When my girlfriend left for a two-week tour of the Balkans, I decided the time was right to try out a new streaming service. Filmstruck has been on my list since it launched in November, carrying the full force of Criterion’s massive back catalog behind it. With lots of free time on my hands (and no one to complain about my penchant for heist movies), it seemed like the perfect time for the 14-day free trial.
In a sense, I got just what I wanted. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Criterion is screening the best films ever made here, whether it’s Rossellini’s war trilogy or Renoir’s Rules of the Game. The night I signed up, I watched They Live By Night, a fantastic bank-robbers-in-love movie from the same director as Rebel Without a Cause. Skimming the archive, I found titles from Carol Reed and Robert Aldrich that I’d never even heard of, both of which went straight to the watchlist.
At the same time, the website is genuinely terrible. It’s clumsy, frustrating, unintuitive — everything the movies aren’t. A brief, incomplete list of problems:
- The site uses a flash player, and because of the way it loads, I can’t seem to get my flash-blocker to whitelist it. After a while I gave up and just ran everything from Firefox.
- The login system behaves strangely, presenting a non-logged-in home page when you first visit but then authenticating without a password as soon as you press the Log In button. That’s a particular problem because the site is responsive, and if the browser window is too narrow, it will drop the Log In button entirely, only showing a Join button that takes you through the registration process. I have no idea why you would purposefully build a website this way.
- Exploring the catalog is much, much harder than it needs to be. There’s no single place where you can see every film. I ended up browsing genre by genre, but most of the films seem to fall into the “Drama” category, which sprawls to nearly 500 titles. Even seeing all the genres was a challenge — there are only five in the front-page carousel, but ten more categories appear when you click through.
- Just to underline the carelessness of the whole enterprise, movies beginning with the word “The” are alphabetized under the letter T.
In part, this is my own fault for watching on a laptop. If I were watching on a TV, I could go in through the Chromecast, Roku, or FireTV apps. There are Android and iOS apps too, both of which probably offer better experiences. But like a lot of cord-cutters, I don’t have a TV, and I’ve gotten used to being able to carry my screens from room to room. I can’t justify buying a tablet just for watching movies, and I’m not going to watch these movies on a four-inch phone screen. The laptop is what works for me — and for Filmstruck, that means going in through the web.
Even within the website, none of this is necessarily a deal-breaker. I had to work around the site’s problems, but I did. Once you get the player going, the site itself takes a backseat, so it’s not like it was ruining my experience of the movies themselves. The movies are great, and this is the only service that streams them. But as I reach the end of the trial period, I find myself coming back to the product issues. Do I really want to pay money to keep dealing with this?
It’s a common problem for smaller streaming services. HBO Go uses a Flash player, and has many of the same browsing issues. MUBI gets around it with a social angle and a cycling catalog, but the overall logic is inescapable. With a limited budget, most of the focus goes where the viewers are, which means prioritizing mobile and set-top interfaces over laptops and the web. The good web interfaces are generally built by massive tech-focused companies — specifically Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Apple, and Google. From a business perspective, the point of focusing on interface is to turn the catalog into a commodity. Netflix is still Netflix, no matter what movies it has this month. I assume Criterion didn’t want to be a commodity, so they left Hulu for Filmstruck last year in search of a better deal, the kind of deal you get when people will sign up for a random, poorly designed service just to watch your movies.
I’m still not sure how I feel about that deal. Criterion is one of the few brands I actually like, and I want the company to thrive in the streaming era. But for a small company catering to a specific audience, thriving means ending up on a service like Filmstruck that prioritizes content over ease of use. If it works, it’s great news for Criterion — but it depends on people like me wading through a lot of bad web design.