than three discs a year.”
The Criterion catalogue lent Hulu cachet when it was first acquired, five years ago, enriching the service’s stable of movies and TV shows. But by 2016 it wasn’t a big draw for Hulu’s roughly twelve million subscribers. Fans of the slacker comedy “Broad City,” in other words, were not sticking around to watch “The Seventh Seal.”
Hulu has more-mainstream ambitions. Time Warner bought ten per cent of Hulu, this past summer, for five hundred and eighty-three million dollars, valuing the streaming service at roughly $5.8 billion. Now, flush with cash, it is becoming a kind of pay-TV company in its own right. Hulu, which is owned jointly by Walt Disney, 21st Century Fox, and Comcast’s NBC Universal, along with Time Warner, has inked deals with Disney and Fox to carry their TV programs on a new, live-streaming service that Hulu plans to launch in 2017. It had already landed CNN, TBS, Cartoon Network, and TNT as part of the Time Warner deal. Even Turner Classic Movies, a partner in FilmStruck, will be available, both live and on-demand, to subscribers of the new service, which is expected to cost forty dollars a month—five times the price of a basic Hulu membership today.
Giving viewers access to ESPN, Fox Sports, Fox News, the Disney Channel, and dozens of other networks will dramatically expand Hulu’s footprint. A Credit Suisse analyst has predicted that the live-streaming service will help the company turn a profit for the first time, in 2018, and will attract ten million subscribers by 2020. Hulu has racked up $1.4 billion in total losses since 2008, according to this report.
It seems safe to assume that FilmStruck has less money to burn. Consequently, it is providing more-specialized enticements right from the start. After watching “My Dinner With André,” for instance, viewers can digest Noah Baumbach’s interviews with Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, recorded in 2009, about their experiences making the film. Becker envisions hosting an ongoing conversation about important films, with deleted scenes, newly discovered archival material, and other supplements being added all the time.
Criterion has even enlisted the authors of the textbook “Film Art: An Introduction” to provide micro-lectures on topics of interest. The first entry in the series looks at leitmotifs in the score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent.” “Sometimes people have called [Criterion] ‘film school in a box,’ and this will be a really exciting way to bring genuine, credentialled film scholarship into people’s lives,” Becker has said. “And that’s something I can’t do anywhere other than on a streaming service.”
Advantages aside, it is worth taking stock of the extent to which we’ve replaced real ownership of our media—even if that meant a grainy VHS tape of a live broadcast—with pay-by-the-month passkeys to a bunch of walled gardens. I haven’t had a cable-TV hookup in years, and it has been even longer since I bought a movie on disc. For me and for many others, the streaming habit is so ingrained now that it takes a dislocating event like the loss of Criterion to make us aware that we don’t actually have control over these cultural artifacts. We are at the mercy of our content providers.
And yet new providers are quick to give back what others have taken away. More spring up all the time. The digital-media company Fullscreen launched its own standalone streaming service this past April, targeting viewers between the ages of thirteen and thirty. For $5.99 a month, you can watch original series—including, next month, Bret Easton Ellis’s new eight-episode thriller, “The Deleted”—and turn-of-the-millennium youth fare, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Even on the live-streaming frontier, there will be stiff competition. A.T. & T. recently unveiled its own live-streaming service, DirecTV Now, intended to compete directly with Hulu’s new service and with Dish Network’s Sling TV, which gave cord-cutters a way to watch the 2016 Summer Olympics and the World Series. Google plans to enter the field next year, with the launch of YouTube Unplugged. In the teeth of all these rivals, the stated intention of the Hulu C.E.O. Mike Hopkins—to provide “the most sought-after programming on television”—looks like a tall order.
Over a few days of trying out FilmStruck and the Criterion Channel, I encountered small bugs: searching for the director Nagisa Oshima by name brings up plenty of his films, for instance, but a different method of searching—clicking the director’s name on the landing page of any one of his pictures—yields fewer, or even zero, results. There were also films, such as Lars von Trier’s “The Element of Crime” and “Europa,” that had been available on Hulu but were nowhere to be found on the new service. On the other hand, the platform’s thematic curation—including, at the time of writing, such categories as “The Masters: Michelangelo Antonioni”; “Starring Paul Robeson,” highlighting the black actor and activist; and British New Wave, including the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”—is already more compelling than anything Netflix’s or Hulu’s algorithms serve up.
As Hulu retools itself for live programming and Amazon Prime goes global, art-house fans feeling marginalized on these services will likely be thrilled to have a platform that caters to them. Becker even wants to give art-house-theatre programmers a turn curating for the Criterion Channel. Whether a focus on meaningful, rather than merely popular, content, and curation by human beings, not algorithms, can make money in the world of streaming video—and thus justify the existence of FilmStruck—depends on those fans. If they don’t support it, they may find their beloved silver-screen treasures once more available only on disc, walled off from digital consumption, relegated to the ghetto of the real.