Criterion and Hulu team up
A partnership between the best in DVDs and the streaming giant is a mixed blessing.
On February 15, the Criterion Collection—the world leader in high-end home-video distinction and craftsmanship—announced a new partnership with streaming service Hulu. In effect, the two have created a virtual film school, where 150 Criterion classics are downloadable at a relatively modest expense (a $7.99-per-month subscription to Hulu Plus). The titles range from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc to Obayashi’s House to Chris Marker’s San Soleil. More will come later. Most are not available even on Mubi.com or Amazon, leaving Hulu the go-to destination for confronting the canon online. The more channels our culture provides for, say, Luis Buñuel to invade our bedrooms and dens and make a holy mess, the better.
But just as we can be skeptical about seeing a film “on your fucking telephone,” as David Lynch carped in his much-YouTubed dismissal, it’s inevitable that Criterion lovers may scrunch their brows at the Hulu deal. Criterion, after all, is the ne plus ultra of memorialized movie love; its DVD releases are famously state of the art and festooned with contextual extras. Thumb through your discs, and you’ll encounter impossible-to-find director profiles made for European TV; new interviews and source texts; forgotten archival materials; obscure but pertinent short films; and fresh articles and videos by film critics and filmmakers. You know that if a movie has been Criterionized, it’s been given the full 20-gun salute, and other editions, if any exist, are dispensable. (The new set of films from Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, for instance—released under the umbrella title The BBS Story—instantly rendered the Sony DVDs of Easy Rider, The Last Detail and others obsolete.)
But if you’re streaming, the extras (and extra-specialness) of a Criterion edition are lost—save for the top-notch restoration and transfer, which matter significantly less if you’re watching the films on a screen smaller than a high-school diploma. Does the new partnership compromise the brand? “You can’t hope to dodge technology,” Criterion president Peter Becker tells me by e-mail. “You have to use it for what it’s good for. If your brand, content and customer service are strong, you will find a way to compete and survive as things change.… Hulu represents not so much a next step for us as a broadening of our reach. There’s a large part of our audience who have never bought a DVD in their lives, who may have experienced some of our movies on disc, but only through the mail. Those viewers already don’t get the packaging or any additional discs of content, so it’s not the ideal Criterion experience, but it’s the experience those viewers are choosing.”
A Hulu viewing is in fact closer in ephemerality to the screenings of the prevideo age, when all you owned were your memories. Still, I’m not alone when I say I’ll give up my shelvable Rules of the Game only when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.