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Can boutique streaming services survive alongside Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu?

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Brick and mortar video stores are over, so what’s a cinephile to do on a lazy Friday night? Most of us turn to Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, but film fans with obscure tastes are harder to please.

Netflix and Amazon Prime have set their sights on prestigious original content, from stand-up to scripted series like Master of None and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, to critical darlings like the upcoming Bong Joon Ho fantasy film Okja. While these mega-streaming sites have been snapping up flicks from Sundance to Cannes, they’ve been dropping older films left and right as their contracts expire. This is great news for binge-watchers and on-demand fanatics, but these sites offer breadth without much depth.

Enter streaming services like Shudder, FilmStruck, and BritBox, which are the equivalent of a cool downtown boutique compared to a superstore. That big box store might have all the basics you need—the latest mainstream releases, maybe some older movies, and lots of TV and quality originals—but what about more obscure objects of desire? As it turns out, finicky film fans are more than willing to pay for the chance to stream rare gems. It was just a matter of time before a few enterprising platforms came to the rescue to meet this demand. Because streaming services don’t have to worry about housing inventory like a traditional boutique retailer, these upstarts might have a chance of coexisting comfortably alongside the superstore streamers.

Jennifer Dorian, General Manager of FilmStruck and Turner Movie Classics, explained that her film-loving coworkers often expressed their dismay at how difficult it was to find films outside of the mainstream to rent or to buy, aside from TCM’s classic offerings. “They felt like there was not a home for those genres, and in fact, that they were very fragmented and spread apart and hard to find. You’d still literally be going to video stores and combing the Internet for hard copies of certain films. So we listened really carefully to that and we thought, wow, this could be the promise of the Internet coming to life for film fans, where we aggregate hard-to-find celebrated films in the foreign, indie and cult space, and make a home for film lovers.”

FilmStruck also differentiates by offering exclusive content—specifically, over 1,000 titles from Criterion, the beloved distributor and licensing company whose logo is a literal seal of approval for film fans. As Dorian pointed out, “Because Turner Classic Movies has been in the film licensing business for 23 years, we have a lot of great relationships, and we have a lot of trust with people… [The Criterion Collection] had been on Hulu for several years, and really liked streaming, but they didn’t like being in a superstore.” Now Criterion films can rub elbows with other auteurs and obscure classics rather than reruns and second-run streaming movies.

In addition to the Criterion titles, FilmStruck also offers a curated library of movies from around the world that are bundled together in themed packages such as “Icons,” “The Masters,” and Palme d’Or winners. FilmStruck membership also includes access to an exclusive video series called Observations on Film Art, which features discussions of classic movies by the authors of Film Art, the seminal film school text.

Shudder, which is owned by AMC, also offers horror fans a highly curated experience. Shudder seeks out daring, obscure films that horror fans crave. Shudder’s most recent coup was acquiring the streaming rights to the uncut version of The Devils, a legendary banned film that has never before been available in the United States in this uncensored version. Shudder has also moved into the acquisition business, snapping up rights to the offbeat British film Prevenge and the Scandinavian TV drama Jordskott. Like FilmStruck, Shudder also offers creatively themed collections—categories include “Alien Intruders,” “Romantic Bloodsuckers,” and “Smart Slashers”—and guest curators. Plus, anyone can tune into to watch a spooky movie for free.

BritBox, which was created by BBC & ITV in association with AMC, gives American Anglophiles the opportunity to stream their favorite cheeky shows, old and new. The site offers fans a variety of British comedies, mysteries, and dramas, as well as the first 26 seasons(!) of Doctor Who. However, the real draw is the ability to stream new UK shows within a day of their overseas premiers.

Streaming hopefuls are putting energy into targeted marketing efforts, online and off. “We’re sponsoring the Telluride Film Festival, we were at South by Southwest, we were at Sundance Film Festival.” Dorian says it’s important to go where the influencers and community already are with a targeted, grassroots approach. “You have to earn your reputation with the community,” he says.

Small platforms have a tool that faceless mega-streamers can’t use: personality. FilmStruck’s host Alicia Malone is a well-known film journalist with a sizeable following on YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. Meanwhile, Shudder’s most forward-facing programmer is Sam Zimmerman, who cut his teeth in horror journalism. Their guest curators include celebrated directors like Joe Dante, Larry Fessenden, and Karyn Kusama, as well as actors like scream queen Barbara Crampton and superfan/comic Kumail Nanjiani.

While there’s something to be said for a wide selection of wares, bigger isn’t always better. Who hasn’t spent twenty minutes blankly clicking through the different Netflix genres trying to find something worth seeing? Boutique services like FilmStruck and Shudder provide enthusiastic fan communities and passionate, algorithm-free curation, features that big streamers aren’t naturally equipped to provide. Although not everyone can partner with an AMC or BBC, there are countless niches in every market to be filled. It’s still early days for these streaming contenders, but the niche audiences seeking alternatives are out there. As long as they can provide enough homespun charm, they just might be able to coexist peacefully alongside big box behemoths.

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