Film After Midnight: Losing FilmStruck

The last movie I watched on FilmStruck before learning last week’s devastating news that WarnerMedia plans to shut it down on Nov. 29 was Tod Browning’s London After Midnight. The film was one of the biggest hits of Lon Cheney’s career, but it was destroyed in the infamous 1965 MGM vault fire. In 2002, Turner Classic Movies tried to recreate the film using stills and the original script, crafting what is essentially a 45-minute slideshow.

Despite TCM’s best efforts, the London After Midnight it created can be no match to what audiences saw in 1927. Plot elements are unclear, and there is no way a still image could be as horrifying as a moving image of Cheney. The photos make Cheney look like a man in a cheap Halloween costume, while surely the final product had Browning’s flair for turning the simple into horrific.

While losing FilmStruck does not mean the thousands of films the service made available will be gone forever like London After Midnight, they might as well be after this. Seeing classics is going to be like jumping through hoops now. You have to sift through the mountains of junk on Amazon Prime to find them, and you have better chances of winning the lottery than ever finding anything before 1960 on Netflix.

There are some alternatives, but they all seem to be dependent on where you live. Here in Nashville, the libraries do have a decent selection of DVDs you can take out for free. Kanopy is also an alternative, but you are out of luck if your library system does not have a partnership with it. (Nashville does not.) There are also some smaller services like Mubi and Fandor, but neither of these have access to the same library of titles that FilmStruck had.

Of course, the best alternative is to buy physical copies and hold on to the ones you have. For some, this is not a viable option because of costs. Just think that FilmStruck’s annual cost was only $100 – that’s barely more than three Criterion Collection Blu-rays (or five Criterion Blu-rays during a Barnes & Noble sale). However, it is important to own copies of movies you love and movies you think you would watch repeatedly. If I didn’t own a copy of the original Star Wars movies, I couldn’t stream them legally anywhere at this point.

We also have the main TCM channel, but how long is that going to last? The “While FilmStruck has a very loyal fanbase, it remains largely a niche service” line in WanrerMedia/AT&T’s corporate-speak press release has me concerned that AT&T is going to try to change it up. Needless to say, the 2019 TCM Film Festival event with the TCM executives is going to be one interesting panel. On top of that, you need a cable subscription for TCM, and with so many people cutting the cord, access to it is getting limited.

The most annoying part of FilmStruck’s demise is that it once again shows how corporations have no interest in keeping our cultural heritage alive. They would rather block access to it than keep it alive because of costs. After Nov. 29, WarnerMedia will now be sitting on a treasure trove of some of the greatest films ever made and is choosing to not make them available because it does not see the profit in them. What are they going to do with all those movies? Will they be available on their eventual Warner Bros.-dedicated service? That’s all we can hope for right now.

And the Criterion Collection also got screwed (for lack of a better term) with this shut-down. The label abandoned Hulu – which still exists (barely) – for FilmStruck. They created brand new content, interviewing filmmakers and actors to discuss their favorite movies. (The joy you get from watching Barry Jenkins‘ introductions is so contagious they should bottle it up and sell it on their website.) They digitized entire editions, including all special features, for some movies. They put up hundreds of films they will likely never get a chance to release physically. Now, Criterion has to find a new outlet for that.

FilmStruck was always “largely a niche service” from the beginning and we should be thankful that it existed for two years. WarnerMedia will never tell us how many people subscribed to it, or what the demographics were. And while things like #FilmStruck4 helped the service get attention on Twitter, it would have been nice to see Warner put more effort into promoting it. This is a very sad moment, but it should inspire us to work even harder to keep film history alive. We can’t all be Martin Scorsese, but if enough of us pester our co-workers and friends about the joys of Fred Astaire dancing or Janet Gaynor’s sweet voice, we might just save it.

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