The Criterion Collection is the most popular series of collectables for cinephiles. Their lovingly crafted editions that feature beautiful restorations, exquisite cover designs, and days’ worth of special features simply can’t be beat. As streaming services have become more and more departmentalized (with services like Shudder for horror fans, Curiosity Stream for science and history fans, and now Disney+ for families), it only made sense that there would be one for hardcore cinephiles and fans of artful cinema. For a while, a service called Filmstruck covered this demographic, but the service sadly went under not long after its launch. To carry the torch of streaming for cinephiles, Criterion (who had been exclusive to Filmstruck) started one up themselves last year, calling it simply “The Criterion Channel.” I’ve been subscribing to The Criterion Channel since it launched, and I must say that I’ve been quite pleased. What’s it like? In this review, I’ll break down the components of the service to help you decide whether or not to join the world’s most artful streaming service.
Before we get to anything else, let’s talk price. If there’s one thing Criterion fans can tell you, it’s that Criterion Collection editions ain’t cheap. At Barnes & Noble (and other retailers, I assume), blu-ray editions go for $40—over twice the cost of the average solo blu-ray. On their website, blu-rays are always “on sale,” marked down from $40 to $31.97. The cheapest place to buy Criterion editions new is Amazon, where they never seem to go higher than their $31.97 cyber standard, average at about $25, and occasionally (in the case of Night of the Living Dead) go for as low as $15.
Criterion even goes so far as to explain the comparatively high pricing for their editions. An FAQ on their website reads:
“Our prices reflect all the resources we put into making each release a special one. Each has a producer, who finds the best existing supplemental features to help further the appreciation of the film and often creates original content as well. Our technical staff ensures that we are working with the best original source materials and digital masters by performing rigorous visual and audio restoration processes.”
They further explain, in regards to bootlegs:
“…it costs a lot of money for us to make a good DVD or Blu-ray edition. We know Criterion discs are not inexpensive, but we feel they are a good value. If you can buy a Criterion disc at a price you think is absurdly low, it’s probably not a legitimate one.”
So, does their high pricing model carry over to the channel as well? You can subscribe to the channel either monthly or annually, and I got an annual subscription for the marked down preorder price of $90/year. Without the early bird discounts, annual subscriptions cost $100/year or $10/month (including one month free for either you choose). At these prices, Criterion is certainly one of the pricier streamers, especially for a niche one: Curiosity Stream goes for the surprisingly low $3/month, Shudder for $5/month, and the extensive Disney+ for only $7/month. But considering their costly physical editions, Criterion Channel is certainly not outrageously expensive or even overpriced, in my opinion. The best way for me to explain is to discuss its content.
The first thing you should know about The Criterion Channel is that every title in the entire Criterion Collection is not available to stream. Although disappointing, this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise, as every title in the Collection isn’t even available to purchase at any one time because of expired licenses, etc.
So who’s present, and who’s absent? As you might guess, most of the popular and/or newer titles from the Collection are missing from The Criterion Channel, including The Princess Bride, Pan’s Labyrinth, Sullivan’s Travels, Rosemary’s Baby, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Other titles from the Collection such as A Face in the Crowd, True Stories, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars seem to “rotate” in availability through the channel—available for a limited time only. Others, however, appear to be there to stay: the Harold Lloyd movies, Akira Kurosawa movies, Watership Down, Fantastic Planet, The Seventh Seal, I Married a Witch, Stalker, and Night of the Living Dead have all stayed in my watchlist ever since I added them when the service launched. (Test each title's hyperlink to see if they're still there at the time of your reading.) All of this seems to be a game of licensing: the “essential art house” movies as they call them (particularly those from Janus Films) and films in the public domain seem to be permanent additions; the mid-tier popularity movies will come and go; and the films so popular that other streaming services will battle for them may never appear.
Criterion makes up for their “missing” titles by licensing content from other distributors such as Turner and Cinematheque. This seems to be an attempt to replicate what Filmstruck had to offer. For me, these licensed titles are what seal the deal for The Criterion Channel, as they undeniably diversify the offerings. In The Criterion Channel's first month or so, before these titles had made it, I was a bit disappointed to see only arthouse essentials available. But as Criterion has continued to license and include these movies, their content has grown more and more colorful. Notable non-Criterion titles have so far included Persepolis, The Wicker Man, Freaks, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, The Triplets of Belville, and a collection of several classic MGM musicals. These appear to be following the “cycling” availability pattern of the mid-tier popularity Criterion titles, so get ‘em while they’re hot. The only downside to them is that they’re not all as “lovingly restored” as the titles from the Criterion Collection (a treatment to which you’ll grow accustomed once you’ve watched enough titles). Sometimes (as with Persepolis) the lack of restoration is hardly noticeably, but other titles such as Freaks and Prince Achmed are disappointingly swimming in old film residue.
One of The Criterion Channel’s more unique features is that many titles include bonus features. These may consist of interviews, BTS documentaries, or even feature-length commentary tracks. Criterion also does a good job at properly categorizing their titles. For example, the more-fun-than-artsy movies available (such as The Blob, The Kid, and The Three Musketeers) are labeled as “Saturday Matinées.” These labels reflect another one of the Channel’s unique offerings: Criterion’s many film “compilations.” These may be collections of movies starring the same actor, made by the same director, or from the same genre or movement. Some of the notables have so far included “British Hitchcock,” composed of Hitchcock’s features from before he jumped the pond; “Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck,” composed of movies starring the famous actress before the infamous Production Code was enacted; and “70’s Sci-fi,” which included titles like A Clockwork Orange, THX 1138, and Michael Crichton’s original Westworld.
Overall, in terms of content, The Criterion Channel offers a satisfyingly varied selection of classic movies, which is a pretty unique content offering in and of itself. Think about it: how many classic films are on any of the “big” streaming services? I’d say that the particular category of films is one of the untapped markets in streaming, which makes Criterion a valuable experience.
Most streaming services have put interface development on the back burner since such developments are no longer what sell them. The Criterion Channel is no different: it follows most of the standards for streaming platforms with little innovation. Titles appear as cards in horizontal carousels, and when selected, they open a “profile” for the title. However, even this gets a little clunky on certain platforms: on Apple TV, selecting a sole video (a movie, a featurette, etc.) will automatically bring up the info profile, but on Roku, if the highlighted title is a sole video, selecting it will begin playback (one must press the [ * ] button to bring up the info profile).
Like any streaming service, there’s a personalized watchlist to which you can add titles. However, Criterion does not offer user profiles like many other services, so if you share your account like I do, you’ll have to share your watchlist too. Overall, though, this hasn’t been a huge deal. I share my account with my dad, who’s not as learned in film history as I am, but who appreciates my recommendations. Therefore, if there’s a movie on there I think he’d like about which he’d be otherwise oblivious, I can add it to the list and then tell him about it, so that the next time he opens the app, it’s ready to go for him. Essentially, I can use the forcibly shared watchlist as a “recommend” feature (something I wish all streaming services had). However, I can imagine that in less convenient sharing scenarios, the mandatorily shared watchlist could be annoying.
For non-English language films, the Channel displays subtitles automatically, but one of its surprisingly frustrating features is getting subtitles to display over English language films. This is another area that varies based on your platform. On Amazon Fire TV’s, there’s a simple CC button in the video player itself. However, on Roku, the only way to get captions to show is to turn them on in your system settings. If you’re someone who prefers to watch everything with captions (as many of my friends do), you might already have these turned on, but if you’re like me and only want subtitles for content with poor audio quality or where the dialogue is hard to understand, having to make changes to the pervasive system settings is annoying and unintuitive. Not to mention, on Apple TV, I couldn’t figure out how to turn on captions at all! The inconsistent difficulty in turning on captions is surprising to see in an app from Criterion, who seek to provide an unbeatable viewing experience!
By far the most disappointing thing about the Criterion Channel interface is its lack of algorithmic recommendations. Netflix’s model for such a feature is perfect: you tell Netflix if you liked or disliked the movie with a simple 👍 or 👎, and Netflix recommends content based on metadata. Easy. Most other streaming services feature a simplified mechanic, based still on metadata, but paired with your views alone, rather than preferences. Criterion, however has no such feature at all. I imagine that Criterion left it out based on the idea that it wasn’t necessary since the platform is already aimed at a niche market (cinephiles), thus assuming that customers will enjoy anything available on the channel. While there are many “adventurous” moviegoers who are that way, the fact is that most of us aren’t. While I’m certain that I’d enjoy most of what’s on The Criterion Channel, I’d much rather be recommended titles based on my taste, rather than have to track such titles down, especially since the rotating content creates the potential for me to miss titles I might highly enjoy.
On the other hand, Criterion’s best interfacial innovation has to do with the aforementioned “compilations” they offer. While you can already add individual titles to your watchlist, Criterion also allows you to add these entire compilations as a whole to your watchlist. Being able to do so is a major convenience, since it keeps your watchlist from getting cluttered and serves as a sort of categorization for it. Other streaming services (namely Disney+) include compilations like Criterion’s, but don’t allow you to add them wholly to your list, forcing you to add titles individually or return to the list in its place in the menu navigation every time.
Overall, Criterion’s interface needs work, and hasn’t changed much since its launch. For now, it offers one major exclusive feature, with little innovation elsewhere, making for an overall satisfactory if occasionally frustrating experience.
Overall, while it’s nothing special in terms of interface or experience (but then again, is any streaming service anymore?), Criterion’s unique and unmatched content make it a must-have for cinephiles and fans of classic or artful cinema. Others may find a quirky break from the norm, but ultimately won’t be as impressed.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this review. More streaming service reviews are to come. Until then, come back for more fun articles here at NicholasCoker.com.