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.