Last week, it was announced that FilmStruck, the Turner Classic Movies streaming service beloved of film fans everywhere, would be shuttered. For cinephiles everywhere, including those who did not use the service, this was a devastating loss. FilmStruck had hundreds of films to stream, including those from the Criterion Collection. Earlier this year, they had announced the acquisition of hundreds of classic films from the beloved Warner Bros. archive, including titles like Casablanca and Citizen Kane. The accessibility to some of the greatest films ever made, as well as the sheer variety of works available that couldn’t be found anywhere else at a reasonable price, made it a must-have in an age of dwindling physical media. Alas, WarnerMedia decided it wasn’t worth the cost. This came after AT&T successfully acquired Time Warner for over $108bn.
Much has been said about the end of physical media in the streaming age. For those of us accustomed to instant accessibility to whatever we want with the touch of a button, it can seem all too easy to send those DVDs to the charity shop. Right now, due to having recently bought a new laptop, I don’t even have access to a DVD player, so my viewing options are completely restricted to streaming, television and YouTube until I buy one (all recommendations for a multi-region DVD player that isn’t back-breaking in its expense in the comments, please). In a quick amount of time, I’ve gotten used to relying on Netflix, as much as the service aggravates me. it’s only when something is taken away from you that you realize how dependent you’ve become on the worst options possible.
Netflix’s library is impressive but it is depressingly limited in many areas. If you want to watch a movie made before 1970, your options are miniscule. Film history is practically non-existent on the platform, unless it is directly tied to one of their own exclusives (see the number of World War 2 documentaries available on Netflix because they’re the people who made Five Came Back). That film you re-watch more than any other can be gone in a flash, never to return. Sometimes, the sequel to that film you want to watch is available but not the film itself and it’s never explained why. While their growing roster of original programming is impressive and full of real gems, it’s tough to overlook how culturally limiting that experience is for the casual viewer. If you love classic cinema, Amazon Prime fares much better but it’s a task and a half to find the thing you’re looking for. The overall experience of modern streaming is one where you can get everything except the one thing you truly want.
This isn’t going to get any easier in the future. Disney are about to enter the streaming market with their own service, as is one dedicated to the DC Universe. Apple’s much-hyped original programming is coming soon. In an age where media monopolies are increasingly dominant and everything is owned by the same six companies, our options have become limited. You either accept the oncoming tidal wave or you become more niche than ever, and it’s clear that only one of these options has any real long-term financial future.
No streaming site is faultless. Even FilmStruck had its issues, such as its lack of focus on areas like African cinema and American independent film-making, as noted by Richard Brody of The New Yorker. Yet its ambition was necessary, as was its focus. Where else could you find such a variety of films standing aside one another, with no favouritism given to the big blockbuster of the hour? Few places are putting real money or respect into promoting and preserving the kinds of films that FilmStruck made its bread and butter on. Film preservation is expensive and archival duties aren’t something any of the major studios seem all that interested in nowadays, so you can imagine how financially feasible they are for the indie companies who really do care. Such steps are a crucial part in balancing the scales, but it seems like the people with all the money don’t want to do that anymore.
It’s easy enough to just tell people to buy their movies and keep them forever, but not everyone has the money for that. Why should those without the financial foundations be kept from experiencing the great art-form of the 20th century in all its glory? Even my professors on my film studies course used streaming as a necessary back-up once in a while. Ideally, we’d all use our libraries for further access to such media, and I hope everyone has a library card because it’s the most enriching thing we can have in our lives, but it’s not as if libraries themselves are free from the tyranny of capitalism. Indeed, FilmStruck’s closure, along with countless other streaming services that promised artistic curation alongside accessibility, feels like another sign of the times for our cultural state. Critics and culture writers are losing their jobs left and right, arts funding is being starved by governments who see it as a worthless luxury, and media monopolies make it impossibly hard to separate art from business.
Disney bought Fox, which means a whole host of bad things for the future, and AT&T owning TimeWarner isn’t much better. Everything is under a handful of umbrellas but they don’t keep the majority of us dry. They own everything but none of it is for sale. It’s no coincidence that these studios consistently lobby for further extension of copyright while doing nothing to make the things they possess for life available to the rest of us. Everything is promised to us if we just sign up to their services but when it’s revealed that the emperor has no clothes, we’re already tethered to the sinking ship because there are no other options available.
The most soul-sucking part of this all is that the people who have true passion for those films are the ones who are in the minority of power. FilmStruck was one service that lovingly curated its choices, providing essays and vlogs to enrich the viewing experience. They valued film. It wasn’t just a product. For WarnerMedia, however, it’s just another little ball in their court they can point to in order to show how much bigger their pile is than everyone else’s. They promise ease of access but the gates remain shut.
Header Image Source: FilmStruck.com