STORY WRITTEN BY BOB STRAUSS
Southern California News Group
Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection have teamed up to offer not just one, but two digital treasure troves to fans of independent, foreign and arthouse films.
On Wednesday, Turner launches FilmStruck, its first streaming, video-on-demand subscription service. On Nov. 11, the Criterion Channel migrates from Hulu to FilmStruck, and is bringing all manner of new and previously unavailable streaming goodies to its new home.
While a rotating batch of over 500 films will be available to stream anytime on FilmStruck and the entire, 1,200-plus title Criterion Collection can be accessed on its channel, the key difference between these two services and others such as Netflix and Hulu is curation. Themed programming will be highlighted on both outlets.
Therefore, look forward to such series as a 25-film retrospective of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (hosted by Bill Hader!), a group of movies that highlight the beauty of Italy and a neo-noir online festival among more than 70 constantly refreshed FilmStruck themed programs.
Beside having weeknights devoted to presenting a feature and a short (Tuesdays), a film with all the extras found on their highly prized home video editions (Wednesdays) and a double feature of eclectically complementary titles on Fridays (the first one is a kind of Great Serial Killer pair, “The Silence of the Lambs” and Fritz Lang’s 1931 German classic “M”), the Criterion Channel will also program series with themes such as Explosive Political Cinema of the 1960s (“Battle of Algiers,” “Z,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” and more) and Love for Sale: Courtesans and Other Sex Workers (“Belle de Jour,” Mizogchi’s “Street of Shame,” Gus Van Sant’s “Mala Noche” and others).
There will also be specially filmed introductions, filmmaker interviews, live events from arthouses and lots more original programming on both channels. It’s all the brainchild of TCM’s Charlie Tabesh and Criterion’s Jonathan Turell.
“We’ve licensed movies to TCM for more than 20 years now,” says Turell, CEO of Criterion and managing director of the venerable arthouse distributor Janus Films, which Criterion is the home video label for. “Over that period, Charlie and I have talked about the idea of programming and curating movies. That has become a little bit of a lost art in the internet/time-shifting world where everything is available anytime all the time.”
“As the technology has evolved and changed, those conversations would go in that direction,” adds Tabesh, senior vice-president of programming and production at TCM. “Then, as streaming became more and more a viable and important part of the industry, those conversations got more specific and veered toward us working together.”
Tabesh says FilmStruck — which will stream around 200 Criterion titles and license films from a variety of other distributors both indie and Hollywood, domestic and foreign — will look vastly different from TCM, although we can expect the same attention to the art and history and movies that defines that brand.
“TCM itself is 95 percent classic Hollywood,” Tabesh observes. “It was built on the libraries Ted Turner bought, and it was always meant to be a channel that strongly emphasized classic Hollywood. From time to time, we would veer away from that a little bit, but FilmStruck is kind of meant to be the inverse of it. It’s 90-95 percent arthouse/independent films. There’ll be Hollywood films when appropriate, like early Kubrick or Robert Altman films. When you look at the balance, though, you’re much more likely to see independent and foreign language films on FilmStruck.”
Tabesh and his Turner staff will be choosing the movies FilmStruck presents. The programming over at the new Criterion Channel is being spearheaded by widely respected film critic Michael Sragow and seasoned film festival programmer Penelope Bartlett.
“What Penelope and I are doing is trying to come up with programs that highlight the different pockets of the collection in ways we hope will draw people in and get them to, maybe, see some movies they wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” Studio City resident Sragow, who recently served as the Orange County Register’s film reviewer, explains.
“A lot of buffs who know the collection and have their Roku devices or whatever so that they can do very sophisticated searches will be able to run through the titles and create their own series,” Sragow continues. “But for people who are going to be new to it or film buffs who like to have suggestions that might be exciting or interesting, we’re giving them this opportunity to pick our brains, in a sense.”
Turell promises that the Criterion Channel at its new FilmStruck home will be different in a lot of ways from its Hulu iteration of the past five years.
“First of all, it will be programmed and curated, and there will be regular things that people can expect,” Turell notes. “Our Friday night double feature will include licenses of films that maybe were part of the Criterion Collection but, maybe, not part of the streaming collection. ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is not a film that we have ever had streaming rights to, but we’re licensing a window so that we can present that for, probably, a month. And there’ll be a tremendous amount of original programming, there’ll be full Criterion editions, there’ll be really an experience that didn’t exist on Hulu.”
Asked if he’s concerned that posting all of those beloved extras from Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray editions — trailers, filmmaker commentaries, erudite note booklets and such — could impact the company’s main business, Turell acknowledged:
“I’d be foolish if I said I’m not concerned. But I think the channel by its nature is additive to package goods. People buy package goods for a lot of reasons. They like the way they look on their shelves, they like the way the booklets feel in their hands. Some people use these streaming services as a way to preview a movie before they want to spend $39 and buy it. So I think they complement each other much more than they cannibalize each other.”
A subscription to FilmStruck will be $6.99 per month, $10.99 if you also want the Criterion Channel. You can get a year of both for $99, a $30 savings. FilmStruck is exclusively on Amazon Fire TV, web, iOS and Android devices at launch, and expected to expand to Apple TV and other platforms and devices within months. You can sign up at www.filmstruck.com. The Criterion Channel website is also being redesigned.
“I think FilmStruck will be TCM with a little bit more edge, married with an arthouse component,” Turell reckons. “The Criterion Channel will be true to the brand; we are filmmaker-driven, and hopefully there will be months that are curated by a filmmaker. And I think we will tend to be a little bit edgier and more out-there than FilmStruck.”
Perhaps not; TCM’s Tabesh has been busy cutting deals for a Bollywood series and obscure Soviet film trilogies.
“We’re mixing films from different places that are hopefully interesting and people will get excited about,” Tabesh says. “Finding a lot of these films is hard, but very gratifying when you come across something that maybe has never been seen in the United States at all, and even hardcore film fans haven’t had the chance to see.
“My hope is that if you are a somewhat serious film fan, FilmStruck will be a service that you can’t do without,” Tabesh concludes.
Contact Bob Strauss at firstname.lastname@example.org or @bscritic on Twitter.