If you care enough about FilmStruck to have clicked this link, it seems safe to assume that you don’t need the obligatory introductory paragraph to summarize where we’re at on this thing. But just in case: FilmStruck, the cinephile wet dream of a streaming service that combined the vast classics library of Turner Classic Movies and the indie/foreign/doc selection of the Criterion Collection, is done. The announcement of its shuttering came a scant two years after its launch, which seems barely enough time to penetrate a wildly overpopulated streaming landscape, build an audience, and/or turn a profit. Its loyal customer base of film buffs, film critics, and filmmakers have raised a ruckus, but it seems unlikely to make a difference; Turner’s new owner, AT&T, has deemed it “a niche service,” and that is apparently that. They didn’t buy WarnerMedia to steward film history, they bought it to make money — and FilmStruck, apparently, wasn’t making enough.
The question to ask — not just with regards to the folding of FilmStruck, but to the general question of preservation of the arts — is how much is enough? The Los Angeles Times reported a subscription base of 100,000 users, and though financials for the service aren’t available, we can attempt some guess-work from that number: conservatively rounding down to the monthly average of $ 8.33 for a $ 100, one-year subscription (and a fair percentage were presumably doing the pricier monthly subscription, at $ 11 a pop), that means it’s possible they were bringing somewhere in the neighborhood of $ 833K per month, or just south of $ 10 million per year. So was this a case of a service hemorrhaging money, losing a negligible margin that could conceivably disappear if given more than two damn years to take off, or making a small profit that simply wasn’t deemed worth the trouble by their new corporate overlords?
Damned if anyone there will tell you, and believe me, I asked. Several people. Even off the record, I can’t get more than the kind of corporate double-talk that made the cancellation statement so odious (actual quote: “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”). But based on the fact that its two biggest sources of content were partners in the endeavor, it seems unlikely that FilmStruck was some sort of cash-bleeding red-line item. And even if it was a minimal loss-leader, it seems like WarnerMedia can swing it, right? How many years of FilmStruck could they subsidize with one week of profits from their terrible Harry Potter spin-offs?
But that kind of thinking seems increasingly implausible these days, which is worrisome. Not long before pulling the cord on FilmStruck, WarnerMedia (and, let’s call it what it is, AT&T) turned out the lights on two other “niche” streaming services, the comedy-centric Super Deluxe and the Korean language site Drama Fever; the strategy here, based on that statement, is to ignore what we’ve learned from the online content explosion (put simply, to create small but profitable pockets for niche audiences) and bank, somehow, on those same materials appealing to a broad audience. No one seems quite sure how; maybe they’ll be part of WarnerMedia’s forthcoming super-streaming service (representatives would neither confirm nor deny this), though I’m not holding my breath. And if the historical precedent of, say, Netflix is any indication, they might put up a chunk of that library when the service launches, and slowly shear it away.
Where does that leave film fans in the interim? Sure, there are alternatives: the indie/foreign/doc heavy services Fandor and MUBI, the newer Kanopy (free for use with a library card in many markets), and (while they last) niche-targeting sites like Shudder and Brown Sugar. And the Watch TCM app continues to offer up a rotating menu of that library, though nowhere near as much as FilmStruck (and only for cable subscribers).
What about the long-term? It’s tempting (and I’m certainly guilty of it) to gesture wildly towards your shelves of DVDs and Blu-rays and reiterate that physical media is the only safe way to maintain access to the movie library you want, but that’s too easy an out; as Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins told the Los Angeles Times, “What people who prioritize physical media take for granted about ownership is that someone has to make it. We’re all drinking from the same tap, here: physical media, like streaming options, rely on institutions making them available.”
He’s not wrong. And that’s part of what’s so heartbreaking about FilmStruck closing up shop, and why (if your social media usage is anywhere adjacent to that nebulous natter-fest known as Film Twitter) you’re seeing so many movie geeks binging FilmStruck before it’s gone: the site is loaded with stuff that is, quite simply, not available on disc, and not streaming anywhere else. It’s the only way you can see Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown, Michael Powell’s The Spy in Black, Yasujirô Ozu’s An Inn in Tokyo, and dozens more. It’s the only site that has the not-on-disc Split Screen, John Pierson’s newsmagazine series that captured the indie film world in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And, obviously, it’s the only place to stream all of the original extras that were created specifically for their subscribers.
Well, it’s the only legal way to see that stuff. Other methods are available, and here’s something I’m probably not supposed to say, but will: I’m begrudgingly beginning to embracing them. “The older I get,” critic and historian Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted on the day the FilmStruck news broke, “the more convinced I am that if film buffs don’t personally make an effort to keep film history alive, it’s going to disappear, because the corporations that officially own the movies don’t care. At all.” Of course we shouldn’t BitTorrent movies. But, in a fair number of cases, that might be the only way to put your eyes on a movie that’s not licensed for online distribution and has gone out of print on disc. And it’s increasingly difficult, as those in boardrooms at giant mega-corporations like AT&T decide to keep these films unavailable, to get too worked up about contributing to a revenue stream that they won’t even invest in themselves.
So I say, screw ‘em. Take it personally. I’m going to rip my discs and share my Plex libraries. Get behind a VPN and download rarities. Stream and capture. (I’m not saying I’ll use an HDMI splitter and Game Capture device to connect my Roku to my laptop and capture FilmStruck’s content before it vanishes forever, but I’m not not saying it.) Figure out my own ways to circumvent a system that killed the mom-and-pop video store, then killed the chain video store, then replaced it with streaming services that eventually dumped their catalogues for “original content” with a fraction of the cultural value. Get mad. Fight for the art that matters to me. Somebody has to.
One of the most indelible images of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (and of Francois Truffaut’s film adaptation) is that of the Book People, who have attempted to preserve literature in a time of book-burning by each committing a book to memory, and reciting it. That’s a commitment, and perhaps that’s the kind of spirit those of us who care about film history have to adopt. The difference is that our cultural history isn’t being erased by the government. It’s being erased by capitalists.