Notes on Streaming: The Death of FilmStruck
Subscription streaming service FilmStruck is shutting down on November 29, as first reported by Variety. For some subscribers, including myself, it feels like a death in the family.
Announced in April 2016 as a partnership between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection, it sounded like the best of all possible worlds for a niche segment, combining the cable channel's expertise in Hollywood classics with the speciality retailer's expertise in world cinema. Launching in November 2016 as a two-tier service (with and without Criterion), FilmStruck grew steadily, increasing its library from 500 titles to more than 1,600 by February 2018, including some 1,200 from Criterion alone.
It also expanded to the U.K. that same month, with plans to expand into France and Spain. In April 2018, the service added films that were previously available only on the Warner Archive Instant streaming service. And now it's all gone.
In June 2018, AT&T completed its acquisition of Time Warner Inc., which then changed its brand name to WarnerMedia. On October 10, 2018, WarnerMedia announced its plans to launch its own streaming service in late 2019, with the intention to compete against Netflix, Hulu and Disney; the latter will launch its own service next year.
On October 16, 2018, WarnerMedia shut down the DramaFever streaming service, which was founded in August 2009 and showcased drama series from Korea, China and Japan. The announcement on the site read in part: "While this decision is difficult, there are a variety of business reasons that have led to this conclusion."
On October 26, 2018, the day that WarnerMedia announced its decision, FilmStruck sent an email to subscribers that did not specific reasons for its closure. Criterion also sent an email to subscribers, which read in part: "Like many of you, we are disappointed by this decision. When we launched the Criterion Channel in 2016, we had two goals: to ensure that our entire streaming library remained available, and to address our audience in our own voice. ... We'll be trying to find ways we can bring our library and original content back to the digital space as soon as possible."
Apart from the Criterion Channel, FilmStruck itself hosted several hundred titles, from studios and distributors such as Film Movement, First Run Features, Global Lens, Flicker Alley, Icarus Films, Kino, MGM, Milestone, Oscilloscope Laboratories and Shout! Factory, as well as Warner Bros. Those studios and distributors will need to decide what to do with their libraries. I know that Shout! Factory has their own streaming service, Shout Factory TV, and perhaps others do, too.
Genre fans still have the Shudder streaming service, which has steadily expanded its library to include recent releases and a wider variety of genre titles, in addition to original series. At present, it is available in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Ireland. I am a subscriber and can recommend it wholeheartedly.
In a private conversation with our writers, several expressed their enthusiasm for physical media and I quite agree. I added: "What I have enjoyed about various streaming services is that they allow/encourage sampling a great variety of films for a very reasonable price. I love physical media, but I can't possibly afford to buy everything that I want to see on it.
"And understandably so: physical media companies need to charge enough to make their products continue to be enticing to consumers, which pushes nearly all individual Blu-ray copies into the US $20-30 price range. So, I'm far less likely to take a chance on buying a Blu-ray that I may not like, or feel is worth $20-30 per title. The FilmStruck/Criterion Collection plan was awesome because it included access to acres of supplements, too."
Longtime, European-based contributing writer Niels Matthijs noted: "While I still buy DVDs/BRs, they're hardly an ideal medium. A lot of my older purchases (not necessarily cheap at the time) are terrible transfers, especially compared to modern 4K releases but also by the standards of that time. There is no upgrade path, besides buying everything all over again. While DVDs and BRs have the potential to carry subs and original dub tracks, many of them don't. Some of my older DVDs actually are unreadable now, these discs have a limited lifespan.
"Japanese media is ridiculously expensive. $30 often doesn't even buy you a DVD, let alone a BR. And why are these cases so damn huge. I'd love if it they were more respectful to my limited shelf space. So yeah, I like streaming.
"I still buy what I like (though ironically, Netflix often prevents physical releases from its exclusives), but more as a gestures to the director than because I believe physical media is the best ever. Also, physical media is no solution to discovering new films, waaaaaaay too expensive. Go streaming!!" He added: "To be clear though, I'm not against physical media, I just don't like the physical vs streaming debates. Both are solutions to different problems. I like to own what I love, but stream before I buy."
Screen Anarchy contributing writer Christopher Webster, based in Canada, commented: "Truth is, I don't think we've even started to see how many streaming services will come and go. The boom is just beginning and there will be too many for us all to support. It's going to be a bittersweet time for film fans.
"Mubi and Kanopy are still great for the cinephiles crowd."
In Variety's October 26 article, two sources "familiar with the decision said the plan to kill FilmStruck was made prior to AT&T's closing the Time Warner deal; in any case, the strategy aligns with the new WarnerMedia blueprint to shift resources to mass-market entertainment services." Turner and Warner Digital Services issued a statement that read in part: "While FilmStruck has a very loyal fanbase, it remains largely a niche service. We plan to take key learnings from FilmStruck to help shape future business decisions in the direct-to-consumer space and redirect this investment back into our collective portfolios."
Presumably, they mean they are exiting the "niche service business" and will focus in the future purely on chasing mass audiences instead. Just making money is not enough for large corporations, of course; they need to make massive amounts of money to satisfy stockholders (and themselves).
So, goodbye to FilmStruck. As Humphrey Bogart once said about a tragic relationship: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
Notes on Streaming is a column on the crowded intersection between legal streaming, feature films and episodic television.