Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Criterions on Hulu! Criterions on Hulu!!

What's the magic word to get a pretentious movie fan to sit up and pay attention? Criterion. As in the Criterion Collection, the video distribution company that has set a standard for classic film releases on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and has become practically synonymous with prestigious world cinema. Today, thanks to the power of Criterion, every cineaste and wannabe that formerly scoffed at Hulu Plus's efforts to muscle in on Netflix's streaming video turf (including me), is doing an about face. Word has come down that Hulu has sealed a deal with Criterion that will allow them to offer hundreds of titles from the esteemed Criterion film library to Hulu Plus customers, currently being offered at $7.99 a month. This will include a few select supplemental extras for certain films and even reproductions of some of the Criterion booklets. And Hulu has promised the films will run without ad breaks. Any commercials will only be played at the beginning of the presentations.

What does this mean for your friendly neighborhood pretentious film nerd? As a happy Netflix customer, I'm caught between the urge to rejoice and the urge to panic. Netflix has well over a hundred Criterion titles in its Instant Watch streaming library right now. The licenses for these films will expire in June, and the new deal with Hulu means that they won't be renewed and will no longer be available through Netflix's streaming service after that date. I'm already busy reordering my Instant Watch queue, to try and get through as many of the available Criterion titles as possible before they're yanked and end up behind the Hulu paywall. By my own count, there's about forty titles I haven't seen yet. That's perfectly doable at the rate I go through movies, but I never like being rushed.

But what about the new Hulu Plus service? There's been some grumbling already from users who don't like the idea of any commercials at all, those outside the U.S. who will not have access to the service, and Netflix subscribers who wish Criterion had made the deal with Netflix, because they don't want to deal with the hassle of multiple subscriptions. I'm not sure yet where I stand yet. On the one hand, I've never had any trouble with the Netflix streaming service and I'm perfectly happy viewing Criterion titles in this format. On the other hand, the sheer number of titles a viewer would get access to through the Hulu Plus services is extremely tempting. I certainly wouldn't mind an advertisement or two if it means having a huge chunk of the amazing Criterion library at my fingertips. $7.99 a month for the privilege is certainly reasonable too.

But do I want to give up Netflix to do it? I can't see myself using both of these services at the same time. I love Criterion films, but that's not all I want to watch. There are at least forty 2010 films I still want to see, and Hulu isn't about to start offering those for rental or streaming. For the moment, I'm in wait and see mode. I'll watch the Criterion titles that I have available to me now through Netflix, and wait for some feedback and reviews of the Hulu service before I test the waters. I can see myself taking a break from Netflix in a few months to try out Hulu Plus, but I highly doubt that it's going to be a viable substitute. For one thing, I'm using the Netflix plan with one DVD out at a time, which means that all of the Criterion titles available on Hulu are still available to me through Netflix - just not instantly. Though I think that Netflix's available film selection doesn't compare to Blockbuster or Greencine or some of its other competitors, they're still far better than Hulu, which has a library of mostly television shows.

What I find the most interesting about this development is that it's a change in tactics for Hulu, which was struggling to justify why it was charging for premium content that just didn't seem very premium. The Criterion deal is a huge coup for the company, putting them directly in competition with Netflix and other streaming services for desirable content. Their offerings are nowhere near on par with Netflix yet, but this is an important first step. Now if Hulu can land a distribution deal with another major company like HBO or Warners, which have been vocally hostile toward Netflix over the last few months, the fight for subscribers could start getting really exciting.

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