The streaming service FilmStruck was born in 2016 as the unusual marriage of the Golden Age Hollywood-focused Turner Classic Movies and the arthouse, prestigious Criterion Collection. Its creation was hailed as “ambitious” by The New York Times, with the service being dubbed the “indie Netflix” and a “subscription to Film School.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody portrayed it as the first sign of arthouse cinema’s institutions grappling with streaming culture, wondering whether arthouse film would cotton on to streaming as they eventually did to the VCR and DVD formats.
Unfortunately, the service didn’t stick around long enough to answer that question. FilmStruck, just two years after opening, has been shuttered for good, a victim of its parent company Time Warner’s downsizing, which also claimed the lives of K-drama streaming service DramaFever and internet comedy outfit Super Deluxe. And the troubles in the indie film industry aren’t just limited to Time Warner’s properties. Fandor, an indie-focused competitor to FilmStruck, announced it was firing all of its employees last week (ironically, shortly after they gloated about their rival’s downfall by offering a discount to ex-FilmStruck subscribers). Additionally, the NBC-owned comedy streaming service Seeso shut down last year.
The larger niche streaming marketplace, however, still remains fertile. There’s streaming services that cater specifically to the fans of horror, anime, Blaxploitation, the comedy of Kevin Hart and the dramatic paternity tests of Maury. The cinephile demographic still remains pandered to — Sundance Now, MUBI and Tribeca Shortlist are all poised to fill the space created by the shutdown of their two biggest competitors.
In addition to escalating licensing-related costs from competition with deep-pocketed Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime (which was a major factor in pulling the plug on DramaFever), there’s also a matter of scale. To put it in perspective, Netflix’s streaming service currently has about 137 million subscribers, and its DVD-by-mail service still has 3 million subscribers. DramaFever had 400,000. FilmStruck, by the time it ended, had about 100,000.
Can niche services compete with larger companies, considering they have such small viewer bases? The Criterion Collection seems to think so, as it is poised to release a streaming service of its own that will cater to the same audience that FilmStruck drew. But Time Warner is leaving its niche days behind and skewing broad with a service that will consolidate its deep catalog into one platform — which potentially includes its HBO shows, the Harry Potter franchise, the DC cinematic universe films, Cartoon Network programs and “The Big Bang Theory.”
And size seems to be the direction that the streaming winds are blowing. Netflix continues to add millions of subscribers per quarter; Costco and Walmart have made moves to join the streaming arena, and Disney announced it will launch its streaming service next year, starring its own beloved and enormously popular properties. And the victim of the influx of big conglomerates is the curatorial vision articulated by small services such as FilmStruck and Fandor, where editors used to run banners such as “The Masters: Michelangelo Antonioni” and “Starring Paul Robeson,” a sharp contrast to the plain-jane, slightly impersonal categorizations of “comedy” and “drama” on Netflix.
Companies such as FilmStruck and Fandor never wanted to be anything more than niche. But they had a big idea: They wanted to be a panacea to the algorithm-driven big data culture that plagues the streaming industry. Adding, say, experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton’s “Carrots and Peas” (a seven-minute long view of the titular vegetables) to the FilmStruck catalog obviously wasn’t a gambit to drive clicks. FilmStruck and Fandor acted upon the old-school principle — one that some may even call elitist — that there are things that simply must be watched, even if they’ll never attract more than a small audience. But mixed with that elitism is the democratic promise of making such cultural standard-bearers as the films of Akira Kurosawa and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, widely available outside metropolis-and-college-town-confined arthouse cinemas. The fall of FilmStruck and Fandor is the death of that vision — the algorithm, for better or for worse, has won.
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