WB Gets FilmStruck, by Scott Nye
From the time FilmStruck was announced in 2016, it seemed like a match made in Heaven. TCM and The Criterion Collection – two of the most trusted brands in the business of bringing cinema to your home (and two which protect their respective brands intensely) – partnering on a streaming service would, hopefully, act as a ballast to the many streaming services that largely neglect films made before 1970.
In those early months, though, they had trouble conveying their mission statement. Yes, it was TCM presenting, but that didn’t mean there were many films from classic Hollywood. Sometimes they’d rotate through on certain themes (Directed by Fritz Lang, Starring Ingrid Bergman, etc.), but the slant stayed considerably closer to the Criterion end of things, often venturing into more recent art house fare than Criterion even tends to represent. The audience for Catherine Breillat’s 2002 film Sex is Comedy may not be wide or deep, but they can find it on FilmStruck. The service’s main selling point remained the Criterion Channel, though. For a flat yearly fee of $100 (roughly the equivalent of five Criterion Blu-rays during their 50% off sale), you could watch hundreds of films they’ve released, many of which included supplements, plus hundreds more films that haven’t yet made their way to disc (this is where I routinely point out the many Mikio Naruse and Ingmar Bergman offerings, which are well worth your time).
But there had been a significant part of me that wondered if that would be enough to garner interest to maintain the infrastructure of running a streaming site – the designers and engineers and support staff and curators and marketing and publicity and everything else that goes on. Enter WB, which falls under the same corporate umbrella as TCM.
Warner Brothers has for years run, with great success, a side project called Warner Archive, which makes available hundreds (perhaps thousands at this point) of films from the studio’s library via burned-on-demand discs – rather than produce thousands of copies of Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl, they could just make one, each time someone orders it. They were so successful that they launched their own streaming site in 2013, but despite an initial splash, it never really retained any steam.
That project has now been shuttered and steered over to FilmStruck, the idea being, as far as I can tell, to become the go-to destination for fans of Hollywood’s golden age, especially those who might not be cable subscribers. And let me tell you, as someone who has attended and worked with the TCM Classic Film Festival, classic Hollywood movies still bring in a massive audience for those who know how to present them. They remain big sellers on home video, too, especially in comparison with the foreign-language cinema FilmStruck had previously come to represent – there’s a reason Kino isn’t putting out as many of the latter ever since Kino Lorber Studio Classics started representing the former.
While old studio movies have become an arms race on home video, few are equipped the way WB, TCM, and Criterion are via FilmStruck to storm the streaming world. A company like Kino (or Arrow or Olive or any of the other dozen companies in this racket) might hold the home video license, but the VOD and streaming license is a whole other bag, one studios tend not to lend out. Via FilmStruck, WB now has a steady revenue stream for their significant library, one that doesn’t depend on people occasionally thinking Three on a Match is worth $2.99 to rent.
As someone who likes the weird funky stuff FilmStruck was repping, this move makes me a little nervous for the site’s future. As with Kino (and to a certain extent Criterion themselves), I’ve seen so often in the home video market what happens when the classic studio fare starts flowing in – for an American audience, those films are understandably more popular, and everyone wants to keep a business going. But along the way the weirder stuff, which maybe they only previously put out because more popular fare was more tightly held elsewhere, tends to drift away.
Hopefully, in the great expanse of a streaming library, such a thing will be less likely. But even now, the “Directed by Peter Greenaway”, “Black in America”, and “Starring Fernandel” collections seem overwhelmed by Rogers & Astaire (interested reversal), Bette Davis, TCM Select, and Fred Zinnemann selections. Sure, I know, when that’s your populist fare, you’ve still got a pretty stand-up company, but it’s not necessarily the company they set out to be.
Bottom line, for me, as long as they keep that Criterion Channel as well-stocked as it is, I’ll be a subscriber for life. And I do genuinely love classic Hollywood, which to this point has, yes, been sorely lacking on any streaming service you can find. But it will be interesting to see what form FilmStruck sits in a year from now, if it solidifies around two beaming brands rather than digging up films nobody seems to want to represent.