WarnerMedia announced its streaming service FilmStruck announced last month that it was shutting down on November 29. The reasons WarnerMedia gave to Variety for the decision were, at best, unsatisfactory. “We’re incredibly proud of the creativity and innovations produced by the talented and dedicated teams who worked on FilmStruck over the past two years. While FilmStruck has a very loyal fan base, it remains largely a niche service.” This is the same as saying “Sure, Johnny deserves an A+ for his paper, but he’s still being held back a grade because the popular kids don’t hang out with him.” Now that I think about it, that’s a very accurate definition of adult life, but there’s no reason we should punish FilmStruck’s success.
Naturally, many cinephiles took this announcement as a personal attack. Oscar winners like Barry Jenkins and Guillermo del Toro rallied against the decision. Many other commenters wrung their hands and used this development as a rallying cry about media corporate consolidation. Petitions were created, and The Criterion Collection eventually came to the rescue and announced they’d start their own channel next year. But that’s likely not going to offer the same vast library that was available on FilmStruck.
But during all this, very few have taken a step back and examined what the shutdown of FilmStruck means for streaming. That may be because it’s going to force us to confront something streaming. It’s not going to be wave of the future that we all thought it was. In fact, it’s already making the same mistakes that cable made and will likely be mistakes that shape the future of these services.
1.) All the focus is on new content, preventing people from checking out older films – As many pointed out, FilmStruck was the only place to find Hollywood classics like Singing in the Rain or obscure titles like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
Actually, the latter film was available on Netflix for many years. So were a lot of classic films. In its early streaming years, one of the biggest complaints about Netflix was the fact that no newer releases were ever showcased.
But as time went on, Netflix started developing its own content, starting with Lilyhammer. Yes, there was production company Netflix owned that bought films for exclusive distribution, including the documentaries This Film is Not Yet Rated and Super High Me. But Lilyhammer and House of Cards really broke the dam for streaming platforms creating original content. Now, there are some undeniably classic television moments on Netflix produced shows. But it was an enormous change for their business model, and as a result, more and more classic titles are leaving the service. It means that classic film fans were getting increasingly left out because that was such a niche audience. Netflix didn’t bother renewing the streaming rights to many titles because they were encouraged by the success of Cards and wanted to develop more shows.
The result is an increasingly unsatisfactory film library. Yes, some great work still resides there – as of this writing, The Third Man and Touch of Evil are both streaming. But Stripes and Strictly Ballroom are also listed under “classics,” presumably because they’re more than 20 years old. Compared to what Netflix once was – a one stop shop for practically every film you could ever imagine – today’s Netflix is far more limited. It’s like what happened to cable channel AMC. It used to be a huge competitor with Turner Classic movies. Now, it’s more well known for airing shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. The movies it does air tend to be dreck and there certainly isn’t any special attention paid to them.
Ironically, Netflix somewhat addressed this complaint about classic films earlier in November when they finally released Orson Welles’ long lost The Other Side of the Wind, with an accompanying documentary about the film and Welles’ later career. This act shows how streaming services can still provide if they’re willing to do so. But that’s increasingly becoming an anomaly. And now, Hulu and Amazon are both creating new shows and not showcasing the classics. By its very nature, FilmStruck could not create any new narrative content. That, more than anything else, is likely why the service got the axe.
2.) Streaming is becoming increasingly fractured – It seems that media owners are eager to have their content move around to get fans to pay more. It happened when It’s Always Sunny and Archer moved from FX to FXX, which is a newer cable station notable for the fact there’s one more X in its name. There was no practical reason for this move except to acknowledge the fact that FXX existed and people should, despite their best interests, subscribe to it.
I mentioned Netflix a lot in my last point because that’s the service that drove every other decision by every other service. And in that decision process, more media creators started taking their content and creating their own streaming services.
That by itself isn’t a bad thing. People have different interests and may want to only focus on certain genres. That was certainly an advantage of FilmStruck. People who weren’t excited over the latest Avengers sequel had somewhere to go to watch the movies they wanted to watch.
What is troubling is that this meant, once content was removed from one service, people would have to shell out for multiple services just to get a film or TV show that had previously been available. Several classic TV shows that were formerly hosted by Netflix are now exclusively on Hulu, and it’s been promoted as something to be excited about rather than an acknowledgement that rights have transferred and that consumers have to spend more money.
During the dying days of cable, may people wondered why they couldn’t just pay for the channels they wanted to watch. After all, at most, people insisted they only watched five channels. Streaming was supposed to be the alternative to this. We would get the content we wanted without having all the useless appendages tacked on. Netflix didn’t include sports or live events, but it did include every TV show and film that almost everyone would want. Through a few specialized services on top of that and we’d be living in our future utopia.”
But it’s not to be. Disney has already announced they have a streaming service planned. Hulu has taken most of the classic TV content away from Netflix. And WarnerMedia is apparently dreaming of something so amazing that it will make FilmStruck look like a child’s toy. Meanwhile, Netflix wants to become the Marvel Channel. (We’ll see how long that lasts when Disney launches their service) and services like HBO Go, Shudder, and FilmStruck, while they do offer an eclectic range of programming, feel like they’re never going to have the staying power that the most popular streaming services do. I have a suspicion that streaming services of the future are going to be offshoots of current branded channels – like CBS All Access. That puts them in the same category as specialty cable channels. And that means that we’re still going to suffer the same problems.
3.) There’s no longer a guarantee that your favorite things will always be available to you – Have you noticed how often I’ve mentioned content being removed from streaming services?
I’m sure many people reading this also recall when past shows would be removed from syndication on cable to make way for newer shows. Nick at Nite went through this when they stopped showing vintage sitcoms and started showing Everybody Loves Raymond. Cartoon Network went through the same thing when the yanked Looney Tunes in favor of Teen Titans Go!
One would think that streaming services, with their seemingly infinite capacity, do not suffer from the same issues. With cable channels, there are only 24 hours in a day people can program. But streaming services supposedly don’t have the same constraints. Yet, that’s what’s happening. Physical media is starting to fall out of fashion. One advantage it will always offer is that a Blu Ray will always be available for you to watch. Studios can’t suddenly not make the disc work.
But we’ve accepted a world where content is removed from a service at random. Even FilmStruck did this – and for a time, didn’t indicate what titles would be leaving. I am sure there is an algorithm that could explain why. But it doesn’t address the biggest problem we’re running into. We’re once again at the mercy of studios to legally provide us what they want to provide us.
That was something FilmStruck could address. They specialized in films that did not interest a general audience. But that was the point. It was a playground for people to go to find obscure films they likely couldn’t see anywhere else. And that may have doomed it.
4.) Advertising is becoming the most important thing for streaming platforms
Remember when earlier this year when Netflix started experimenting with promotions for their shows in between TV episodes? Seemingly everyone reacted negatively to it, as though it was a new idea. Amazon has already been doing that same thing. And many cable channels, like AMC, introduced commercials in the same way.
I’m not necessarily stating that Netflix will introduce commercials. But so many other streaming services have added it that it we’ve barely noticed. I’m not just talking about the giants like Netflix and Hulu. Look at YouTube, the most popular video sharing site in history. Originally, there were no ads on any videos. Then they added skippable commercials before the video started. And, increasingly, they’ve interrupted videos with soap commercials. In November, YouTube added a selection of free movies for people to watch – movies that would be interrupted by ads. Is a movie like Jiro Dreams of Sushi truly enhanced by advertising interruptions? Not to mention the fact that Hulu’s basic service includes ads even after subscribers pay a price for its content.
Using films as a showcase for advertisement is another FilmStruck would never do. They don’t have any original content that needs to be promoted and no subscriber would allow a Bergman film to be interrupted by a five second commercial. But that’s what every basic cable channel eventually did because it was incredibly lucrative.
And now? It seems inevitable the only streaming services that will survive are the ones that will be able to monetize their content beyond what subscribers pay for. That means the cost of commercial free plans will likely go up and other services will slowly start introducing regular commercials into their content. It already happened on cable and I challenge anyone to find someone who notices the difference.
I hope we can get back to a time when streaming genuinely offered a glimpse into the future – a future where people could access seemingly unlimited content. But, with the trends we’re seeing, that’s becoming increasingly unlikely. Maybe buying your favorite film on Blu Ray isn’t such a waste after all. I’m thankful for the two years I got out of FilmStruck, but now I’m concerned that’s a moment that will never be equaled.