If you’re a true film buff, you know about the Criterion Collection, arguably the world’s best DVD collection of signature films from directors including Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michael Powell.
As of this week (Feb. 16), Criterion's films are as easy to view as “Law & Order: SVU” reruns if you subscribe to the Hulu Plus service, which currently streams off-network TV programming over the Internet, including shows from ABC, NBC, Fox, Comedy Central, and others. A subscription-based service, Hulu Plus can be watched on any computer as well as on TV-attached devices (Roku set-top boxes, Xbox and PlayStation gaming systems), Internet-equipped TVs and Blu-Ray players, and mobile devices (iPads, iPhones, and, soon, Android smartphones).
Hulu also operates a free ad-supported online service where some films will be shown, although with inserted ads; films on the paid service, however, will be ad-free and viewable in 720p high-definition streaming video.
Subscribers who currently pay $7.99 monthly to watch TV episodes and a small variety of films can now watch 150 of an estimated 800 Criterion-collected films. A sample of the first batch, available now: “Rashomon,” “Seven Samurai,” “Umberto D.,” “La Strada,” “Closely Watched Trains,” “Shoot The Piano Player,” "Jules and Jim,” “The Seventh Seal,” “The Virgin Spring,” “Paris, Texas,” and “Wings of Desire.”
In addition to its notable films, the service will stream movies never seen in the United States. “Some of these lost gems have been so hard to see that even most of the Criterion staff will see them for the first time only when they go live on Hulu Plus,” noted Criterion President Peter Becker in an online blog.
The site, moreover, will put its invaluable collection of commentaries, documentaries, interviews, original trailers, essays, and more online sometime in the near future.
The Hulu/Criterion move shows how swiftly the rights-acquisition pace has has changed since Netflix spent well over $1 billion last year to buy streaming rights to libraries from Paramount, Lionsgate, and MGM — and more recently adding all 35 years’ worth of Saturday Night Live episodes from NBC. Last month, Netflix upped the ante even more by buying rights to air “The Fighter,” still playing in theaters and nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The Netflix library reportedly contains over 20,000 films.
Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that Amazon.com is planning a subscription service to compete directly with Netflix, upping its service from its current per-film purchase model. And on Thursday (Feb. 17), the Times reported that Redbox, which distributes DVDs from kiosks in supermarkets and other locations, will also launch a Netflix-competitive streaming subscription service.
Hulu’s acquisition of rights to the Criterion Collection, however, is a prestige move that is sure to bring attention, and potentially subscribers, from a new audience. One can only speculate what library rights will be snapped up next by one or more of the competitive streaming players whose numbers now include — in addition to Netflix and Hulu — Apple TV, Amazon Video On Demand, VuDu (owned by Wal-Mart), and CinemaNow (owned by Best Buy). Said to be waiting in the wings with their own streaming services are Microsoft, Google, and Sony.
Hulu may also be trying to carve out a position independent from Comcast, whose recently completed purchase of NBC-Universal leaves both companies in an uncomfortable position. Through the acquisition of NBC, Comcast now owns a piece of Hulu since NBC was one of the original Hulu partners.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has stipulated that Comcast-NBC can’t have any say in how Hulu is run, but at the same time the company must continue supplying content to Hulu similar to partners ABC and Fox. Confusing the issue further, Comcast is fighting to retain its own audience share through its launch of Xfinity TV, which streams on-demand content to its own customers.
It’s a complicated mess out there.
To a lesser extent, the Hulu announcement no doubt will turn heads at the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, whose service has screened many of the better-known Criterion Collection films to add depth to its own vast but well-mined library of MGM and Warner Bros. classic films. Since TCM is still free to cable subscribers, this news should have little effect, but the possibility exists that the Criterion films in TCM’s rotation may not remain.
The Hulu move could potentially affect lesser-known MUBI, formerly The Auteurs.com, itself an outgrowth of a section on the Criterion website. (MUBI can either be accessed for a per-film charge or for a $12 monthly subscription fee.)
Regardless of corporate machinations, movie lovers are the clear winners in this streaming next step. In an age of big-screen home TVs, when we can watch movies uncut, lovingly transferred to digital with the original aspect ratio preserved, the promise that Criterion’s material will soon be available adds even more to a feast of riches.