In the golden age of streaming, does film history have a place?
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It’s Oscar season, a time when we celebrate the history of film. But what if you want to sit down and watch some classics? That was the selling point of one streaming service, FilmStruck, that AT&T recently shuttered. FilmStruck showcased directors like Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick. It was the darling of cinephiles for the two years it existed.
Given that streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon seem to be focused on making their own original content, could the golden age of streaming mean that film history falls through the cracks?
Ann Hornaday, a senior film critic for the Washington Post, has high-level thoughts on the death of FilmStruck and the future of classic film.
She said FilmStruck never released its subscriber numbers. Her best guess is about 100,000. Compared to about 140 million Netflix subscribers, that’s tiny. But Hornaday said the fanbase for classic or indie films has value beyond sheer size.
It’s a highly engaged audience. It’s a very loyal audience. They have value. So whether the movies themselves don’t have “monetary value,” I would maintain that they do have value, in terms of the people who watch them and what they are willing to pay to watch them.
It’s not just everyday viewers, but also filmmakers who care about access to a rich array of film history, she said.
The day after FilmStruck announced it was closing, I happened to spend time with Barry Jenkins, who won the Oscar a few years ago. His  movie “Moonlight” won the Oscar for best picture. He’s out this year with an exquisite movie called “If Beale Street Could Talk.” He is an ecstatic student of film. He’s constantly reaching back into the canon, into the history of the medium to enlarge and elaborate on his own emerging vocabulary and language. And so, for someone like him, he was crestfallen that it was going away. Because when you talk about people like Barry Jenkins or Paul Thomas Anderson or Guillermo del Toro, all of whom came out very, very vociferously to support the site, a resource like FilmStruck helps these emerging artists to find their voice. And then it’s also educating all of us viewers in terms of what they’re doing. I think it was short-sighted of Warner Brothers and their corporate overlord AT&T not to kind of see the value in that.
As the new streaming giants court the best in the business to make their original content, Hornaday said showing support for the canon of great film could be a hook.
I think that’s what Netflix has proven this year, so aggressively going after people like Alfonso Cuaron and spending so much on the Oscar campaign for his movie [“Roma”], for people like Martin Scorsese. These are film lovers, and I think as they’re trying to impress these auteurs and convince them to come with them because they love art and they love auteurism, a show of good faith would be to express your support of this archival legacy work. I think that could really sway somebody.
Despite the demise of FilmStruck, she said, there are other ways to stream vintage movies, art house and cult films, and other non-mainstream cinema. There’s the subscription service Fandor, the video platform Kanopy, available with your public library card, and the Library of Congress.
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