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  • James Kunovski

An Australian Alternative to the Criterion Channel?

Filmgoers in today’s streaming bubble have found themselves in an interesting circumstance. Arguably the most well-known streaming services, Netflix, traditionally positioned themselves as a way to connect with an array of titles, old and new. Their format of mailing DVDs commenced in 1998 and revolutionised the media game. Their subscription base had grown to over a million by the time they started to shift towards an online market.

For film enthusiasts, however, there has always been a bit of a gap in the market. Criterion usually takes the lead; positioning itself as an avenue to discover important global and arthouse cinema through a hefty collection of titles. Unfortunately, filmgoing stands as an expensive hobby, and physically owning these titles ranges from A$39.95 to A$49.95 sans postage.

Enter Filmstruck, which launched in 2016, and was owned by Turner Classic Movies. At the time of its launch it specified in catering towards cinephiles with rare titles, of which two-hundred of its five-hundred-strong catalogue were sourced from Criterion. It was a bold move in securing the market. It charged US$10.99 (A$16.60) for its monthly subscription plan. This was viewed as steep considering Netflix charges similar numbers for about seven times the films but Filmstruck was driven by a title-oriented basis which appealed to its subscribers. In an effort by WarnerMedia to streamline niche services the announcement to cease its operations were sounded. Barely two years running, its roughly one-hundred thousand subscribers were left in the dark. Oscar-winning directors Guillermo del Toro and Barry Jenkins lamented its loss and a letter was signed appealing for its return.

Subsequently, the Criterion Channel was born in April 2019. Serving as Filmstruck’s direct replacement, the move cemented the survival of classic cinema in a saturated streaming age. The service (which is directly affiliated with Criterion) offers 1,931 films at its predecessors’ same price. It was a relief for the industry, and soothed notions that these films would be lost in obscurity.

With this discord mellowing away, Australia has somewhat been left in the dark. A shame, considering Australian New Wave is a popular subset for Criterion but almost impossible to source in its home country. To buy a Criterion Blu-ray, you’re looking at shelling away a few bucks. Even more so, Filmstruck was never offered to Australian consumers, and hopes of that soon withered. Currently, the Criterion Channel is only offered to American and Canadian audiences. It’s hard to say if an expansion is ever likely.

So, while we wait, what are some alternatives?

One service that enjoys occasional exposure and intermediate mention from video essay-YouTubers is Mubi. It works in rotation; every day, one new film, valid for thirty days, is added. Unfortunately, for about A$9.99 (US$6.50) a month, the monthly selection of roughly thirty films is quite limited and pricy. The titles are obscure and there aren’t too many similarities between itself and Criterion. It’s a nice venture to support but one that is ultimately restrictive.

In the meantime, with its free subscription, SBS On Demand bids an alternative. Of the 795 movies available for streaming, around seventy, or less than ten percent can be found on Criterion. In terms of a direct correlation, the link is quite weak, but the price, or lack thereof, remains a significant factor.

Or... There's always Kanopy, which remains the best alternative at the moment. It essentially brands itself as a video on-demand service that specifically attends to select university students or public library card holders. Although coverage varies, there remains more of a guarantee for larger institutions. Membership is free; login via your university or library. The website was actually founded by an Australian, so hopefully the base for eligible affiliates continues to grow. Though there is a catch. Kanopy, as a whole, offers endless amounts of options but each collection differs according to the requirements of its provider. For measure, a popular university offers 189 Criterion/Janus films. It’s also a good resource for Oscar-nominated feature documentaries. Its interface is a downside, as blank searches often result for products that are actually available.

For similarities to a service that aligns itself with rare arthouse and global cinema, Kanopy is the way to go, though the work Criterion does at restoring and upholding cinema should not be ignored.

In the meantime, for waiting Australians, you can always send this vague request to the Criterion Collection in the hopes that it might actually expand our options.

*Accurate to February 2020 data


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