Streaming Cinephilia

The news that Hulu has acquired streaming rights to over 800 Criterion titles is a couple of days old by now.  Cinematical has the basics: 150 titles will be available to Hulu Plus subscribers almost immediately, with about 800 total within just a few months. Non-subscribers will be able to see a narrower selection of titles through Hulu’s free service, but for a brand typically associated with television content, a clunky video interface, and disruptive ads, this is kind of a big deal, one that seems designed to attract cinephiles away from Netflix. At the same time, it illustrates that digital distribution models are far from settled, with some potentially interesting implications for internet-based cinephiles.

It’s worth noting that, if New Tee Vee is correct, the Hulu Plus-Criterion deal is exclusive, which means that Netflix will no longer be able to stream these titles (although it’s less clear from what I’ve read whether they would have access to renting and mailing the physical DVDs). This type of deal suggests that, despite claims about a giant celestial cineplex in the (computing) cloud, in which we will have comparatively easy access to the history of film, what we will have instead is something closer to a range of competing miniplexes, each with access to a limite range of content, with frequently changing marquees depending on what content is available at what price at any given time.  Even with this Hulu deal, Criterion continues to emphasize DVDs as “their core business.” At the same time, streaming video makes it feasible for Criterion to offer films that have been too expensive to market as DVDs, making the deal even more appealing for internet cinephiles.

The Criterion films on Hulu will not be interrupted by advertising, and as Matt Singer at the IFC blog surmises, Criterion’s standards for streaming quality are typically very high–note the current quality of streaming Criterion titles currently appearing on Mubi.com–and the service also plans to make some of Criterion’s popular supplemental features available online, something that typically hasn’t been available through other VOD services. I’d imagine the value of streaming these supplemental features is significant.  Because I’ve been using Netflix on my Wii, I’ve missed out on supplemental features for some of the films I’d normally watch on DVD, and I’ve wondered how (or if) those kinds of features–director’s commentary tracks, making-of videos–would become widely available.  I’d be tempted to withhold some of this content on streaming sites to entice people to buy the DVD, rather than streaming, but my guess is that offering at least some supplemental content online makes sense (in fact, as a commenter on the Criterion blog points out, this kind of content might be “ideal” for some of the smaller screens).

Both David Poland and Scott Macauley consider the industrial implications for this deal, with Poland, a frequent critic of Netflix’s business model, suggesting that Netflix has overreached in its pursuit of TV and major studio content, paying too much for content that is likely to age quickly. Poland adds that there is little “customer loyalty” online, which means that people will migrate to content they desire rather than remaining loyal to a specific platform. I think this is basically right, although I think some consumers may remain with Netflix out of laziness rather than loyalty.  Macauley essentially agrees, reflecting that he’ll remain loyal to Netflix for now but speculates that if Hulu bought the rights to IFC films, he might switch services (I’d imagine that at least some people are already or would end up paying for both).

For now, one of the more significant aspects of this deal is the degree to which it alters Hulu’s place in the digital distribution ecosystem, changing it from a service primarily defined by its TV holdings to one that is at least somewhat focused on fostering (and profiting from) internet cinephilia.  At the same time, it indicates that many of our favorite movies are simply shifting from one celestial multiplex to another one down the street.

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    February 16, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

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