FilmStruck Review

A thorough look at the ups and downs of FilmStruck, the movie streaming service by TCM and Criterion.

I’ve been a subscriber to the new-ish movie streaming service FilmStruck for a few months now, and I’m fairly happy with it. It’s got some issues though, and I don’t think it’s for everyone. Here are my thoughts on FilmStruck as of mid-2017.

What It Is

FilmStruck is a joint venture between Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Criterion to offer hundreds of classic, foreign, and art house films available for streaming. Think of it like Netflix or Hulu, where you pay a monthly fee, but without TV shows and with a much better selection of films.

There are two tiers of membership: Without Criterion Films ($6.99/mo) or With Criterion Films ($10.99/mo, also available at $99.00/yr).

While there’s a fair number of films available in the Without Criterion plan, the real reason to sign up is for the Criterion films, with the TCM films being a bonus. It’s strange that there is even the Without Criterion option, which is more confusing than it’s worth.

One can watch FilmStruck on pretty much all modern devices, with apps for the web, iOS, Android, Chromecast, Apple TV, Fire TV, and Roku. I’ve been using the web and iOS apps. There aren’t many bells and whistles with FilmStruck. There’s a simple Watchlist, which doesn’t even remove titles after being them. There’s no way to favorite or rate a movie you watched, and there’s also no way to view your watch history. I’ll share more of my thoughts on what could be better below.

My Experience So Far

I’ve got almost 200 movies on my Watchlist, so there’s plenty to watch. Over the last few months, I’ve watched about a dozen films on FilmStruck. I’m looking forward to working my way through my Watchlist in the coming months.

I absolutely love the catalog of films available on FilmStruck. It’s all right up my alley. I particularly like the pretty thorough catalogs of foreign directors like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman.

Eraserhead (1977) - Henry - David Lynch
Eraserhead

I find myself watching the movies and included extras from Criterion much more often than other streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Of course, this comes down to my tastes and interests, which very much aligns with films over TV and, specifically, art house and foreign films.

FilmStruck does a fine job of organizing films together based on themes, like Essential Art House. There’s no recommendations based on what you enjoyed, so the themed collections help with discovery. It’s also fairly easy to view all films by a specific director, allowing one to dig in to their filmography.

The pricing is totally reasonable. I don’t have a TV or way to watch physical media, so I buy or rent digital movies through iTunes and use streaming services. Considering that most Criterion films go for about $20 on iTunes, you could get two months of FilmStruck for that cost and get the extras too, which Criterion films on iTunes don’t have. I signed up for the annual plan to save some on the monthly cost since I know I want to keep subscribing.

The Problems

FilmStruck is not without its problems. The experience of using it is close to abysmal.

FilmStruck Watchlist
An example of FilmStruck’s utilitarian interface.

Let’s start with the problems across all of the apps. Watching a film doesn’t remove it from the Watchlist, which is bizarre. If the Watchlist is where I go in FilmStruck to find what I want to watch, films I’ve seen shouldn’t be there. There’s also no way to move a film to the top of the Watchlist, which would make it much easier to find the films I’m most interested in watching next.

Since there are so many films on FilmStruck, it is difficult to find a movie that you may be interested in without knowing about it ahead of time. I haven’t had much luck just browsing and finding something I love. I’ve found the movies I’ve most enjoyed so far by hearing about them from others or being familiar with the director. I know that building a recommendation system is difficult, but I think it would go a long way with such a rich catalog. Something like “if you enjoyed [Film X], you might enjoy [Film Y]” would be very helpful after watching a film, as well as when viewing a film’s details.

Across all of the apps, there’s no way to select the quality of the stream. This seems odd to me, especially for people with limited bandwidth. I haven’t any issues with the quality though, which is good.

Stalker - Dog 2
Stalker

The web app for watching films is bare-bones and outdated. The movies rely on Flash to play, a technology that is near death and not used, as far as I can tell, by any of the major streaming services anymore.

On the iOS app, it would be fantastic if films could be downloaded to be viewed offline like Netflix, Showtime, Amazon, and others allow. Traveling is a great time to watch films, and the internet is always less than reliable. I’d appreciate being able to queue up a bunch of downloads to enjoy.

More thought and care needs to be put into the experience of finding and then watching films. With the other streaming services offering much better experiences, it makes FilmStruck look particularly rough. Improving software bit by bit over time is the name of the game, so it should theoretically get better over time.

Here’s my wishlist for FilmStruck:

  • Improve the experience of discovering films by recommending similar films by director, time period, actors, and themes.
  • Add the ability to favorite movies to make it easy to find films that I enjoyed, which can also be used for recommendations.
  • Make the Watchlist more useful by adding the ability to move movies to the top and remove movies after watching.
  • Drop the reliance upon Flash for the web app. It was a bummer to have to install it on my computer.
  • Add the ability to download movies for offline viewing in the iOS app.
  • Add the ability to select quality while watching for conserving bandwidth if needed, as well as ensuring the best possible quality.

Highlights

Here are the films that I’ve watched on FilmStruck that I can’t stop thinking about:

  • Eraserhead directed by David Lynch
  • Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa
  • Chungking Express directed by Wong Kar-wai
  • Persona directed by Ingmar Bergman
  • 8 1/2 directed by Federico Fellini
  • Woman in the Dunes directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
  • Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky

What I’m Looking Forward to Watching

I’m not overly experienced in the world of international and classic cinema, so I’ve got quite a watchlist. Here are some of the films I’m most looking forward to watching:

  • F for Fake directed by Orson Welles
  • In the Mood for Love directed by Wong Kar-wai
  • Bicycle Thieves directed by Vittorio De Sica
  • Nights of Cabiria directed by Federico Fellini
  • A handful of early-ish Woody Allen films
  • Tokyo Story directed by Yasujiro Ozu
  • A bunch more Akira Kurosawa

The list goes on and on. There are so many films that I’m excited to watch on FilmStruck.

On Criterion

The Criterion catalog on FilmStruck contains most of their collection, but it is not 100% complete, probably due to different digital licensing rights. It’s a little bit of a bummer, but that’s the way it goes with digital rights. The big highlight of the Criterion films on FilmStruck is the ability to watch extra features like interviews with cast and crew, video essays, and behind the scenes footage. I have loved watching a film and then watching the extras in the days that follow, especially for foreign films that I know less about.

Mysterious Woman with a Gun
Chungking Express

Prior to the existence of FilmStruck, Criterion’s streaming library was available through Hulu. I believe that collaboration ended when FilmStruck began, understandably. So, aside from buying physical media or digital releases on iTunes (which don’t have extras for some reason), FilmStruck is the way to watch Criterion films.

The Bottom Line

The state of watching media digitally is a bit of a quagmire. Streaming deals expire, so what was once on Netflix may very well be gone the next month. Some services have their own original programming, promoting their own content ad nauseam. And when it’s time to watch something, it can be difficult to know where to watch it. There’s not much of a rhyme or reason to what’s available on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, aside from knowing about a few exclusive deals. Or one can just buy or rent the films from the various stores like iTunes, which is fairly expensive compared to a streaming service.

I’m not sure what the solution is to this wacky world of streaming services is, but I’m not a fan of being subscribed to a bunch of them at once. I find it to be overwhelming and a waste of money if I’m not using them regularly. So I often subscribe for a month and then cancel once I’ve watched what I wanted to watch.

But I’ve made one exception to that approach, and that exception is FilmStruck. I signed up for the annual plan because the catalog of films is reliable and high-quality. Even though the experience of FilmStruck is considerably less polished and fully featured than its competitors, I’m still the most excited to watch the films they offer.

As long as the team behind FilmStruck continues to develop the platform, time is on the side of the experience. I’d really like to see the flash player be dropped, as well as offline support on the mobile apps.

Persona Film Still
Persona

Pound for pound, FilmStruck has the best offering of movies that I’m most interested in watching. Way more than the other major players like Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu or even the smaller, more specialty services like MUBI, Filmbox Live, and Fandor. And whether or not it is worth it to you all depends on what movies you like to watch. If you’re interested in foreign and classic cinema, you can’t go wrong.

I’m hopeful for the future of FilmStruck, and I very much find the price of admission to be worth it.


Edits

On 2017-08-16, I updated this review to remove the example of Tampopo not being available on FilmStruck. It’s available now (hoorah!).

Author: Brett Chalupa

Drifting somewhere between cinema and literature

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