On a Friday dominated by the dramatic arrest of a domestic terrorism suspect, it might seem trivial to care about the summary execution of FilmStruck, the 2-year-old classic film streaming service, which curated films from the archives of Warner Bros. and the Criterion Collection, along with art-house distributors like Kino and Flicker Alley. WarnerMedia, formed when AT&T received approval to acquire Time Warner Inc. in June, announced Friday that FilmStruck will be shutting down at the end of November, a victim of corporate impatience with “niche services” that included already-shuttered production service Super Deluxe and the Korean film site DramaFever. The strangled corporate newspeak of the memo announcing the closure, with its reference to the “learnings” to be gleaned from the FilmStruck experiment, engenders the same kind of helpless rage as the tortured syntax of Donald Trump’s tweets—it’s so painfully revealing of the kind of grandiose carelessness that is the hallmark of power right now.
As Warner gears up to face down Disney with its direct-to-consumer streaming service, launching next year, it’s clear that the company has no interest in catering to passionate fans of its back catalog, only in chasing the largest possible audience for its new releases. What’s not clear is why it has to be a zero-sum game, and why efforts at preservation and education have to be eliminated in order to chase the biggest possible audience and present them with a library far broader than it is deep. As the screenwriter John August recently pointed out, there are still hundreds of movies from the home-video era that are not available to stream, and the availability of older titles is even more of a patchwork. This is a slow erosion of cultural heritage under the guise of infinite availability. Titles that are not available to stream will be harder to assign in classes, will cease to bubble up into the cultural awareness, and will eventually cease to matter.
Conversations about gatekeeping and elitism tend to equate cultural capital with actual capital, and assume that critics, artists, professors, and the kinds of people who make up film-festival audiences are able not only to persuade and educate but also to limit and exclude (hence the enduring power of attacks on “elites” making $40,000 a year). More powerful, and far more insidious, is the massive land grab by tech companies for whom culture is only a series of metrics, who have rampaged through media and the arts in pursuit of impossible growth, whose business practices are in thrall to the “move fast and break things” ethos, where the speed with which a company can “pivot” and fire its staff is a mark of health, not of shortsighted, rapacious, and deeply unstable management. Over and over again stories pop up about the climate of corporate terror that reigns at companies like Amazon and, just this week, Netflix, yet they remain models to which others aspire.
When the cultural playing field is restricted to behemoths like Disney and AT&T, there’s less and less chance of anything human-scaled surviving. The indiscriminate sprawl of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon’s vast libraries is part of their allure; you get lost in the figurative stacks, and you can unearth gems and surprises. But for the most part these services are self-reinforcing, telling you what you like based on what you’ve watched before, making inferences about you as a member of a certain demographic. If the only art you see is the kind of art you’ve already heard of, then you’re missing the challenge and the thrill of true discovery.
FilmStruck did not care who you were: It set out to teach you something new, not just to feed you more helpings of what you already know you like. It employed a team of smart women and brought in directors like Barry Jenkins to record short, passionate introductions to films they loved. Its personality shone through tightly curated collections, from a timely gathering of all the previous incarnations of A Star Is Born, to a larger batch of Japanese horror titles, to deep dives into a particular director or cinematographer. It offered up inventive double-feature pairings and led you through its extensive archives in ways that were creative, cheeky, thought-provoking, and unpretentious. It made it clear that a passion for art-house and classic film was not exclusive to old white men. That kind of personality, that kind of discoverability, that kind of curation, can’t be replicated by an algorithm. It takes time, money, and effort. It takes thought and education. It takes human beings.
What’s left in a post-FilmStruck world? There are television channels catering to cinephiles, notably Turner Classic Movies, but that’s not much use for those without a cable subscription. There’s a smattering of “classics” on Netflix and Hulu, but they rarely offer anything made earlier than 1960. There are other streaming services: one of the best is Kanopy, an eclectic service available through many public library systems, which offers a fairly bare-bones interface and a limited number of monthly views. There’s DVD borrowing through your local library, or there’s the online gray market of movie piracy, for those willing to navigate it—the last thing any studio should want to encourage. And there’s good old-fashioned physical media, which can’t be taken away by the whims of corporate owners, but consider that you could have had a year of FilmStruck for less than the price of three Criterion Blu-rays, and without any plastic cases cluttering up your coffee table.
We have to fight for the right to access our niches, our subcultures, our hobby horses—but we also have to fight to share them, grow them, to welcome new people in. That was something that FilmStruck excelled at, and makes its loss about far more than just availability.