Deadline spoke with Criterion Collection president Peter Becker about the relaunch, but before we get to the conversation, here is a brief recap. WarnerMedia has been reassessing its overall streaming portfolio under AT&T’s ownership and preparing a major subscription service for launch later this year. In that context, it decided last fall to unplug FilmStruck. The collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and Criterion was a niche service, but among its most ardent fans were numerous A-list filmmakers and other Hollywood notables, who voiced their frustration in open letters. Amid the outcry, Criterion and WarnerMedia negotiated new deals for films and other programming on FilmStruck to be made available through the new Criterion Channel. The service costs $10.99 per month or $99.99 a year and can be accessed through web browsers as well as apps designed for Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, iOS, and Android and Android TV devices.
Becker revisited the events of last fall, sized up relations with WarnerMedia, and offered his thoughts on how Criterion Channel fits into the larger streaming landscape. The following are edited excerpts of the conversation.
DEADLINE: On behalf of cinephiles everywhere, welcome back. And just to clarify, some Criterion titles are also available through Kanopy, the streaming service supported through public library systems, correct?
PETER BECKER: Yes, about 50 classic films from the Janus Films library are on Kanopy. We consider those building blocks of cinema culture and consciousness. We thought, ‘They should be in the public library, so we should make that work.'”
DEADLINE: But the rest of your catalog is only available on the new service?
BECKER: Yes, about 1,000 Janus films will be continuously available for the first time since FilmStruck shut down at the end of November. The Seventh Seal, Seven Samurai, Beauty and the Beast and so many others, for the first time they had been unavailable for a stretch in streaming.
DEADLINE: What did you think about the reaction to FilmStruck going away?
BECKER: I won’t say the shutdown of FilmStruck took us by surprise. The writing had been on the wall. Other services at WarnerMedia got shut down as well. We had made some last entreaties. In all of these large, asymmetrical partnerships we recognize that we have to be flexible and nimble and go with the flow. We knew that we didn’t have much choice. When they announced it in October, that’s when all of the responses started to come in. We really had nothing to do with it. It was really kind of astonishing. This incredible welling up of support. There were something like 400 million Twitter mentions of the word “FilmStruck” in the first 24 hours. We were watching this all happen and my daughter actually told me about it. She said, ‘Dad, have you seen this petition?’ It was extremely heartening.
DEADLINE: Now that you are charting your own course, how does it feel to have done this independently?
BECKER: This is the first time we haven’t had a pretty big heavyweight partner [after previous partnerships with Hulu and WarnerMedia]. It’s time. What became clear at the the end of FilmStruck is that there is an audience that passionately cares. Not just what to watch but why, how it fits in, seeing film culture as a wider conversation.
DEADLINE: Did WarnerMedia decide to throw in the towel because they intend to use Warner Bros. titles in their own streaming service?
BECKER: I’m not going to characterize what their intentions are. But they did give pretty clear reasons. No matter how successful we were, we weren’t going to move the needle as much as they needed it to move. [Ultimately] a service like ours is still going to be a tiny fraction of Netflix, Hulu, WarnerMedia.
DEADLINE: Do you feel like Criterion Channel is built to last longer than the two years that FilmStruck made it?
BECKER: There’s already a lot of energy swirling around us. We’e highly motivated to build something that is sustainable. We have films that you can’t see anywhere else and much bigger range of film directions.
DEADLINE: And are you continuing to be sort of a film-industry Switzerland, working with a range of studio partners?
BECKER: We are bringing a lot to the table in terms of our partnerships. Janus is mostly looking at films that are 20 years old or older but Criterion has had the capability to present contemporary films and we will continue to do that. … At the base of our whole life story is that we serve at the pleasure of our studio partners.
DEADLINE: Some of your titles will continue to be licensed from Warner Bros., right? How is it to still be in business with them?
BECKER: There was a hope that it might work. And it did work. There was definitely a PR problem but I don’t think from the beginning there was a business problem. What it did do was it opened up the conversation a lit bit to, ‘This particular thing is not in our plans.’ From there we were able to get permission that people had said they really wanted and keep our relationships. Our library, when they launch their mega-service, will be at their disposal. We’re happy for that. It means more choice for consumers. For my purposes, the big win was that we were given permission. We did need Warner’s support to do this. There was a joint announcement when we were closing the chapter with FilmStruck. Both companies felt that it was important for people to understand that it wasn’t just Criterion going off on its own but that it was Warner making this possible. This was a win for everybody. And then we all climbed off into our rowboat and went to launch our streaming service.