Yesterday, Hulu Plus was a paid streaming service that cinephiles were more likely to scoff at than subscribe to. Today, it's arguably the Web's most essential destination for movie-lovers. So what happened? The Criterion Collection, with their vast and immaculately curated library of the world's most important classic and contemporary films, brokered a deal with the site to immediately make 150 incredible titles available to current customers, with the additional promise that this initial batch would be followed by another 650 films in the coming months.
So, while regular Hulu will remain your go-to place for Chevrolet commercials that are occasionally interrupted by new episodes of 'Family Guy,' for $7.99/month Hulu Plus now offers its customers unfettered access to cinema's greatest works, including films that haven't even been released under the Criterion banner -- rare classics otherwise unavailable on these shores.
As of this morning, my Netflix home page is imploring me to watch Miley Cyrus in 'The Last Song.' Hulu Plus, on the other hand, is pointing me toward 'Seven Samurai,' 'The 400 Blows' and 'M,' which, after a short barrage of ads, will play uninterrupted on any streaming device I own.
And just like that, Hulu Plus is now an invaluable resource. Longtime Criterion honcho Peter Becker has issued a statement in which he rightfully insists that the company's main focus will remain with physical media, but that the Hulu deal constitutes a "huge expansion of [their] reach." Much like Criterion's increasingly vital Eclipse line, which packages rare films of slightly lesser esteem without all the pomp and circumstance of a full-blown release, Hulu Plus will allow Criterion to share scores of "lost" classics to which they simply haven't yet had the time or resources to devote their full attention.
Hulu's senior vice president, Eugene Wei, promises that even such gems as "the extended filmography of Kenji Mizoguchi" will finally be made accessible to deprived American audiences ("extended filmography of Kenji Mizoguchi" better be code for 'The Life of Oharu'). And with stuff like Zoltan Korda's 'The Four Feathers' -- a film Criterion has been teasing for years but hasn't yet seen fit to distribute formally -- already streaming under their Hulu Plus banner, it truly seems as if this deal is a sincere boon for movie buffs.
What's more, is that Wei also promises that the deal will shake the fundamental firmaments of streaming video by eventually offering portions of Criterion's renowned supplemental material; they're even planning on digitizing some of the gorgeous booklets that stuff Criterion's physical releases. Most importantly, it seems as if Criterion's unparalleled commitment to quality hasn't been lost in the shuffle. Streaming classic films on Netflix has always been a bit of a crapshoot, and Netflix seems to be aware that some of them are practically unwatchable, what with the relentless surveys asking about the viewer's experience.
On the other hand, each of the several films I've streamed portions of this morning have looked solid, even those like 'The Four Feathers' which Criterion may not have gussied up with a new transfer just yet (the ad for Nissan which preceded the film was less than 5 seconds long, but I do bemoan the lack of available subtitles on English-language films, as stuff like 'The Sweet Smell of Success' is in English in name only).
Of course, the Hulu Plus presentations can't even begin to challenge Criterion's gob-smackingly gorgeous Blu-rays, although they'll get the job done in a pinch. There's simply no comparison to be made between the two, and viewers lucky enough to be accustomed to Criterion's 1080p releases will likely be unwilling to settle for less.
The convenience of streaming video is appealing, of course, but Criterion's customers are that rare breed of people for whom convenience is secondary to quality -- for many of us, these are films we want to watch, but need to savor. I don't need to watch Luchino Visconti's 'The Leopard' on my iPhone to appreciate the option, and the fact that Criterion's entire library will eventually be so affordably accessible overwhelms whatever pompous cinephiliac tics might preclude me from embracing this technology.
I'm slavishly devoted to Criterion's Blu-rays, but my Mac laptop doesn't have a Blu-ray player, so when I'm on the road those purchases do me no good. Now, however, I'm covered. Now I no longer feel as if I'm buying the best of what Criterion has to offer at the expense of access and portability.
This is good business, but it's great art appreciation. Somewhere there's gonna be a guy paying $7.99 a month so that he can comprehensively backtrack on the entire first season of 'Pretty Little Liars,' who suddenly finds himself one click away from Nagisa Oshima's 'In the Realm of the Senses.' People navigate the Internet not with directions but with impulses. It may not take for everyone, but the idea that an average Joe could go cruising for trash and find himself in the thrall of the Japanese New Wave's most dangerous filmmaker is a beautiful thought.
For more on the Criterion Collection, check our our Criterion Corner column.