How corporate interests can hinder film preservation


The Criterion Collection partnered streaming service Filmstruck closed down last November as a result of AT&T attempting to consolidate their streaming platforms.

Vaughn Cockayne and Vaughn Cockayne

Famous film critic Roger Ebert once remembered that his reviews of films would often be the topic of debate in his office, and his peers would almost always come up to him to proclaim their disagreement with his opinion. However, critics who focused on music, books or plays almost never had this kind of disagreement. Ebert proclaimed this was caused by the “everyman” or “working class” nature of film as a medium. Modern film viewers believe they have a better idea of what makes a good film more than what makes a good opera.

This attitude toward films and their merit goes back all the way to the beginning of the medium. For much of cinema’s formative years, the people who controlled films viewed them as disposable novelties not worth preserving, which is why at least 75 percent of films made in the silent era are lost forever to history.

The advent of streaming services like Filmstruck are both good and bad for cinema. The site has brought hard-to-find films to the public in an easy-to-navigate format for an affordable price. The site offers a robust cinematic library, attributed partly to the contributions of the Criterion Collection. The package not only works as an excellent way to preserve cinema history, but also as an educational tool.  

Filmstruck served as a high-quality alternative to sites like Fandor or Kanopy. While the site was specifically partnered with the Criterion Collection and offered extremely rare special features and extra footage not found on any other sites (although the site was not the largest money maker in the streaming business), it was moving towards extreme growth with the help of Turner Classic Movies and Criterion.

However, as some may know, the site closed in November 2018 after AT&T consolidated some of their media services under WarnerMedia, prematurely ending the life of a very promising and important streaming service.  

Its closing prompted several media outlets to publish opinion pieces, mostly espousing outrage at AT&T. However, media outlets like chose to comment on the destructive implications of the sites closing and what it means for the future of classic film streaming.  

The most frightening aspect of Filmstruck closing is just how simply and quickly film history can be erased. For example, because the Criterion Collection is constantly adding films to their distribution market, their production costs are too high to keep all the films they sell in print, which makes it much harder to obtain some of the older films in the collection. These include Chinese films and many early silent films that are not easy to find elsewhere.

Some of these films are available for purchase elsewhere but not always in the best quality and, in the case of many foreign films, cannot be played on a western region DVD or Blu-Ray player. So, for a little while at least, these films cannot be seen by most people.  

Fortunately, the Criterion Collection announced that they would be launching their own independent streaming service in spring 2019, which should solve many of the problems with finding and watching films from their collection. However, former partner Turner Classic Movies will most certainly be reluctant to join hands too early after their original platform went under.

Ultimately, Criterion’s new service should implement safeguards for the future of film preservation, because the working-class image many people have of films is never going to go away, and it shouldn’t; it is this image and presentation that makes film such a wide reaching and powerful medium. However, this is the same image that makes corporations think it’s acceptable to remove important streaming sites like Filmstruck in the name of consolidation.