Saturday, June 11, 2011

Let's Try Hulu Plus

I find myself in the middle of a relatively uneventful week, so I've decided to use the Hulu Plus one-week free trial to mainline some of the Criterion titles I've been eyeing. So far I've watched six movies, and thought I'd share a few thoughts.

First, the selection for Criterion titles is great, though for some directors more than others. You get plenty of Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu, but many other major names only have one or two featured titles apiece. The plan is to rotate the titles in the collection, so this may change. I found plenty to keep me occupied, though, including the early films of Jane Campion and Masaki Kobayashi's entire nine-hour "The Human Condition" (Ningen no Joken) epic. There is far, far more to watch than I'll be able to get through by the end of this week.

So far the presentation is decent. As advertised, there's only a single commercial at the beginning of each film, and the commercial never loaded properly so I was essentially watching a 30-second error message before each feature. I could easily pretend it was just another studio ident. I am not up to speed as I should be on technical details, but Hulu offered the ability to stream the films to a variety of different devices. Though some cineastes may cringe, I watched everything on my laptop (a 15" monster) and had no complaints about picture or audio quality. The restored version of Luchino Visconti's "Senso" was particularly magnificent. I wasn't thrilled about the automatic credit squeezing, though, a practice I've always hated seeing on television. And where there were no end credits, as in the case of Bergman's "Winter Light," the stream ended so abruptly that I thought the ending had been mistakenly cut off.

Where Hulu stands out from Netflix is in the organization and treatment of their Criterion titles. The collection has its own Hulu pages and categories, the featured directors have more comprehensive biographies, and there is more information available about each film. The supplementary materials are still few and sometimes difficult to spot, but are invaluable. All in all, it is much easier to identify and navigate through the offerings from the collection, whereas I'd had to rely on other sources to keep track of the same titles on Netflix. However, user-generated information is notably lacking. There are few reviews, almost no comments, and many titles don't even have star ratings, though the architecture for all of this is in place. Hulu may have embraced Criterion, but Criterion fans haven't embraced Hulu yet.

So would I subscribe to Hulu Plus? Probably. Even though the Criterions are the only thing I'm interested in right now, there are enough of them that they could easily keep me occupied for a few months. Hulu has also been making deals with other content providers to gain access to their film libraries. The Hulu front page has been touting the recent arrival of several Miramax titles to the site, including Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy." If Hulu can keep adding film content they way they have been recently, then I could see myself switching back and forth between the Hulu and Netflix services in the future.

It's all going to come down to content deals, I suppose. On that note, I should also mention Hulu's television offerings, which are frustrating, frankly. Hulu has always been largely built around television, but since the studios are still worried about online streaming cutting into their cable profits, few of the current basic and premium cable shows are available on Hulu Plus. These are the shows I'd be willing to pay for, and they're simply not there. Instead, Hulu has lots of network content, lots of reality shows, foreign programming, and classic television. A few odd titles have caught my eye, but not enough that I'd cough up a subscription fee for access, and certainly not enough to replace any other services.

Hulu Plus still has a long way to go. Hulu isn't as user-friendly as Netflix in a lot of ways, and having ads on a pay service at all still grates, but the site has shown a lot of improvement on every front since it first launched. And the way they've treated the Criterion films suggests they have the potential to be better. And as long as they're the only real competition to Netflix, it's in everyone's best interest if Hulu sticks around to keep them on their toes.

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