FilmStruck’s demise came on the morning of November 30, 2018. Film fans like myself, all the way up to Leonardo DiCaprio and Guillermo Del Torro, signed petitions, wrote letters, and begged the conglomerates that owned FilmStruck to reconsider their decision to no avail. FilmStruck died that day. Criterion has proclaimed that they will now step up to the plate and offer us what is now missing from the market – a classic film streaming service. Is it enough? Frankly, I don’t know. Some of Criterion’s picks would not be mine but I’m not going to dog a service that has yet to be launched.
Katherine Groo, a professor of film and media studies, released a piece via the Washington Post outrageously named “FilmStruck wasn’t that good for movies. Don’t mourn its demise” yesterday. I figured that the piece was tongue-in-cheek and that the WP had simply chosen the well-traveled path of a click-bait title. It would not be the first time that this has happened nor will it be the last. That’s the era that we are in.
Groo’s piece truly begins when she writes, “FilmStruck was never a library or a film archive. It was a for-profit streaming platform that provided access to those who could pay for it.” My response was a juvenile, audible “Duh” when I read “for profit.” To think that anyone would provide the service for free is frankly asinine. Groo knows that there was a whole team behind FS. They deserve to be paid just like she is. With that paycheck comes curation, just like any other museum, archive, or private collection. FS also offered the service at a reasonable $10/month (the cost of a meal at McDonald’s) or $100/year. I was a monthly subscriber. I’m a single mom who works two jobs, writes in her spare time, and goes to school full time. I’m certainly not in the position of bringing in thousands every month. I always gave myself the luxury of FS though.
Groo goes on to recommend sites that host what she admits are mostly “early film artifacts, small-gauge formats, amateur genres, short cinemas and literal film fragments,” and while I completely agree that these pieces hold their place in history, nowhere else am I going to get be able to access the quantity of high-definition full-prints of narrative classics that FilmStruck offered (at least, not legally). My option right now is to piece together what Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO, and Showtime have up for grabs (at roughly $50 month) and try to create my own Amazon Fire Stick sponsored, FilmStruck-esque menagerie. You know what would alleviate my cost? Having the resources that Groo does living on the East Coast. But I’m in Utah.
What I have seen receiving the most backlash is the following:
FilmStruck never offered access to anything close to film history. It sold a sliver of “classics” and masterpieces that has always masqueraded as the whole. Many lauded the service for the diversity of its curatorial staff and its efforts to highlight films by women, people of color and queer artists — and the attention it paid to non-Anglophone film traditions. All to the good. However, feature-length narrative cinema made by mostly white male auteurs dominated the collection.
This is probably Groo’s strongest point, FilmStruck never did offer a complete film history but you know what? Neither has TCM, Criterion, or any other resource that is readily accessible to the public. The sites Groo mentioned in her article are limited to what is in the Public Domain. 306 results are available on the National Screening Room with titles such as “Native Woman Washing a Negro Baby” and Mary Pickford’s “A Gold Necklace.” Most of these pieces are from the early 1900s. And while I am in no way denying their necessity in the history of film, the average viewer isn’t going to want to watch these shorts. The average viewer wants to see feature-length narrative films. I’ve introduced many people to classic films and none of these shorts would have lit the spark of classic film fandom. As far as films being directed by “white male auteurs,” that’s who directed most mainstream American films. FilmStruck wasn’t discriminatory – they gave their audience what they wanted. Showing just how many films were directed by white men lets us rejoice in just how far we have come behind the scenes, but I digress.
Groo’s next line of “These are not the films that need seeing or saving” is mind-blowingly antagonistic. Groo’s proclamations of five seconds shorts being the supposed standard for what should be watched by classic film lovers is a bit mind numbing. The irony is strong when Groo recommends purchasing DVD copies or utilizing streaming services (given, one is Kanopy, but my library does not utilize the service), yet proclaimed that FilmStruck’s $10/month fee was privileged people preventing the poor from experiencing culture.
Groo ends her piece with “What we need is not a deep introduction to narrow “fundamentals” but a more expansive and inclusive understanding of what film is, can be and has been.” We actually kind of agree on that point. But FilmStruck was never given the chance to be more expansive and inclusive because of its two year run. It was just coming out of its infancy. I don’t doubt that FilmStruck would have grown if it had been given the chance. My issue with this statement is that Groo is seemingly out of touch with her reality. She harps on the poor being robbed of the opportunity for culture via FilmStruck but her ideas do not work for a large portion of people in more rural areas like myself. I have to pay for multiple apps in order to partially fill the void that FilmStruck left. I would have to travel roughly four hours round-trip in order to utilize Kanopy in Las Vegas.
I get what your issue is, Ms. Groo. You’re upset with how film history is taught. But FilmStruck was never claiming to carry the torch for what should be taught, it was a learning tool, a resource, for you and so many others. You admit that there were aspects of FilmStruck that were good while ignoring how FilmStruck allowed you to further your students love of film history into the realms that are not commonly explored. You are slowly moving towards what most academics fear, becoming out of touch with your audience.
Do you know what FilmStruck allowed me to do, Ms. Groo? It allowed me to watch the movies talked about in my carefully selected collection of used film studies textbooks. It allowed me to connect with what film historians considered to be classics. It allowed me to be part of the discussion. It allowed me to form my own opinions on what historians considered to be classics. It allowed me to form my own film studies classes being my college is not as blessed as yours and does not have a film department (we have roughly five classes on film and one was recently removed from circulation). FilmStruck allowed me to explore my fandom and that has now been robbed from me as well as thousands of people across the US. Thank you, Ms. Groo, for proclaiming that the films I cherish are not worth saving. Thank you for insinuating that they are not worth sharing. Thank you for saying they should not be accessible.
*Note – Groo is releasing a book about her opinions on how film history is not being taught correctly in schools. I eagerly look forward to its release in February. Also worth noting is that she has been receiving death threats which is completely unacceptable.