Why FilmStruck is the future of streaming

You will never watch every movie — so why are you letting a robot decide which ones to stream?

For the film critic in you.
(Image credit: Screenshots courtesy FilmStruck)

Just how many movies are there?

Back in 2012, during what were still the early days of Netflix Instant, HTMLGiant sought to answer the question. Its conclusion, after a long and winding digression about how one might even define a movie, basically confirmed that "there are infinite movies." Because that isn't very satisfying, it also offered a number, from Internet Movie Database's list, which puts the official count of "feature" films in the world today as 358,569.

But, as HTMLGiant pointed out in an important caveat, that probably leaves out most international movies. "For instance, during the 1960s, over 300 films were produced in Cambodia alone, and none of them seem represented here."

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In other words, you will never watch all the movies. You will never even come remotely close.

But before the rise of Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, this infinity might not have felt so overwhelming. Sure, there were shelves and shelves of movies in Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos, but even stores have four walls — the movies were contained. With the advent of streaming, access to films from around the world was suddenly blown open. Lists of the "best 638 new movies added to Netflix!" fill culture websites, and you can store all these movies in queues and watch lists with the idle click of a button, where the titles then sit under a layer of digital dust until you finally find the time to get around to them.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. A new streaming service is aiming to change the way we watch movies at home entirely.

FilmStruck represents a new joint venture between the TV channel Turner Classic Movies and the niche distributor Criterion Collection. The service sets itself apart from the other mega-streaming subscriptions in that it isn't designed for the once-or-twice-a-month movie watcher. Instead, it is a cinephilic paradise of "art house, indie, foreign, and cult films." Pricing for a stripped-down version starts at $6.99 a month, with access to the Criterion Collection library bumping that up to $10.99 a month, or $99 a year.

FilmStruck claims it will include over 1,100 films, many in languages other than English — but still, admittedly, an itty-bitty fraction of all those that exist in the world. Yet the service isn't intended to offer access to every movie in the universe; rather, its selling point is its curation and careful discrimination of titles that don't belong in its particular art-house/classic/foreign film aesthetic (look elsewhere for Ironman, basically). To give you a better idea, the only film from 2016 on FilmStruck is a short that was shot to compliment Black Moon (1975), while its oldest film is a 1914 Charlie Chaplin short. Additionally, FilmStruck offers exclusive special features that supplement the movies and programs in its collection.

And although complex algorithms offered by other streaming services whir to produce a list of "female-fronted road movies," or the like, because you watched Thelma & Louise once, FilmStruck most notably assembles its programming using real, actual film buffs on staff.

Relying on the human brain to recommend movies might seem counterintuitive as technology moves further and further toward artificial intelligence and algorithmic realms. But if you are a moviegoer lucky enough to live in a city that still has a major repertory film scene, you likely already rely on art-house theaters and local critics to direct you toward movies that are worth your time. FilmStruck is trying to replicate the same experience online.

The website is built out of critic assembled "series," such as this one on films that were once banned in the United States. A similar series, on the Hollywood blacklist, could be seen at New York's Anthology Film Archives last summer. Or take the Akira Kurosawa series featured prominently on FilmStruck's homepage; the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles held its own retrospective of the influential Japanese director last winter. Other examples on Filmstruck include the "Native People, Native Lands" bundle, "Early Kubrick" and "Serious Woody Allen," and "Remade in America," featuring films that were "the original source material for several famous American remakes," like Chus Gutiérrez's 1997 film Insomnia, later remade by Christopher Nolan with Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Such esoterica would feel right at home at New York's Film Forum.

All the pages on the website are also addictively browse-able, with a Criterion Collection-like eye for original art and design.

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In many ways, FilmStruck's model is similar to that of Mubi, my personal favorite streaming service. Mubi posts a film a day, each of which is only available for a month. It maximizes its reliance on human curation by only releasing movies one at a time and giving viewers a short timeframe to actually watch the film. Instead of squirreling away movies I might one day get around to rediscovering in a lost corner of Netflix, I actively try to get back to Mubi to keep up with what it's posting.

While FilmStruck doesn't have a ticking clock, its specially curated sections do have a binge-able quality to them — I want to watch every single movie listed in "How to Murder Your Spouse," for example. It is this particular quality about FilmStruck that might help it compete with a surplus of streaming services that still don't have the attention, or monetary incentive, to put effort into making classic films available. (Online access to the Criterion Collection is a notable exception; it was originally housed at Hulu before it was yanked for FilmStruck. Hardcore film buffs also have Fandor as another good option).

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But even with these resources at our fingertips, it has been pointed out that many people simply don't have interest in classic movies anymore. "This is the great paradox of classic film in the age of streaming," Vox writes. "If you already know you're a film history buff, it's never been easier to devour title after title, either on demand or on Blu-ray or on specialty cable channels and streaming services. But the gap between 'casual film fan' and 'film history buff' has never been harder — or more expensive — to bridge."

And as Turner Classic Movies general manager Jennifer Dorian explained: "Every single person says, 'Oh, I started watching [classic films] with my older brother.' 'I started watching it with my grandma.' 'I started watching it with my dad.' It's almost always a learned affiliation. Classic film is taught, a lot of times, from generation to generation."

FilmStruck wants to teach. That's where its supplements come in — some, like the one-minute clip bundled with the "Starring Paul Robeson" series, run like a kind of trailer while other bundles have goodies exclusive to Criterion, such as Blood Simple's storyboards and behind-the-scenes clips:

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You are never going to watch every movie. You probably won't even watch every film in your Netflix queue, if you're anything like me. But for the short time we are alive to experience these plays of light and shadow, we might as well challenge ourselves, broaden our worlds, and discover something new.

That, at least, is the gamble FilmStruck is willing to take. And if it pays off, the future of movies is bright indeed.

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