On April 26, 2016, Turner Classic Movies made an announcement: In partnership with the Criterion Collection—the home video company known for its loving, scholarly treatment of culturally significant films both new and old—it would soon launch its own streaming service. Dubbed FilmStruck, the service promised a deep, curated selection of both the TCM and Criterion catalogs, meaning those so inclined could watch a double feature of William Wyler movies one night, explore the work of Chantal Akerman the next, and then move on to Godzilla Raids Again, if that suited their mood. FilmStruck soon became the subject of heated anticipation, and when it premiered the following November, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t feel it lived up to the hype. It became beloved, an institution for veteran film nerds and an education for those new to the world of movies that never show up in the local multiplex. Maybe it wasn’t for everyone, but it was very much for those who loved it.
Almost two years later, on October 26, 2018, another announcement arrived: FilmStruck would shut down on November 29. Turner and Warner Bros. Digital Networks issued a statement indicating they would “take key learnings from FilmStruck to help shape future business decisions in the direct-to-consumer space and redirect this investment back into our collective portfolios,” phrasing that didn’t exactly call to mind the sparkling wordcraft of a Billy Wilder–I.A.L. Diamond script. Nor did this dismissive appraisal: “It remains largely a niche service.”
But corporate condescension aside, that’s not an unfair assessment. FilmStruck was a niche service. It never tried to be anything but. It’s just that its niche—we have to assume given how vague streaming services are about their viewership numbers—wasn’t large enough to make it profitable, or profitable enough for WarnerMedia and its owner, AT&T, to consider it worth keeping. The Los Angeles Times estimated FilmStruck’s subscriber base at 100,000. By contrast, Netflix has in the neighborhood of 137 million subscribers. That’s a huge gulf, and it raises a question that goes beyond FilmStruck: Is it only possible to survive on one side of that gulf?
That’s the central question to the future of streaming content in a post-cable world. Does the future belong to streaming video-on-demand (SVOD, for short) services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime that offer an abundance of programming choices? Or will it belong to many smaller services that know how to serve one audience extremely well? It’s probably not entirely fair to phrase that as an either-or proposition. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime aren’t going anywhere. The more specialized model has faced high-profile setbacks, despite a seemingly endless number of niche services rising to meet genre-focused tastes. And though Seeso offered an impressive variety of classic and original comedy programming, it didn’t even make it to the two-year mark when it shut down last November. It now exists only in wistful references on comedy podcasts. FilmStruck’s shutdown announcement arrived just more than a week after Warner Bros. announced the closure of DramaFever, a service dedicated to Korean dramas, further evidence that simply being a part of a deep-pocketed corporate entity and in possession of a library of material with a fervent fan base is no guarantee of longevity.
That hasn’t squelched the optimism of those who remain in the game, however. DramaFever may be gone, but other services are already attempting to fill the void. Others see competitive advantages in offering a narrow but deep selection of material. Craig Engler, general manager of the horror streaming service Shudder, rejects the term “niche.”
“I refer internally to us as a ‘boutique’ service,” he says. “A lot of people think horror is kind of a niche genre. But it encompasses this incredibly broad range.” As with FilmStruck, Shudder is curated to help viewers navigate its offerings and to anticipate what horror films they might be interested in checking out at any given moment. “We look at the calendar and ask, ‘What are people going to talk about?’” Engler says. “We like to program into the zeitgeist and say, ‘OK, everybody is going to be talking about The Nun. Should we go out and get all the great nun exploitation films?’ There’s an entire subgenre around them that most people don’t even know exists, but they want to know.”
Beyond plundering the nunsploitation archives, Shudder, which is owned by AMC Networks, also made original programming part of its strategy. The service brought in beloved cable horror host Joe Bob Briggs for guest-hosting duties, launched podcasts, and produced original films and series. These include its highest-profile project yet, the upcoming Creepshow, a horror anthology executive produced by The Walking Dead’s Greg Nicotero and inspired by the 1982 homage to classic EC Comics written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero.
If it sounds like Shudder is trying to be Netflix but for serious horror fans, there might be something to that. “Netflix will have a very large, scattershot, very broad but sort of shallow pool of horror. That’s not an insult,” Engler says. “But it means if you really like horror after you’ve seen the big films and maybe you watch The Haunting of Hill House, you’ve kind of run out. Whereas Shudder—the more you look, the more you find.”
Other services have similarly staked their future on offering more depth than Netflix and other major players can offer. Launched in 2016 with the promise of the “biggest collection of the baddest movies,” Brown Sugar (which can be accessed via its website or Amazon, Apple, and Google Play) arrived with a remarkable collection of classic blaxploitation films from the ’70s, pairing the expected with deep cuts. “Brown Sugar is the only place that offers mainstream movies such as Super Fly and Shaft alongside cult classics like Detroit 9000 and Abar: Black Superman,” Calandria Meadows, the service’s vice president and general manager, tells me via email. That collection remains the service’s spine; look no further if you want to program back-to-back screenings of Three the Hard Way and Black Shampoo. But it’s also grown to include more recent offerings, both from the world of film and from the service’s parent company, Bounce TV. “We lead with a simple guide of providing quality African American programming,” Meadows continues, “but we also try to highlight titles that are not available on the more mainstream services.”
It’s easy to imagine a future—a present, really—in which film and television fans could assemble a satisfying entertainment diet by supplementing the major services with a few specialty services to match their tastes. If you love The Good Place and anime, for instance, subscriptions to Hulu and Crunchyroll will get you pretty far. A fan of British television and The Romanoffs? Tack a BritBox subscription onto your Amazon Prime and you’ll be in good shape.
What impact the arrival of planned streaming services from Disney and Warner Bros. will have remains to be seen. The offerings of CBS All Access, a forerunner of such here’s-everything-from-a-corporate-behemoth services, seem too narrow to judge, despite impressive original series like The Good Fight and Star Trek Discovery, every iteration of C.S.I., about half the episodes of Taxi, and most but not all seasons of The Brady Bunch.
Such services might also ultimately prove more cost-effective, if less user-friendly. It is almost certainly cheaper for Warner Media to dump a bunch of classic movies onto a Warner service than to maintain a classic film service with original features, curated selections, editorial content, and everything else that a narrowly focused service can provide. And if the extensive-but-personality-free CBS site is a precursor, such services also seem destined to inspire less loyalty. Subscribing to a specialty streaming service isn’t just a matter of wanting what it offers. It’s an expression of identity, a choice to spend your leisure time in an environment that reflects your interests.
“We find that they want to belong,” BritBox president Soumya Sriraman says. “They want to be part of this community. It’s our obligation to take them along, take them with us on the journey, and to make sure that we give them the new, and the old, and the now.” Sriraman describes BritBox, owned by the BBC and ITV plc, as designed to “close the gap between the ocean,” offering a selection of classic and current British shows, including some as they air in the U.K. “There’s three things you need in order to make this work and tick properly,” she says. “The first is reach, the second is discovery, and the third is community.” By Sriraman’s reckoning, Netflix has excelled with reach, Amazon’s algorithm has allowed it to lead in discovery, but BritBox and others can deliver the community aspect better than larger services.
Are any of them built to last? That’s hard to judge from the outside. Numbers are hard to come by and expectations tough to gauge. Apart from an occasional eye-opening article like a recent Wall Street Journal piece depicting the delicate dance between Netflix trusting its algorithm and keeping its creative partners happy, it’s difficult to judge what’s working and what’s not at the streaming service. We have only the shadow metrics of renewals and canceled shows by which to gauge success. American Vandal, for instance, can win a Peabody but still end up canceled at the end of two seasons while the little-loved Friends From College gets picked up for another run. Observing Netflix is a bit like being a Kremlinologist during the Cold War. If, say, Chuck Lorre’s weed comedy Disjointed fails to report for a second season, chances are it’s fallen out of favor with the powers that be.
In the world of boutique streaming services, it’s the whole service that tends to disappear, and with it, an entire branch of films and series tailored to a passionate audience. When I asked Sriraman what would become of her service’s content in the unfortunate event BritBox would go away, she replied, “You know how in Jurassic Park, they say, ‘Life will find a way’? I think that that’s how it is with content. It will find a way.”
But what if it doesn’t? Not long after the news of FilmStruck’s fate, Criterion announced it would launch its own streaming service sometime in spring of 2019. The announcement even included some language about a future partnership with WarnerMedia’s forthcoming service that suggests some of the Criterion-TCM synergy might return.
At the moment, however, FilmStruck is mere hours from disappearing. With it will disappear a platform that made a vast swath of film history accessible to its subscribers, one that carefully curated a collection of classic and artistically compelling titles for an audience who might not otherwise have encountered them. Just as making that material only a click away has the ripple effects of creating new cinephiles and inspiring the filmmakers of tomorrow, so does taking it away.
“I grew up without repertory cinema in my town. My film school was Turner Classic Movies,” says critic and FilmStruck enthusiast Monica Castillo, who covered the streaming beat for The New York Times. She’s not sure where the next generation will discover classic films. “A lot of adults don’t have cable packages. Cutting the cord is still happening. You stick what’s available in the public library. Or you just make peace with watching that TV show that’s been lying in your Netflix queue.”
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.