Updated: Oct 28, 2018
It was a tough decision, but right now, during my day off, I’m taking precious minutes away from watching movies on FilmStruck to write about yesterday’s announcement of the demise of the company. You can read about it in several places including this article, but the bottom line is this: FilmStruck is considered to be a “niche” market that’s not profitable enough to continue to live and breathe. As you may remember, AT&T completed their acquisition of Time Warner back in June 2018, now deciding that FilmStruck apparently doesn’t bring in enough income.
This is heartbreaking, but not surprising. In sharing my love for classic, international, obscure, cult, and overlooked movies, I’m often greeted with scorn and indifference. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the reasons I started our Great Movies series at the Severna Park Library was to not only showcase classic films, but also to show audiences their relevance to life in the 21st century. We typically have between 25 and 40 people in attendance. The room where we screen these films holds up to 185. I’m thankful for the audience we have, but I want the room maxed out every time we screen a film. On a much larger scale, FilmStruck does (until November 29, its last day) what I’ve been attempting to do at the local level. The FilmStruck battle is almost over, but the war isn’t.
It’s a war I’ve been a part of all my life: the war for the arts. Kurt Vonnegut famously said:
The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
I was a band director in the public schools in Mississippi and Texas for 13 years and a graduate teaching assistant in the music department at the University of Southern Mississippi for two years. During many of those years, I saw arts budgets being cut left and right. I saw staff positions being taken away from people in other systems and sometimes my own. My wife is a professional musician in the U.S. military. She’s fortunate. There are very, very few places a classically-trained musician can make a living in America these days. Orchestras are folding, stage and movie theatres are shutting down, poetry is rapidly becoming a lost art, and artists of all kinds struggle to gain financing and/or opportunities to display their work. When the playing field shrinks, all that’s left is art (if you can call it that) for the masses: the works that appeal to the greatest number of people. The “niche” market, as AT&T calls it, no matter what the artistic form, no longer matters. If it doesn’t bring huge amounts of revenue, it’s gone.
Again, this is not surprising. I’ve seen it too long for too many years to be surprised anymore. But it hurts just as much now - even worse - than it did when I was old enough to recognize just how the world works.
Profit rules, it always has. We understand this, but throughout the history of commerce, the more greed rears its ugly head, the more the arts suffer. And let’s face it, that’s what this is all about: greed.
This morning I decided to begin a frantic attempt to work through my FilmStruck watchlist. Although it’s available on Blu-ray and DVD, I don’t currently own Akira Kurosawa’s adventure/comedy The Hidden Fortress (1958), so I decided to start there. What an absolutely gorgeous film… Kurosawa’s use of widescreen is jaw-dropping and the way he tells a story visually is second-to-none. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to add it to your list. The story begins with two Japanese peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) attempting to profit from a local tribal war. They stumble upon a man (Toshiro Mifune) and a woman (Misa Uehara) hiding in a fortress. Little do they know what what levels of danger and adventure they’re getting themselves into.
I also listened to the audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. At one point in the commentary, Prince mentions that Matashichi and Tahei desire and crave material possessions that can never be fulfilled. “Their greed has gotten them into trouble once again.” Unchecked, ambition combined with greed leads to misery and ultimate destruction.
Even in my short amount of time on this earth, I’ve seen practically every form of artistic endeavor dedicate at least some time and effort (and money) in support of artists who were learning their craft, whether they were writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers, etc. You don’t see that much anymore. Artists who don’t appeal to the masses have to finance their work (and its distribution) some other way. The internet can help make that easier, but it can also make it fragmented. FilmStruck made it possible to disseminate films that largely don’t appeal to the masses, but are important as artistic endeavors, even if only to a handful of people. Perhaps those audiences are small, but they’re dedicated. These films can be recommended to new audiences, even new generations, who perhaps wouldn’t have given them a second thought previously. George Lucas has commented many times on how The Hidden Fortress influenced Star Wars. I wonder how many Star Wars fans have, in fact, curiously watched The Hidden Fortress. Those who do will find a storehouse of treasure.
FilmStruck has allowed me to view well over 100 films that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about, films such as Max and the Junkmen, History is Made at Night, Brighton Rock, Went the Day Well?, Come and See, Viridiana, Tampopo, I Know Where I’m Going, The Match Factory Girl, and many, many more. Over the next 32 days, I’m going to watch as many of the films on my watchlist as I can, thanking everyone at FilmStruck for making this brief glimpse into cinematic paradise possible.
Will another service take its place? I don’t know. If so, I will support it. In the meantime, if your public library subscribes to Kanopy, please take advantage of it. If that service and others like it aren't used, they will certainly be taken away.
Of course streaming is just one aspect of movies. Support good films wherever they play, but especially those at your local independent theaters. Go to library screenings. Host movies in your home. Support indie filmmakers. Support physical media companies who create movies you love. Make some noise. Don’t give up.
Near the end of The Hidden Fortress, Prince says in his commentary, “The world can be made right. Isn’t it nice to think so?” It is nice to think so, but it’s better to make your voice heard. Keep pounding on the doors of existing streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, telling them to show the movies you want to see. I’ll say it again: Make some noise. Don’t give up. Feed your soul. Share with others. This isn’t over.