Since February of 2011, Hulu has played host to the ne plus ultra of classy home video companies: The Criterion Collection, manufacturer of high-end editions of everything from The Seven Samurai to Godzilla. But sharp-eyed viewers taking in Criterion's 101 Days of Summer festival on the provider may have noticed something unusual about the lineup: it includes movies you can't buy on DVD or Blu-Ray.
Yes, Criterion has gorgeous restorations of Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent and David Lynch's debut film Eraserhead; they just don't sell them to the likes of you. In all seriousness, it's less that Criterion is hoarding pristine copies of classic movies and more that the company can't crank out discs fast enough. "Once we discovered that we were able to get good-quality masters but Criterion could only put out so many discs a month, it was a perfect opportunity to make sure the films could be seen," said Janus Films' Sarah Finklea (Janus handles non-retail distribution for Criterion, which is Janus's sister company).
Ask any advertiser why digital CPMs are so low compared to television, and some will hem and haw about measurement, but many more will tell you frankly that digital content is perceived as built cheap and stacked high. Practically the entire appeal of Criterion is that they don't lightly put the company stamp on something, and they're ad-supported on Hulu for the first time ever: the streaming service puts up a new exclusive flick every few days, and it has interstitial ads. If you've got a Hulu Plus subscription, all of the Criterion offerings are available without ads.
Janus and Criterion are taking the digital distribution very seriously, but they're also happy to have a digital alternative—the DVD market collapsed extravagantly a few years ago and Criterion's own digital-only service was "short-lived" by the company's own admission. Hulu is helping the company to make a transition into digital content in much the same way that it had to evolve from a Laserdisc publisher to a DVD publisher in the 90s.
"We're providing the best-quality master that we can access at that time—most of the time it's in HD [meaning it's higher-quality than a DVD]," said Finklea. "It depends on your connection, and whether things will stream through. We're doing our best to make sure they get the best-quality masters. Sometimes something will come up on Criterion and we'll switch it out for a better-quality master." Film buffs who want to have, say, their own private festival of obscure Satyajit Ray flicks or the student films of David Lynch can now do exactly that.
Starting today, Hulu will unveil its latest project with Criterion: a week's worth of films from the World Cinema Foundation, an organization that maintains the integrity of foreign films from cultures with great movies but lousy archivists. It's a project championed by no less than Martin Scorsese, who tells you more about it here: