And just when--like Jason Robards at the end of "A Thousand Clowns"--I'd thought I'd finally run out of things to say.
Okay, it'd been a while, and I'd been thinking of retiring from the blog--Not because an Activist ever gives up the fight (although finally losing the fight for 3DTV was a heavy blow, and I'm not being ironic about that), or because movies were getting better (although seeing "The Mummy"'s failed franchise now firmly established in industry culture as a national punchline gives us hope), or even because of laziness...Oh, like you never fell behind on a blog! But simply because I'd thought I'd run out of Universal Truths to shout from the wilderness on street corners. Reducing the many problems in our current movie and home-theater scape to simple explanations, how many times can you say "It's Warner's fault!", "Still trust China?", or "How desperate can Sony BE?" and not sound like a record player with its crank broken?
The good news is, things have started to change. Even if, occasionally, during the transitions, they start changing into bad things...Or at least very, very frustrating things, that make you risk head injury with the sheer force of your facepalm, or from banging it against walls.
The good news first: The once "No end in sight" Disk-vs-Digital War is starting to have an end in sight...And it don't look good for Digital. Apart from the near-collapse and re-patching of the Digital-locker sales industry last summer (which is too good a story and will have to merit another column), Streaming is starting to take its lumps, too. A boom-market that once promised every studio and every content owner could build its own private vanity streaming network, and have the world beat a path to its door, is starting to discover that it takes a lot of money to keep a bad idea going, that you only own so much content and the content you don't own is harder to license when everyone else is hopefully holding onto theirs, and that it takes even more money to create "Original programming" to try and be the Next Netflix. Oh, and that not as many people want to pay for it as you think they will, because they only want one or two, and one of those probably IS Netflix.
Even more refreshing news is that a majority of customers, still clinging onto the 2010 idea that Netflix was a magic Wonka-factory of digitized entertainment that would bring all movies to their door, has started just awakening to the idea that that service isn't doing so hot at the moment either. Mainstream Hollywood movies have all but vanished from the site, the service is now getting by on its "New TV network" cult of original binge-series fans, new "Exclusive movies!" from Will Smith, Adam Sandler and JJ Abrams are still perceived as "busted!" theatrical failures that got pink-slipped by the major studios in mid-production, and the updates of titles have now been permanently weed-strangled by indies, documentaries, Bollywood, and foreign TV-series imports. The Big Red Hollywood-feed has now become a charity-bin of streaming, for poor homeless, unwanted movies that have nowhere else to go.
Now, I don't like to be the kind of person who says "I told you so"...Okay, just kidding, I LIVE for it. But I seem to recall bringing up the point a little while ago.
Back in a column from October '16, I first brought up the warning that Netflix's offerings seemed to have fallen a bit from where they used to be, and the movies just weren't coming in anymore: Studios, searching for a reason why digital-download sales weren't catching fire, thought that nasty one-price subscription services were stealing their business, and Big N, along with Emmy-winning Amazon Prime, were the new super-trendy rivals whose names they heard in the tech press most often. The majors stopped licensing their big movie catalogues to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and as the drought set in, all three animals gathered at the same watering hole of indies and public domain. (One PD source in particular, but that's another column.)
It occurred to me to ask the fatal question: "Netflix fans are still in love with the service to show mean old cable companies that they cut the cord...But when they have to bring themselves to cutting the Netflix cord, where will they go and who will they trust?"
Which brings us to the bad news...Okay, the frustrating news. It's technically part of the good news, but it's still a bit frustrating at the moment. Because it shows just how hard it is to get the basic gist of the message out, once people get caught up in working out their gut grievances:
As content owners now see more money in merging their services from minor vanity ones into major player leagues, last March, Warner pulled back from its promise to make the new FilmStruck service a collaboration of Turner Classic Movies and Criterion, folded its Warner Instant Archive service, and instead merged the obscure and classic Hollywood titles from their streaming Instant Archive catalog in with the arthouse classics of Criterion--Now making FilmStruck a service where you could watch Kurosawa and Bergman AND "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Rebel Without a Cause". Gotta admit, that was a pretty sweet deal: The only two streaming services left worth watching, in one place...Why go anywhere else? It represented the positive future of the streaming industry: Titans who owned their own content, and could never be starved out by the big boys because they were the big boys, should join together, instead of scrabbling for little pieces of territory. The problem, as is starting to become apparent, is that it turned out to be TOO good a deal.
Now, as the Frugal Gourmet used to say, please don't write in--I like FilmStruck. I even said so, back in November '16, when the service first premiered, that having a source for actual movies would be a new source for people to start that home correspondence film-study course. I'd like it a lot better if it had working streaming apps for my Roku or Playstation, and I could watch the classics in my living room instead of on my iPad, but it's a start.
But what happens when a lot of less discerning and more unexpectedly stranded Netflix refugees suddenly stumbled upon the combined Elephant's Graveyard and King Solomon's Mines, where all the classic movies went to when they disappeared so mysteriously over the last six years? They get a little overexcited.
I'll let a flood of adoring posts to Filmstruck's Twitter channel to do the talking--If anyone feels their privacy violated, tell me, and I'll replace it with another quoted Tweet, there's PLENTY to choose from:
Now, as an experienced film buff, there are some words to describe this sudden mass reaction--"Yeeesh!" is the first one that springs to mind. It's nice to see people Tweeting about their favorite film-class movie--Even if it seems eerily like a de-evolutionary throwback to the dark 70's days when only a small cult of urban intelligencia at revival theaters talked about great movies while the common people were stuck with TV. But when each and every Tweet personalizes the adoration with "Thank you, FilmStruck!" it brings up the question of how many people had seen these movies before the Nice People brought it to them. Remember when you were that innocent freshman girl with that first dreamy crush on that free-thinking college professor who first taught you so much about how to see the world? (Well, I don't, obviously, but...)
Another is "D'ohh!!", for those on the Disk vs. Digital battlefront, who hoped that the Starvation of Streaming would finally drive people to more and more desperate means to find their movies, and spark them to realize if they weren't on streaming, maybe they should give into that new wave of 90's nostalgia for the long-gone corner Blockbuster Video, and go out and find a movie on physical disk again?--Nope, they just stopped online-bingeing Netflix, and went off to online-binge their next new craze. As Maria says, "How else?" indeed? Something that, scoff, wasn't on the Internet?
But rather than shake our heads at adoring sycophancy, we should be a little more scared where it's coming from: People aren't thanking FilmStruck for giving them their movies back...They're thanking FilmStruck for "teaching" them. They're thanking them for personally making them the better, smarter, more culturally-enriched people they weren't before they started streaming.
It's one thing for a once Netflix-obsessed fandom to make a great show of tossing over their previous love, shouting "Give us Barabbas!", and making an even bigger show of their new love that solved the problems of the old ones. It's another thing when audiences stop thinking of the service as entertainment, and start thinking of it as a life-hack.
It's the same saying about religion, that any church will help you find answers in your life, until you start believing that the one church you found, and the wise folks behind it, will provide you with all the answers you were searching for, because you were too lost and unworthy to find them yourself...Because that's when it officially becomes a Cult. And historically, bad things have happened when Cults show up.
In fact, it's a good thing nobody likely is reading this blog anyway. If it were, I'd be drowned within minutes by a flood of Butthurt, from folks who believed I was not only speaking bad things against FilmStruck, but that I was implying they were bad people personally for embracing the new awakening it provided their lives with. If I tried to point out that every single Criterion movie, and many of the Warner Instant Archive titles, were already available on Blu-ray and DVD disk, were for sale at cut prices on Amazon to own forever, probably were already on the shelf at your local public-library system for a free one-week rental, and had been since long before the service even existed, I'd be deluged with posts shouting "You're just a digital hater! What's the matter, grandpa, still love 'dying' disks, and can't handle the new riches that streaming has brought us? Go back to your network TV and those cable pirates, we'll watch the good stuff!" After all, the rule of a cult is, you can speak against the church, but how dare you speak against the beneficent ideals of its founder? Remember when Ringo Starr was chased all over London by that crazed "Kailiii!" cult trying to kill him in the Beatles' "Help"?--He had it easy.
But that's not it at all, y'see...I'm all for the idea. I like the merger of two big studios into a big-label player instead of two little greedy delusional ones, and I look forward to--WHERE THE HELL IS THAT PS4 APP, FS, IT'S BEEN TWO FREAKIN' YEARS!!--er, ahem, I mean, I look forward to having more of it available to stream, now that many of Warner's key vintage catalogues, like Fred & Ginger and Val Lewton, now have a home with the Archive half of the collection.
But I know that because I've been pursuing my love of old movies for years. I knew where to find it by looking for it. I didn't wait for someone to be saintly enough to bring it to me, I just gave it a grateful nod of good sense that someone got over the whole industry foolishness and found a way to.
Are you, like H. Perry Horton, Maria and Miguel, tearing up in grateful awe that someone brought classic movies to your living room? At the risk of sounding like Captain Planet, the power to search out classic movies was in YOU. It was all around you, in those shiny silver things an entire industry tried to tell you didn't matter anymore, because there were so many new things your remote could find. They never left you all these years, even when you left them, and then your new love left you. They were still there, because that's the one function they were built to do.
And at the even greater risk of sounding like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, you had the power to find those lost movies all along. All you had to do was click your heels three times, get off your seat and onto said heels, and say "There's no place like Blu-ray...There's no place like Physical...There's no place like the Library..." And then if you ever go looking for your heart's movie classic again, you'll never have to look further than your own backyard. Because if it wasn't there, you probably never lost it to begin with. (Or, well, something like that.)
I'm not accusing anyone of deliberately fostering a cult-of-personality with brainwashing, salutes, armbands or red baseball caps, I'm just pointing out the dangers of what happens when they find themselves stuck with one anyway, whether they like one or not. Intentional cults are evil, yes, but UN-intententional cults are ten times more scary, because nobody can claim they're doing anything wrong.
It's an important thing to tell someone lost that they had the power and the individuality to find their own answers all along, if they just dared themselves to go and look for them. Because it's one of the first things deprogrammers used to tell confused kids who were in danger of the more familiar kinds of cults that claimed they had all the answers in one easy place. And which promised to make them new people if they would just turn and reject all those things in their old lives they were so confused and angry about.