Upon opening the Criterion Channel app, the user is greeted by a sight typical of any streaming service: an array of titles and collections featuring a smorgasbord of movies for subscribers to choose from. But most streaming services—Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the like—look different for everyone, because they’re algorithmically designed to try to predict what your next selection might be. Not so with the Criterion Channel, which has emerged from the ashes of FilmStruck, a popular if niche classic-movie archive that was dismantled by its corporate ownership last November. This is an experience more akin to going to your local repertory theater, something outside the deafening churn of the mainstream.
“There’s a huge emphasis on focusing our attention on certain things at certain times, like Game of Thrones or whatever it is at the moment,” Peter Becker, the president of the Criterion Collection, told me in an interview at his company’s office. “A lot of energy and marketing is spent on those things, and a lot of our behavior is shaped by those things. Combined with algorithms, they speak for a lot of people’s time. So in order to really create an adventurous movie experience, you have to pull yourself out of the gravitational field of that. And that’s what this space is meant to be.”
As industry behemoths like Disney and Apple roll out plans for their own streaming services that will be defined by big budgets, star power, and brand awareness, Criterion is selling itself to passionate film fans willing to shell out a $10.99 monthly fee for access to a more obscure archive. Part of that pitch is Criterion’s ability to exist as a space that isn’t governed by traffic concerns or a huge corporation’s bottom line. “We’re not going to be looking at what we think is a success based on the number of people who clicked on it,” Becker said. “I think we’re going to try and show things because we think they’re important to be shown.”
The Criterion Collection first emerged as a home-video company selling LaserDiscs of classic films in the mid-1980s before moving to DVDs in the late ’90s. Its carefully assembled releases of forgotten masterpieces and canonical works are still coveted pieces of physical media in a digital age. But Criterion’s online library is similarly formidable. At one point, it was exclusively hosted by Hulu; then it merged with the archives of Turner Classic Movies for the streaming service FilmStruck, which launched in 2016. Though FilmStruck attracted praise and a devoted subscriber base, it was always viewed as a specialized offering by TCM’s corporate owners, WarnerMedia.
AT&T, which recently acquired Warner in a much scrutinized merger, has stressed the need for expansion and Netflix-size scaling in its conversations with the employees of prestige properties like HBO. FilmStruck was a casualty of that new mind-set, eliminated because it was too small. “We are committed to launching a compelling and competitive product that will serve as a complement to our existing businesses and help us to expand our reach,” WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey said last October of his plans for one giant catchall service that could bundle in the classic-film library. He never directly commented on the end of FilmStruck, focusing only on his plans for a larger property.
“From our perspective, FilmStruck was doing great,” Becker said of the Criterion team. “Audience was growing, programming was getting better and better. My feeling about it was that it didn’t matter [to AT&T] how successful we ever got.” Launched this month, the Criterion Channel is the company’s first attempt at a streaming service without a bigger partner like Hulu or TCM, which means it can diversify some of its offerings instead of only highlighting classic films. The Criterion library functions as the “spine” of the database, according to Becker, but there are also more contemporary art and foreign films, interviews and documentaries about filmmaking, and special imports, such as the series of noir films from Columbia Pictures that helped kick off the channel’s launch.
“We wanted to make it clear that we were making a commitment to continuing to show classic Hollywood cinema the way that FilmStruck did,” says Penelope Bartlett, a programmer for the channel. “But we try to make the series [that we feature] not overwhelming—we want you to get that sense of achievement that you can actually watch all of them. And we also feel like generally in the digital-streaming environment, people are completely overwhelmed by choices.” Hence the careful efforts to curate. The current noir series unites 11 criminally underrated Columbia features, mostly from the ’40s and ’50s, including Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, Blake Edwards’s Experiment in Terror, and Don Siegel’s The Lineup.
Becker said that while he’s proud of the Criterion library, he knew that the service needed to offer more to succeed. “It had to be something where the whole film community was going to actually come together and contribute.” As the service expands, it will bring in new repertory series, curated suggestions for movies to watch as double or triple features, and even original documentaries about filmmakers and film technique. It’s all intended to spur communal viewing experiences for users around the country, a virtual art-house theater of sorts. “We’re really trying to think about this in terms of people making something for people. There is literally nothing automatic about this site. When the carousel changes, a human being changed it that morning,” Becker said.
“How do we keep this audience connected?” he continued. “With the idea that somebody is presenting and proposing these films to you in some coherent way.” Coherence is a feature that none of the massive streaming companies can claim, even as they add more and more original titles to their archives. It may be the thing that helps set Criterion apart.