Why FilmStruck Was Never Going To Work Out

no one said it would be easy

FilmStruck was a fantastic idea. As someone who owns a John Cassavetes box set and can make a good case for Masahiro Shinoda being the best Japanese director of the 1960s, I feel as though I fell squarely into this service’s target audience, and I was genuinely excited when the Criterion Collection announced their plans for it back in 2015. Blu-Ray quality art house films complete with extras and commentary, delivered with the convenience we’ve come to expect from streaming services? What wasn’t to love?

But the sad truth is that FilmStruck was destined to fail. I’ve seen a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over its demise, and while it’s important to mourn it as a loss for the film community it’s also important to be realistic about what killed it. It served a niche market in an increasingly overburdened streaming landscape and often failed to make itself easy to use even for people who desired its services, much less users who might have fallen outside its desired demographics. The fall should have been easy to see coming, because:

1. FilmStruck always had mixed reviews

Unlike Moviepass, another too-good-to-be-true film service whose most popular iteration met an untimely end, FilmStruck had struggled to be embraced by audiences from the get-go. While it ended up fostering a tight, passionate community that was dedicated to its vision, a glimpse at its Amazon page shows it sitting with a worrying user score of 2.9 out of 5 at the time of writing, with the majority of ratings being comprised of 1 star reviews. Anyone would think twice about investing in this app after a few minutes of casual research.

So how did a streaming network built from the ground up to cater to cinephiles end up stoking such ire from the very community it was trying to foster a positive relationship with? Well…

2. FilmStruck had a bad user interface

If there’s one thing both critics and admirers of FilmStruck could likely agree upon, it’s that the service had an incredible library of films, with a robust selection of world movies and arthouse classics that consistently tried to curate films from marginalized voices as well as iconic auteurs. Unfortunately, if there were to be a second point of consensus it would probably be that the app itself was consistently finnicky and occasionally a downright nightmare to use. It’s easy to find a multitude of complaints decrying the app’s abysmal bandwidth, which made constant buffering and unsynced subtitles a frustratingly common problem. Almost as bad were the menus themselves, which were cumbersome to navigate and organized in such a way that browsing through movies was a tedious chore if you weren’t already sure what you wanted to watch. A great selection doesn’t mean much if it won’t work, or if you can’t even find it in the first place.

But these are technical quibbles, aren’t they? Shouldn’t the content of the service be what’s most important here, especially if there are a good number of users who didn’t often run into these issues? You could argue that, except…

3. FilmStruck asked a little too much for not quite enough

FilmStruck cost $11 a month for its full plan, which until recently was a couple bucks more than it cost to get the most comprehensive monthly plans from Netflix or Hulu. $11 a month was honestly a pretty astounding deal considering what Filmstruck was offering in terms of its library and video fidelity, but that $11 had the disadvantage of coming on top of subscription plans for the afforementioned two streaming platforms for much of its target audience. Those numbers add up in more ways than one; most viewers simply don’t have the money for more than one or two streaming services, much less the free time to enjoy everything those services offer. That reality would be enough to put any latecomer at a disadvantage against those two behemoths, who already have a vast install base which has grown comfortable using them.

Making matters worse, FilmStruck had a free trial period of only two weeks as opposed to the more common 30 days, and many users found cancelling to be a byzantine process if they decided they wanted to end their trial early. Combine this with the expense and the awful UI, and it’s not hard to see why lots of people didn’t find the service’s foibles to be worth putting up with. FilmStruck should have been an easy and inviting app for film enthusiasts to jump into if it wanted to compete in the big leagues, and it just…wasn’t. And didn’t.

Not that a lot of people ever had the opportunity to find this out for themselves, because…

4. FilmStruck had bad distribution

FilmStruck was never made easily available on older Apple TV models, and it was never made available at all on Xbox One or Playstation 4. This absolutely crippled its potential reach to consumers with disposable income, and whether this was an issue with FilmStruck or with the platforms themselves, it was nevertheless a stunning oversight to launch the service without a comprehensive strategy regarding when and on what devices it would be made available. You could always watch on your PC or phone, but if you didn’t have a great setup then watching on a tiny screen would probably feel like a waste of a lot of those beautiful Criterion restorations. This may end up being remembered as the app’s most damning problem: we’ll never really know how many people would have been willing to put up with some of its more damning flaws, because most of those people never even had an opportunity to get used to them.

You may have noticed a recurring theme throughout all these observations, which is that…

5. FilmStruck was symptomatic of the Criterion Collection’s overall weirdness towards their audience

Allow me to write candidly: CC, I love you to death, but good God you do not make it easy sometimes. I realize that all the care and artistry you put into restoring and preserving obscure and classic films takes a lot of time and money, and that some of that cost needs to come down to the consumer; however, when your company becomes notorious for having product that’s only affordable during biannual flash sales, I think you’re going to find that the way you’ve chosen to manage the expense and availability of your films is going to create more problems than it solves in the long run.

What sucks, too, is that the deal you had with Hulu seemed like a perfect compromise! I’m not sure what the back end was like for you guys, but I can’t imagine it didn’t do wonders for your brand recognition, or that it didn’t give a healthy boost to DVD and Blu-Ray sales from users who first experienced your library through the service. You made a hobby that had previously been pretty difficult to get into accessible, and I know you racked up a ton of fans in the process.

To me, that’s the biggest tragedy of what happened to FilmStruck: people want to watch your movies! You have a fiercely loyal and engaged audience that is absolutely chomping at the bit for a convenient and affordable way to experience what you have to offer. Maybe FilmStruck needed a while longer in beta or maybe it needed a more robust business strategy, but whatever flaws ended up bringing it down, the service could have worked.

Look: Filmstruck would have been a gamble even if it had been implemented perfectly, but between its chunky framerate, prohibitive cost and lack of accessibility, it was never going to have legs in an increasingly crowded streaming marketplace. The Criterion Collection tweeted that they want to relaunch FilmStruck sometime in the future, and I dearly hope they’re able to, but I hope they learned some lessons from their first pass at it as well. If you build it they will come, but if you build it far away, make the foundation out of plywood, and charge a premium for them to get on a raft that may or may not make it over the moat to the gate, they’re never going to show up in the numbers you need them to.

Writer, media critic, and thinker of thoughts based out of Austin, TX. Get in touch at chrismichaeljones@gmail.com, or follow on Twitter at @CJIsWingingIt

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