On the 100th birthday of Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese reflected on his love of the iconic Italian filmmaker in a cover essay he wrote for Harper’s magazine. The essay begins by pushing back against a particular excess of the modern film industry, which is “content.” Following his criticism of the predominant Marvel Cinematic Universe as “theme park movies,” Scorsese aims at streaming services for relying on automated algorithms to determine what viewers want to watch. He then praises platforms that emphasize more curation. One of them is the Criterion Channel, a service that is part of the Criterion Collection, a physical media boutique that specializes in the restoration of classic and contemporary cinema.
With over 1,000 features, the Criterion Collection is one of the most beloved brands in modern film culture. From bringing back old-guard canon entries like Citizen Kane and restoring obscure gems like Wanda to including present-day masterpieces like Uncut Gems and Drive My Car, these are the titles that the boutique considers important enough to include in their library. When the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time was released last year, Janus Films tweeted out that forty-eight of the 100 films represented, including the winner Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, directed by Chantal Akerman, had some state of a Criterion release.
There is a lofty amount of effort involved in packaging and adding supplements for each release. The cover art is usually meticulous. Not only does each film provide a director’s commentary and deleted scenes, which is typically found in every form of physical media, but it also contains a critical essay about the film and an interview with the director. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts has a collection of Raymond Carver short stories that the film adapts from.
As it markets itself as a cinema novelty, the Criterion Collection is also distinguishable due to its loyal fanbase. Buyers look forward to the mid-month announcements of upcoming titles entering the catalog and speculate on visual clues provided through the company’s illustrations and social media posts of what movies will receive the coveted treatment. As the purchase prices are dear (a 4K and Blu-Ray combo of Mulholland Dr. costs $34.96) these people would take advantage of half-price discount sales at Barnes and Noble. Clips of celebrities from Cate Blanchett to Bong Joon Ho visiting the brand’s closet at their New York offices and picking their favorite DVDs have gone viral. One video essay by the Royal Ocean Film Society describes them, in the best way possible, as a “club, a clique and a cult.”
One of the videos referenced in the essay was by Daisuke Beppu, who once made a makeshift Criterion Closet. (He has since told me that he moved places, thus that Closet is no longer there). Beppu runs a YouTube channel that is devoted to physical media, particularly the Criterion Collection. He finds it to be a very valuable and educational source. “It affords me the opportunity to learn about films that I did not know about before,” he said. Residing in Tokyo, he told me that the brand, restricted to Western consumers, was easy to purchase and quite accessible, so long as he has a region-free Blu-Ray player. Luckily, the US and Japan share the same encoding region.
There is however a question of whether the Criterion’s current curation had compromised its artistic integrity with some of its releases’ presentation and whether some of it has to conflict with its commercial decisions. As a home video company, the Criterion Collection has been around since 1984, so a lot has evolved in the home video industry. It began as a laser disc company, generating roughly $3 million a year in sales by 1988. According to Kona Equity, its revenue peaked in 2019 at $36.1 million, but in 2021 its estimated revenue was $19 million.
In August 2020, an op-ed in the New York Times criticized the Collection for having few African-American directors in its oeuvre. Peter Becker, the company’s president, swiftly responded by saying “we need to fix that.” On October 2022, the company announced layoffs, in an effort to scale back and maintain subscribers. Upon the announcement, some commenters, including an article from Breitbart, claimed that the brand “got woke and went broke.”
Jay Karales, a podcaster and filmmaker who goes by the alias LowRes Wunderbred, describes this as an oversimplification, yet for him, it doesn’t stop them from providing underwhelming choices. In a tweet from 2021, he points to the inclusion of Sound of Metal and One Night in Miami as a sign of its decline. “They’ve opted for a less informed method of selecting movies to release and to dump on their streaming service,” he says. Peter Labuza, a film historian and researcher for the Cinematographers Guild, states that the possibilities for the company to achieve their new objectives are finite and that the Channel can fill that hole. “Its business model of four to five films per month limits how quickly it can achieve their goal.”
Now that the entertainment industry has distanced itself from physical media in favor of streaming, it has struck distribution deals with Amazon Prime and Netflix to put some of its exclusive and prestigious releases, such as The Irishman, Roma, One Night in Miami and The Power of the Dog, into the Collection. HBO Max distributes some of its entries as a less costly alternative to the Criterion Channel, but with the Warner-Discovery merger, there is uncertainty in the relationship between the two companies, and it had been shaky before. In conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, which is owned by Warner-Discovery, Filmstruck was launched in 2016 as Criterion’s first streaming service before shutting down in 2018 due to restructuring, with the Channel becoming its official replacement. FilmStruck was built on the “scale first, profit later” model, Labuza says. “It is difficult to know how long it would need to continue to reach that equilibrium.”
There are more platforms competing in the niche of making highbrow fare more accessible. In his tribute to Fellini, Scorsese also heaped praise on Mubi, which previously partnered with the Criterion Collection when it began providing Video on Demand. It is now involved in the production acquisition, further expanding its theatrical distribution model. Karales, aka Lowres Wunderland, tells me, “The discs themselves are being outdone in 4K, and in supplements by competitors like Arrow Video […] and similar boutique distributors.”
The 4K restoration of certain films hasn’t made Criterion immune from criticism either. When Criterion re-released and released Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, respectively, both received a mixed response from devotees for de-emphasizing the warmer color palette of each film for a steely look, despite being approved by both filmmakers. For some, it’s no different than George Lucas altering certain scenes in the original Star Wars trilogy. This speaks to the ethical crossroads of digital restoration. It could make someone’s memory of experiencing these films vastly different to that of others who have now been exposed to the film for the first time. Paolo Cherchi Usai, a film curator from the George Eastman House, says that Criterion needs to maintain its commercial relationships, such an effort to ensure that the images and sounds are as sharp and crisp could be shattered if someone noticed that the application of digital technology isn’t properly restored. “Viewers should be aware that digital restoration, no matter how responsible and accurate, is a work of fiction,” he tells me.
In spite of this issue, Usai is optimistic that the company can flip the commercial dogma of utilizing 4K, given that it still holds a high benchmark of quality and curation. But it should start with acknowledging other agents of restoration like museums and archives that haven’t been given their due like Criterion, which he tells me they are reluctant to do. The Criterion had remained sustainable thanks to the commitment of its buyers. “There are about sixty Criterion blu-rays on my shelf I’ve purchased,” Karales claimed. “I am rooting for Criterion to make a course correction.” Whether Criterion can be susceptible to having its art succumbing to the present and future challenges of “content,” as defined by Scorsese and his acolytes, is yet to be seen.