This graphic gathers together just about all the posters for the sixty or so films—most of them amazing, wonderful experiences—that I’ve watched over the past two years on FilmStruck, the indie, arthouse and classic films streaming service that, it was announced two weeks ago, will be shutting down at the end of this month. If you weren’t already familiar with the service, this is the way I described it in my subscriber-only newsletter earlier this year:
It’s basically like Netflix, but with good movies instead. Lots of good movies. Actually, most of the best movies ever made. If I had to make a choice, I would cancel Netflix in order to preserve my FilmStruck collection—in a heartbeat.
Looking back now, I realize I inadvertently referred to “my FilmStruck collection,” which of course is not accurate. As its impending demise underscores, nothing on the service was actually mine; I just had a month-to-month lease on it. It just felt like mine because it was so special to me.
Most of us accept the maxim that the modern internet makes it possible to have virtually any content at any time, from high-resolution scans of great works of art to obscure television shows from long ago. But it’s clear from this news that there’s a heavy bias towards that which is optimized for today’s consumption habits—the new, the novel, the binge-able.
That’s fine. Capitalism, et cetera. But what galls me about the closure of FilmStruck is that the service was doing more than just servicing a particular niche of movie fandom. It was a portal to film history, a rich trove of our cultural heritage.
To a lot of people, that sounds like homework, like tedium. I get it. But the genius of FilmStruck, what made it more than just an academic indulgence, was how the team behind it focused so much on making our collective cinematic back catalog accessible and fun. It combined the Criterion Collection’s peerless catalog of challenging films with Turner Classic Movie’s bevy of some of the most entertaining, crowd-pleasing Hollywood fare ever released.
And it was all curated brilliantly, with not just evident passion for film but also a sense of how film’s past continues to be relevant to its present. There was terrific original content, interviews with today’s filmmakers talking about how they were inspired by the movies you could now find on the service. And often, a current release in theaters would inspire terrific editorial collections. For the recent remake of “A Star Is Born,” for example, the editors put forward all the previous versions of that film that have been made over the decades.
That curation helped turn just the simple act of browsing FilmStruck into a pleasure—and an education. You couldn’t help but continually learn more and more about cinema as you perused the thumbnails and read the brief summaries, each one like a ray of light emanating from a doorway behind which laid a trove of cinematic history that might previously have been hidden to you. And that was just the individual films; the staff was constantly turning out all kinds of wonderful collections of movies, grouped by director or theme, usually illustrated with eye-catching graphics that underscored how special the whole experience of film was. Just the bundling of films together like this was a treasure, so beautifully designed and thoughtfully adorned with bonus materials and related films. It was like getting a new boxed set of special edition DVDs every time you opened the app.
As I alluded to in my quote above, I frequently thought about how my experience with FilmStruck compared to my experience with Netflix. I paid for both, so it was natural to weigh the value I was deriving from each. Not long I ago I realized that when I add a movie to my Netflix list, it’s with a feeling of resignation, practically a sense of defeat. It’s as if I do so with no real intention of ever watching it, just this vague idea that I may as well try and separate some of the wheat from Netflix’s abdundance of chaff.
By contrast, each and every movie that I saved to my FilmStruck watchlist was a movie that I knew that one day soon I would absolutely watch. I’ve gotten so much value from the two short years since the service launched that I expected to be a subscriber for life. I was looking forward to decades of great moviewatching.
So to see FilmStruck’s death sentence come so quickly is utterly heartbreaking. It also seems terribly shortsighted. The service’s operational cost can’t possibly represent anything more than a rounding error to its corporate parents, especially given how it serves as a beacon not just for quality, but also as a commitment to cultural history. I would’ve thought that you can’t put a price on that kind of cachet, but apparently I was wrong.
Maybe the saddest thing of all about this news is that there is nothing to replace FilmStruck. Sure, there are other services like Fandor, which can provide a substitute for some of what FilmStruck did (and they’re even offering a discount to aggrieved FilmStruck customers right now). But it seems unlikely that any other single service will be able to give us the same breadth and depth. When Oyster, a “Netflix for books,” shut down its subscription service, avid readers could still go to their public libraries. And if Spotify were to shut down, you could easily switch to a competitor. But it seems unlikely anyone else out there will be able to replicate the utterly unique, harmonious pairing of the Turner and Criterion catalogs—the nature of film licensing makes that a near impossibility.
What the FilmStruck team did was truly special: a destination that you could point your browser, phone or tablet to that was truly wonderful and legitimately enriching. Its impending demise makes for a terrible comment on the current state of our culture. We can make infinite room for “binge-worthy” shows that go on for far too many episodes, and for an endless parade of useless photos of ourselves. But we can’t spare a relatively tiny haven for a century’s worth of some of our richest cultural heritage. It makes me sad for the kind of Internet we’re building.