This week saw the announcement that the film streaming service FilmStruck, is being shut down on November 29th. This is a severe blow for cinephiles as FilmStruck was one of the few sites that catered for those who love art house and world cinema.
The site started in 2016 in the US as a means of streaming the Criterion Collection and soon added the Warner Brothers Classic Collection making it the go-to service for many. In January 2018 FilkmStruck UK started, bringing together both Criterion and Curzon Cinema. Showing a wide range of films from Hitchcock to Ozu, Satyajit Ray to Pawel Pawlikowski, Chaplin to Lloyd and Louis Malle to Denis Villeneuve.
However, on October 26th, an email was sent to subscribers informing them as follows;
“We regret to inform you that, as a result of a change in business strategy, the decision has been made to shut down the FilmStruck service on 29th November 2018.“
For those who are paying monthly, their Direct Debits would automatically stop and for those who paid for the service annually, a refund would be made in due course for any overpayments.
The message ended:
“We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for being a FilmStruck subscriber. We have loved bringing you a rich and diverse mix of quality movies – THANK YOU for choosing us.”
Coming directly from FilmStruck, this sentiment seems genuine. The people behind the site really seemed to love the movies they were showing. On Twitter they often shared clips and facts about the films that were available and some of the programmers were also active on social media.
However, this whole ‘change in business strategy’ does not speak of a love for film and it is the latest in a change of strategy by Warners Bros. Digital Network and Turner who have recently been acquired by AT&T. According to the trade paper Variety, the closure of FilmStruck and other sites ‘aligns with the new WarnerMedia blueprint to shift resources to mass-market entertainment services.’
This is all part of a large groundswell in the streaming industry in which companies like Warners and Disney try to take on the might of Netflix. The corporations have realised the opportunity to generate more profits by streaming their own films themselves, instead of licencing them to the likes of Netflix and Amazon. This also explains why both Netflix and Amazon have both moved into producing their own product. Netflix alone will spend between $7 billion and $8 billion on content in 2018, which explains their need to create a corner of the market before their agreements with the likes of Disney come to an end.
Amazon’s strategy is quite different to that of Netflix. Instead of trying to cater for all tastes with the ‘there’s something for everyone’ approach, Amazon have decided to concentrate on a small but more dedicated audience. This is the reason it’s producing so many smaller and art house movies like Manchester By The Sea, The Handmaiden, The Big Sick and the much anticipated Suspira remake. The thinking is that the people who watch these films are more likely to become loyal streamers thus generating more stability in Amazon’s future business plans.
But what future is there for those cinephiles who are looking for the niche product that FilmStruck provided? The truth is that, for the time being at least, there is a hole in the market. The problem for cinephiles is that it’s a very small hole and one easily overlooked by the giant corporations. Unfortunately it does seem that when these giants look down on us, our needs aren’t important to them.
In the UK there’s the BFI Player which does provide some excellent product including films by Ingmar Bergman, Wim Wenders, John Cassavetes and David Lean. The selection is excellent but very limited and there does sometimes seem to be less care in the presentation of their films. FilmStruck also provided additional content – documentaries and interviews etc – which BFI doesn’t do. This is also reflected in their Blu-Ray and DVD releases, whereas Criterion (as well as other niche providers such Arrow, Eureka and Indicator) also provide a number of supplements and commentaries, something that the BFI, for some reason, fails to do (they only seem to provide booklets with their releases).
So what does the future provide for cinephiles now that FilmStruck is gone?
In their statement Turner and WB Digital Networks said:
“We’re incredibly proud of the creativity and innovations produced by the talented and dedicated teams who worked on FilmStruck over the past two years. 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.“
This seems to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand the emphasis on the fact that FilmStruck was a niche service does seem to be quite negative. However, if we are still optimistic, the last sentence may offer a glimmer of hope. Does it mean that the future Warner Bros streaming site (due around the end of 2019 in the US) will learn from the loyalty of FilmStruck subscribers and provide niche product on their service? Or will Criterion, who are dedicated to streaming their content, find another partner with which to create a brand new service?
Whatever happens, one thing is certain: the days of Netflix’s global domination is coming to an end. Instead there are going to be multiple sites, owned by the various studios and each showing their own product. This is one reason Disney have been building such a portfolio of franchises in recent years. In years to come, if you want to watch Marvel Studios, Star Wars or Pixar movies at home, you’ll need to subscribe to the Disney Service.
In many respects, this reminds me of those heady days pre 1948 when the studios owned their own cinema chains which were used to exclusively show their own product. Back then it was a monopoly, today it is an essential business plan.
It is inevitable that if we want to be able to watch the widest number of films, we’ll have to subscribe to a larger number of services. This is not good news for the viewer as choice is going to get expensive and with each service trying to cater for the widest possible audience, niche programming may get lost in the melee.
One negative impact of this could result in ever increasing instances of piracy. Instead of paying $9.99 per month because there’s one film you just have to see, many may look for alternative means. Piracy has been an issue for the film industry since the birth of home media and studios inevitably expect a certain level of it to hit their bottom lines, but in the future this could well increase significantly.
So what the demise of Filmstruck really represents is not necessarily a new opportunity but rather a future in which wee seemingly have more choice but in fact, with all outlets trying to capture the same market, prices are going to go up and choice – true choice not the perception of choice – is going to decline.
Hearing that Filmstruck was closing was a bitter blow for many of us and, unfortunately, the future does not look bright.