Hulu for film geeks? Criterion Collection launches new streaming-video "online cinemateque"!


Spoiler alert: if you're a film geek, the rest of your work day is about to go up in flames. 

Criterion launched a long-awaited new web site this morning, taking the first step towards digital distribution for the most coveted catalogue in film. Warning: It's still in wicked beta. But the plan is to let users stream full-length movies -- as well as Criterion's extras, from the accompanying essays to the directors' commentaries, behind-the-scenes vids, and short features -- on demand. For launch, there's a limited number of full-movie streams, a ton of trailers, and more essays than you can possibly read in 2009 (from the notes to their first-ever laser-disc, a 1984 reissue of Citizen Kane that set the standard for home-market film scholarship, to Scorcese going apeshit for Bottle Rocket). If you're into top 10 lists, there's a ton of suggestions by everyone from Frank Kozik and Neil Labute to Jane Campion and Richard Linklatter. Here's the catch: for the streams, there's a price attached -- $5 per film for a week's worth of unlimited viewing, via a download that's apparently DRM'd to self-destruct after the rental period is up. (Note: we haven't tried it yet.) Supplemental vids are expected to be going up soon, with a price point around $1.50. No, it's probably not going to replace your Netflix membership anytime soon. And yes, $5 is a little on the pricey side for an industry that's rapidly embracing the free-online-content model, but: 1) read the next graph, they're not stupid; 2) you can put your rental charges towards purchase of actual Criterion DVDs, a la rent-to-own; and 3) Criterion has always been the Rolls-Royce of DVD imprints, so they're probably guessing their audience will pay a little extra for quality. 

We're burying the lead here a little, because as it happens, Criterion is also embracing free by partnering with an upstart Palo Alto film-geek social network, Registered users can watch rotating, Criterion-curated online "film festivals" for free -- currently it's a Telluride Film Festival retrospective -- and yes, that means full-length features. The film festivals are ad-supported -- but the ads are trailers, and there's only one of them (at least that's how we found it when we went to watch the 1922 Buster Keaton classic Cops this morning), which is better than a movie theater and comparable to, say, Hulu -- only with WAAAAAAY better films, obviously.

Which begs the question, Why not do the same thing on the Criterion site itself? Our sources tell us the two sites are sharing revenue, so it may not matter in the end: Criterion is positioned to be a helluva retail hub, not to mention a valuable film-criticism library (did we mention: more cinema essays than you could read in a year?), and maybe they'll make a dent with online rentals . . . and if not, they've already got a stake in the free-distro model at TheAuteurs. Design-wise, both sites are stark, sleek, movie-star pretty. They were jointly designed by the folks behind TheAuteurs, and they're tied together with some seriously enviable feature-sharing -- for instance, Criterion's catalog links directly to TheAuteurs' forums, and at this point it looks like most of TheAuteurs' film content is powered by Criterion's data and video.

With the sites barely online, it's probably a little early for wish lists, but we're gonna make a quick one anyway: Hulu's player feels like it's gonna be the industry standard, so we'd love to see the trailers and free movies become embeddable -- even if the freebies expire after Criterion's limited-time "film festivals" cycle off. We're also assuming that TheAuteurs will eventually let us list favorite directors who aren't in their (Criterion's?) database: someone let us give a shout-out to DA Pennebaker, plz! 

Come back after you check it out and let us know what you think . . . and if you sign up for TheAuteurs, we need some more friends. Hint, hint. 

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