On Friday morning, Warner Media announced it was shutting down FilmStruck, the classic-films service that had garnered a hardcore following in its two years of existence.
FilmStruck was launched in November 2016 as an initiative of Turner Classic Movies. The idea was not only to aggregate a wide range of films from vaunted libraries including the Criterion Collection and Janus Films (“Spartacus,” “8/12,” "The 39 Steps” and modern classics such as “Mullholland Drive” were available), but also to provide a curated experience of commentary and recommendations.
Turner and WB Digital Networks released a statement saying that they “were incredibly proud of the creativity and innovations produced by the talented and dedicated teams who worked on FilmStruck over the past two years.”
That prompted responses from such high-profile users as Rian Johnson, the director of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” “FilmStruck was too good to last. I see it sadly floating away from the charred wasteland that is 2018, Lorax style,” Johnson tweeted shortly after the announcement. Barry Jenkins, director of the best picture-winning “Moonlight,” was similarly unnerved.
And grass-roots fans didn’t mask their displeasure. “Terrible, terrible, terrible. The service barely got a chance to find its footing before the suits pulled the plug” from fans, one wrote.
User numbers were not available — Warner Media says they weren’t high — but fans of the service were ardent in their love. Many said it was the only streaming service to which they would subscribe, while others noted they’d gladly pay more than the $11 monthly or $99 annual fee to subscribe.
Warner Media didn’t explain the shutdown but suggested that the fact that the service didn’t appeal more broadly was a big factor. “While FilmStruck has a very loyal fanbase, it remains largely a niche service,” it said in the statement announcing the shutdown.
Given that the company, under new owner AT&T, has mandated that HBO get more into the volume business and also recently shut down the quirky-comedy digital service SuperDeluxe, the move isn’t exactly surprising.
But it is telling, and it undermines what has been a key assumption about streaming since its inception — and even foretells waves of bigger, more corporate-minded changes to come.
From the start of the era of original content on streaming services a little more than five years ago with Netflix’s “House of Cards,” one major supposition has undergirded it: that the niche can and will survive. The idea is that traditional entertainment needs marketing and distribution bandwidth (and costs), and therefore typically requires a broad consumer base. But streaming’s costs are much lower, and its ability to find an audience much easier and sharper — a seismograph instead of an ear to the ground. So bring on the niche.
Niche and high quality aren’t always synonymous, of course. But they often go together, excellence unmoored from the requirements of big sales numbers. For years, commercial Hollywood has tried, uneasily, to provide both at the same time. The argument behind streaming — not just FilmStruck but other services, and dozens of Netflix shows — was that it didn’t need to. It could go for high quality without regard for broad-based hits.
Which is how consumers ended up with such a broad swath of good-but-frequently-quirky shows. Sure, occasionally a “Stranger Things” broke out of the Netflix streaming pack. But more often, a “Santa Clarita Diet” stayed nestled beautifully within it.
The new phase of streaming, with companies such as Disney diving in via properties such as Marvel, will be different. There is more money, and there are more expectations, and less room for niche services at conglomerates.
The franchise model that has permeated traditional entertainment is coming this way. And it’s a tsunami that could wash out much of what came before. Indeed, Warner Media plans its owns service next year. Clearly, the likes of FilmStruck and SuperDeluxe are not part of it.
If the move evokes the end of many tech-based eras that ended in a wash of corporate dominance, it should: For many, the move conjured past switches, which include the text-based Internet giving way to the moment of Yahoo, AOL and other big brands, or high-quality journalism sites consolidating in favor of video and their ad-rich memes.
“Filmstruck’s official statement about its shutdown reads like ‘we’ve found that while we have some loyal human users, the algorithm shows that what our customers really want is to be railroaded with stupid [hogwash] nobody actually likes.’ It’s the next phase of pivoting,” wrote the former Vice and MTV contributor Kaleb Horton.
Next month Netflix will launch the final season of “House of Cards.” The past five years have brought a gusher of high-quality programming that entertainment has seen just a few times in its history, if that. No doubt, good and interesting shows will continue to be made by new services, and companies will find ways to offer deep libraries for low, all-you-can-eat prices. But as the sums of money grow larger and the expectations rise higher, idealism about the form may be more imperiled than a Frank Underwood social program.