Why the New Criterion Channel Streaming Service Won’t Be a ‘Netflix Killer’

“If we really do our job well, we think we can make something sustainable,” president Peter Becker says of indie film channel launch

When WarnerMedia shuttered the classic and foreign film streaming service FilmStruck four months ago, it acknowledged that while the streaming service had a “loyal fanbase, it remains largely a niche service.” The Criterion Collection was nearly half of FilmStruck’s full library in partnership with Turner Classic Movies. But while TCM’s library survives on TV and in WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service, The Criterion Collection was an unfortunate casualty.

But on Monday, The Criterion Collection relaunched as an independent, standalone service, The Criterion Channel — and the company is just fine with it being “niche.”

“As idealistic as it sounds, the business is if we really do our job well, we think we can make something sustainable,” Criterion President Peter Becker told TheWrap. “We don’t have to prove that we’re somehow going to be a Netflix killer or something like that in order to be sustainable to survive.”

Becker and Criterion were just as surprised as cinephiles were at FilmStruck’s closure. Becker decided that in its absence, connecting Criterion’s audience with the movies they love as quickly as possible was “absolutely crucial.” And Becker felt the Criterion team now had the experience to build their own service without the aid of a partner like Hulu or Turner.

Despite going independently, The Criterion Channel is picking up right where FilmStruck left off. All of the same programming choices that were popular on FilmStruck are returning to The Criterion Channel, including their guest programming series “Adventures in Moviegoing,” a 15-minute film school called “Observations in Film Art,” “Tuesday’s Short + Feature” and Friday’s double feature.

“We were on the beginning of a journey. None of us felt that FilmStruck needed to come to an end or needed to change,” Becker said. “The idea of differentiating for differentiating sake doesn’t feel like it’s necessary. How did you decide to stop being who you are? We just decided to keep doing what we’re doing and make it better, and that’s what we’re doing.”

But in a crowded digital market, can a niche streaming service survive solely on the backs of devoted film fans? Becker compared The Criterion Channel to the art-house theater in your local community.

“It becomes a part of the culture. It becomes a part of the city,” Becker said. “In the streaming space, we think there’s room for that kind of sensibility. It doesn’t have to be scaleable to some huge number in order to be successful, it just has to be sustainable.”

Becker referred to The Criterion Channel as “an art-house at your house.” The streaming service’s permanent library of over 1,000 films, 350 shorts and 3,500 supplemental features will be the same as it was on FilmStruck. It includes the Janus Library of movies, many of which are already available on Criterion’s restored Blu-Ray DVDs and are made up of the auteur, “last name” filmmakers that movie buffs know well. Becker says the idea is that anyone who feels the need to go on a deep dive of all of Agnes Varda’s films and her influences will have no problem doing so.

What’s new however is that The Criterion Channel will also license films from major Hollywood studios and curate around them accordingly. The Criterion Channel launch debuts with a spotlight on Columbia noir films, including Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat.” And unlike FilmStruck, both licensed films and the core library will be available under a single pricing tier. They’ll all be available on the service for a minimum of three months, unless noted otherwise. And along with the movies will be supplemental content, like documentaries and video essays that will still live on even after the movies have expired.

The licensing will, in turn, open up Criterion to highlighting newer films from the 21st century. While that alone suggests a change of pace for Criterion, Becker didn’t say that The Criterion Channel will suddenly be hunting for film festival acquisitions or other original programming.

“You’re going to see an opportunity for us to shine a light on film and filmmakers that we haven’t had the ability to work in as much as we would like to,” Becker said. “But I wouldn’t say the next step is that we need to figure out what our ‘Game of Thrones’ is going to be, because that’s not where we’re going.”

Becker added that the restorations and Blu-Ray DVDs are still the company’s “flagship” business and won’t be going away anytime soon. He hasn’t yet cracked how to provide incentives or other perks from The Criterion Channel for those who purchase the physical media, but stay tuned.

As for what’s beyond the launch, Becker doesn’t have ambitions to become the next Netflix, but he hopes The Criterion Channel will still be here to stay.

“We have a realistic sense of what’s possible. We’ve done everything we can to make it sustainable and capable of growing,” Becker said. “In the scheme of things, I do want this audience to grow. That’s what I’ve dedicated the last 30 years of my career to:  helping to grow this audience and helping to connect this library and this audience. I just don’t have any illusions that this is going to be Uber. And I don’t want to be. It’s fine. This is a long-term commitment to the movies and the people who love them.”

Brian Welk

Film Reporter • brian.welk@thewrap.com • Twitter: @brianwelk



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