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Filmstruck

Back in June of 2017, Ciara Wardlow over at Film School Rejects made a grim assessment of Netflix’s streaming library:

Of the 1,350 Drama titles currently available on streaming Netflix in the US, only 97 were released prior to 2000. Even if we consider 1920, the year when the oldest of these films (The Daughter of the Dawn) was released, the “starting point”—that is, not even going back to the late 1880s/1890s, when film was first invented—then 82% of film history is represented in a measly 7% of streaming Netflix’s Drama library. A bias towards more recent releases is to be expected, but this is pretty extreme—and it seems to be growing.

Later in the year, Newsweek came to a similar conclusion:

As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers.

Not much has changed. Services like Netflix and — to a marginally lesser extent — Amazon have very little incentive to stock their library with golden-age Hollywood offerings or fringe curiosities from cinema history. As they wade further into the production of original content (consistent quality be damned), classics at best represent competition; at worst, they are niche offerings that won’t attract the requisite subscriptions to make them worth acquiring in the first place.

This reality is why last week’s announcement that the film streaming service Filmstruck is closing up shop was so disheartening. It can be difficult to extol the value of the service without veering into perceived pretentiousness or snobbery, as many prominent film critics found out first hand on social media last week, and for those who doubled-down, encouraging followers to invest in expensive physical media lest they subject themselves to corporate machinations, the response was swift and predictable. The unavoidable truth is that while physical media is able to literally preserve one film, the broader preservation of the cultural standing of the brand of film that populated Filmstruck is inextricably intertwined with the streaming model itself. In order for these movies to matter, more than just a handful of people need to watch them — and in order to do so, they need access.

What, then? Wishful thinkers in the public conversation instantly clamored for the return of Criterion’s estimable collection to Hulu; others wondered about the emergence of a new streaming service, perhaps curated by Criterion themselves. If Filmstruck’s closure signals anything, however, it’s that the landscape of streaming classics will ultimately be shaped by one thing and one thing only: the economic impulses of the faceless corporations that own these films.

It’s important to truly understand that while doggedly extolling the virtue of classic films — from the Turner Classics that populated Filmstruck to the foreign and independent masterpieces that sat alongside them — a return to physical media is simply not an option for many, The only reasonable conclusion one can have is that ultimately, it is imperative that classic films find their way into the streaming space. Blu-rays that no one buys eventually fall out of print as well.

All of this is to say that I plan on doing the only thing I can think of before Filmstruck finally shutters on November 29th — watch movies. Check back in on Goombastomp.com, where I’ll be highlighting the service by writing about one of its films per day, for the next thirty days. Having never seen these films, I’m finally hacking away at my daunting watchlist and cramming what I can. To be sure, this is about making as much of my subscription as possible, but it’s also about filling my cinematic blind spots — exactly the kind of experience Filmstruck was so adept at providing — while highlighting the kind of films that deserve preservation in the streaming space, and exposing the financial and logistical constraints of having to track them down otherwise.

Hopefully this exercise yields some interesting results about the value a service like Filmstruck provides.  Stay tuned!

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

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