The Criterion Channel and the appeal of smart curation

The Criterion Channel has upended my expectations of what a streaming service can be. Smart curation changes everything in a way that makes Netflix feel flat-footed.

It shouldn’t have turned out this way. Years ago I expected the powerhouse streaming trio of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu to be must have destinations for movie content. The ingredients were all there: multi-billion dollar war chests, A list talent, and big tech to drive smart recommendation algorithms. But today it’s a struggle to find a decent movie to watch on any of the three big services. “Netflix original” has become the modern equivalent of a made for TV movie of yesteryear. Occasional highlights do pop up (Roma, Moonlight, You Were Never Really Here, Annihilation, Minding the Gap), but they are few and far between, buried under mostly lukewarm content.

In the face of such poor competition, I signed up for my trial of the Criterion Channel a few weeks ago. But this was more an act of desperation than a vested interest in Criterion’s offerings. I’ve always respected the Criterion Collection’s high bar of quality, but their focus on mostly older “classic” movies I thought would limit their appeal in a subscription form. I also questioned how much being in the right mood would limit the service’s appeal; while access to such luminaries as Ozu and Jarmusch is cool, I didn’t associate their work as something to relax to.

But that all changed after a few days of usage thanks to Criterion’s distinguishing feature, its daily curated collections. A collection’s structure might center around a single person’s work, a genre, or an interview where a director or critic highlights several of their favorite works. Unlike the bundles over at Netflix that tend to be scattershot and algorithmically driven (e.g. “Movies you might like because you saw X”, “Trending”) each of Criterion’s collections are hand programmed and packaged with a lot of thought and care.

Most collections provide a great hook to draw you in, either through a well known person (e.g. Bill Hader, Guillermo del Toro) or film (e.g. Y Tu Mama Tambien, Mulholland Drive) and then mix in more obscure, lesser known works to extend the experience. Given Criterion’s deep back catalog of supplemental material, many collections have bookends around the movies to add extra depth and context. A multi-film collection highlighting Columbia studio noir films opens with a teaser intro from several film critics. Criterion highlights Bugsy Malone for a Saturday matinee and adds an interview with director Sophia Coppola talking about the film’s significance.

Criterion’s ongoing Adventures in Moviegoing series does some of the streaming service’s best work in terms of building a strong self-contained collection. Each episode centers on an interview with a prominent filmmaker alongside several films available for streaming selected by the interview subject. Critically each film highlighted on the Adventures series gets an introduction by the episode interviewee. So instead of just having Blood Simple listed alongside a Guillermo del Toro interview as one of his recommended films, del Toro has his own brief clip talking about why the film is so great.

Aside from the collections themselves, one detail Criterion Channel nails better than the competition is its flexibility around “My List”. Like every other streaming service, My List serves as a space to save content for watching later. But most streaming services only allow you to save discrete movies or shows. Criterion gives additional control by allowing you to save individual show episodes, specific special features associated with a movie, and larger collections of content. At a glance, this may seem minor, but the added flexibility makes it easier to customize your viewing experience, along with making Criterion’s big library of special features and interviews easier to digest. For instance, I’ve seen Mulholland Drive several times, but I haven’t seen an interview with David Lynch and Naomi Watts on the movie, so I just saved that special feature to watch later. I’ve had a good time watching several of the films in the Columbia noir collection, so instead of picking apart individual films I just added the whole collection to My List.

And Criterion Channel doesn’t lean on autoplay the way other streaming sites do. Netflix is the worst offender here, hyping the next movie or episode with a full-screen teaser the moment the credits start. Usually you only have a few seconds to cancel out before the next show begins. Netflix also integrates autoplay into its browsing interface aggressively; if you linger on a possible selection for more than a few seconds you’re blasted with a trailer with sound annoyingly turned on. Criterion, in contrast, keeps it simple. Autoplay is only applicable to collections (already sequenced to watch in succession) and a subtle autoplay timer appears in the familiar browsing interface. All it takes is a tap to abort out and continue on your own way, and you’re given a generous fifteen seconds to do so.

I know many would argue autoplay is a “feature” in the way it keeps viewers engaged, but with Netflix’s interpretation, I’ve found it a noisy distraction from the viewing experience, especially when the recommendations are so poor. It underlines the idea that Netflix et al want me to watch anything to keep me hooked, regardless of quality. And that speaks to a larger reason why Criterion Channel is working so well for me. Smart, varied curation done daily in a way that’s easily digestible. Flexibility to save content based on my viewing habits and tastes. Autoplay that is convenient but not overbearing. These aren’t mind-blowing ideas individually, but seeing them all woven over an already impressive selection of content makes a big difference.