Behind the Screens: Filmstruck SVP of Programming and Production, Charlie Tabesh

Filmstruck, a new collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Channel.

Filmstruck, a new collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Channel. Photo via Filmstruck

Welcome to “Behind the Screens” a new feature where we interview the people who make the decisions about what the most influential arthouse and indie theaters in New York and beyond put on their screens. Along the way, we’ll uncover some of the challenges, thrills, and secrets of the trade and, hopefully, get a sense of what gives the American cinematic landscape its unique identity.

When news broke earlier this year that the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies (the gold standards of art house home video and television, respectively) would be teaming up to create a subscription streaming service, film buffs were intrigued, but a little confused. After all, Hulu had carried Criterion’s movies for five years, giving its huge subscriber base the opportunity to check out classics by filmmakers like Kurosawa and Fellini for perhaps the first time. Why reinvent the wheel? Well, as it turns out, the wheel really did need reinventing. While most streaming services settle for throwing a whole bunch of movies at subscribers with no real rhyme or reason, Filmstruck brings top-notch curation and even special features like commentary tracks to the table, creating a truly innovative streaming experience.  Because the app is split between the Turner Classic Movies-programmed Filmstruck and the Criterion Channel, we conducted interviews with representatives of both sets of programmers. This week, we chat with Charlie Tabesh, Senior Vice President of Programming and Production for Turner Classic Movies and Filmstruck. Check back next week for our talk with Criterion Collection President Peter Becker.

Observer: How did the partnership between Criterion and TCM come about? Who approached who and was the idea always to create a streaming service?

Charlie Tabesh: Well, I’ve worked with Criterion for over 20 years and have had a good, long relationship with them, obviously long before streaming or anything else. Especially after I started at TCM 19 years ago, there was always kind of a sense that we had the same basic approach or attitude towards our businesses and our audiences and towards film. As the industry began to evolve, we had conversations about what would happen to our different businesses. They were primarily home video, we’re primarily TV, and I don’t think, for a long time, the idea of those two coming together in some way was ever really part of the plan. At some point it started to become more realistic and from the Turner side, we had decided that we were really happy with TCM and our audience and our business, but we thought with streaming becoming such an important part of the way movies presented, we decided from Turner’s perspective, there was a place here for art house service. It was then, about a year and a half ago, that the conversation with Criterion became a little more concrete. They had some things that were very important to them, like launching their own Criterion Channel in addition to Filmstruck, which we’re obviously launching now. So we were able to make it work in a way that would make them happy and worked out great for us because if we were going to do an art house service, they would be the most important partner you could have.

Was there anything about the way that the Criterion films were presented on Hulu that you wanted to approach differently?

Definitely. Not just Criterion on Hulu, but generally, the way movies are presented on streaming services. I’ve always found that on most services, the selection seemed somewhat haphazard. I never got a sense why the movies that are there are available to me now. With Hulu, they had the whole Criterion Collection. As they got more and more movies, they did try to do some basic themes up on the front, but they didn’t have any special features, any explanations of why that scene was there, any kind of sense that there was a lot of curation, any significant curation behind the scenes. That was one thing that we thought from the very start that we could bring that Hulu wasn’t bringing. The second thing was that, while without question Criterion is the most important partner we have, we didn’t want to be limited to just Criterion. Hulu just had the Criterion Collection. You might want something from the Criterion Collection, but you might also want some other art house movies too and they weren’t really doing that. We want to be a comprehensive art house service, so we want to license a lot of other independent studios. We want to make it so we can explore a director or a theme or an actor or a cinematographer in a way we couldn’t do if we were tied to any specific library.  

So are you looking to bring in more recent movies, just like how Netflix is bringing in movies that were in the art houses maybe a year before?  

First of all, if you’re talking about at launch any sort of first-run movies, probably not likely. Not in any sort of theatrical window. I think at some point we will get there, but we’re not there yet. There’s certainly no age, whether it be older or newer. We’ll show silent films, we’ll show movies from last year, we’ll show documentaries, we’ll do whatever we think is in service to whatever part of film history we want to explore at that time. So, yeah, over time, there might be an opportunity for us to get movies that are just coming off a theatrical run. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. There are movies that came out in the last couple of years that are playing now.

One thing you’ve talked about already is the difference between Filmstruck Channel versus Criterion Channel. Can you talk a little about the difference in philosophy? Is there a different set of programmers for each one?

Yeah, there are different programmers, although we’re coordinating pretty closely with them. For Filmstruck, it’s very thematically driven. Any and every movie you see on the service will be there because it’s part of a theme or part of some slice of cinema history that we think is worth putting together with other films. It will have our own editorial voice. It will have our own documentaries. It will also have its own bonus material. The other thing is, on Filmstruck, as I was saying before, you’ll be getting a subset of the Criterion Collection at any given time. We might have 200 Criterion movies up, mixed in with 300 from other sources. If you go to the Criterion Channel, there you’ll have the entire Criterion library at your fingertips. All 1200 or 1300 or whatever that number is in their catalog at any given time. You’ll have their editorial voice. You’ll have some original programs, and they’ll take advantage of their relationships with filmmakers from over the years for special presentations. So you’ll get two different services with different editorial perspectives, although they’ll both be very complementary with each other.

One thing clearly carried over from TCM is the inclusion of host introductions, featuring people like Bill Hader and Alicia Malone, which really do such a good job of contextualizing what you’re about to watch, especially for movies that come from different cultures and time periods. What is the process of putting those together?

We have a great production team and a great talent team, and so what we try to do is every theme is assigned to a producer, and the producer will decide…To go back to your earlier point, by the way, that context is really important. If you’re just going to put up a movie without explaining anything, it’s much less meaningful. So it’s up to the producer to decide the best approach, maybe given the resources we have or given the content we might have access to. Should we produce a mini-documentary? Should we have one of our hosts do it? Should we go out and get someone else? We got Mike Leigh to narrate a piece about his films and the way he makes films and what makes them successful according to him. So then the producers will work with the talent team on approaching talent or they’ll put together their own team. In addition, we’re going to enrich it more with photo galleries and articles and text, so if on the app, you want to read an article, that’ll be available soon. I guess there are different ways we can bring that context in, depending on a particular theme and what’s available to us. And that’ll be up to each individual producer. But ultimately, we want to make sure there’ll be some sort of explanation and background offered for each film.

Something exciting I noticed on the Criterion side is the use of commentary tracks. Obviously, they have a wealth of commentary tracks that they’ve made over the years. Is that something you’re looking to do on your side, as well?

100%. Anything that Criterion has, we will have, as well. In other words, if there’s a film with a commentary track and it’s in their library, first of of all, it’ll be on the Criterion Channel, but whenever that film plays on Filmstruck, it will also have the commentary track. And we’ll be getting commentary tracks from other distributors, as well.

That’s something I’ve never seen on a streaming service before.

I don’t even know how they do it. It’s amazing because you can just toggle on and off the commentary while you’re watching the film. It’s really, really great. It’s a very new feature that they’ve been able to put up there that I’ve never seen at all.

Are there any movies right now that you were surprised to be able to get the rights to or able to get your hands on that you’re particularly excited to share with people?

First of all, there are some really obscure things I’m really excited about, like this Russian television series called Seventeen Moments of Spring, which is one of the most important television series in the history of the Soviet Union that I don’t think has ever been seen in the US. Things like that are really exciting. But then getting the rights to some movies just from all the different studios. We’re working on deals that aren’t 100% complete yet that I can’t talk about, but we’re down to the wire. I’m trying to think of some examples I have coming up, like there’s a great neo-noir festival and I’m really excited about some films from that, like Thief by Michael Mann. But I guess I get more excited about the kind of different themes we’re offering.

In terms of programming, how does working on the service differ from programming the Turner Classic Movies channel?

Some things are very similar. I think the underlying kind of philosophy in terms of trying to be thematic and curated and thoughtful, but of course, the mechanics are very different. The model, on the channel, you’re filling 24 hours a day, you know how much time there is, you know how many slots you need, how much you’re gonna fill. Here, it’s much more variable, and you have to build a model where you have people coming in and out a certain number of times in order to build a base that’ll get to a certain level you want. It’s almost like a horizontal versus vertical or something. It’s a little bit of a shift in thinking. There’s definitely different types of math skills involved in building the model, but the fundamentals are very similar. We hope people think of Filmstruck as a service that, if they’re interested in cinema, they need to have. Just like if you have cable, we would hope that you would need to have TCM. The goal is the same, the attitude’s the same, but the mechanics are certainly different.

You’re dealing with such a huge, huge library. Obviously, it’s not expected that one person has seen everything, but how many programmers are you working with? Do the programmers have specific areas like Asian film or does each person just take something that they’re interested in in general?

No, definitely, nobody’s seen everything. There are about 6 programmers on our staff and sometimes what happens is we might know one or two films from a certain director and then we’ll offer more from that director. It’s more about reading up enough about the films and wanting to, based on what we know, feeling comfortable enough to display more of the films, even if we haven’t seen them, because we think that’s an interesting director whose work is worth going into. There are definitely people who have more expertise in certain areas for sure. It’s also true that I and everyone else is learning as we’re going and that’s part of the fun of the job, so I mentioned Seventeen Moments of Spring. I had just been contacted by a Russian distributor who had sent me a massive list of films and content and I happened to read about that and thought, “That sounds interesting” and I asked for a screener. I never would have heard of that if they hadn’t sent me that list in the first place. We obviously watch as much as we can, but there are films that are not watched in their entirety, but we still think are worth playing based on other information, but of course, there’s always enough that we feel comfortable with it.

Are there plans right now to offer original content that’s not strictly supplementary to the films in the library? Or I should say, is there anything that you wouldn’t count as an extra for a movie, but you would count as a Filmstruck original something or other?

Well, we’re not quite at the point where we’d do a long-form thing, but I think we’ll get there. But we are at a place where, say, we’re looking at documentaries. As an example, something we did at TCM a few years ago, The Story of Film, which was a 12-part documentary out of the UK, and we thought it was great and interesting. And around that 12-part documentary, we built programming events with films from all around the world. There are documentaries like that that we’ve been looking at to provide an impetus or a playground for us to work around. So if you see a documentary, whether it’s original or not, we’re going to put programming around it, because that’s just what we do. So I guess, to answer your question, there may be documentaries that are either acquired or, someday perhaps, originally produced.

One thing that’s been a struggle with Netflix over the years has been that movies disappear over time, so you never quite know when the movies are going to be there. Is there an effort to try to keep movies on as long as possible or is there going to be a kind of cycling, like with Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, for instance?

CS: Yeah, there is a cycling. Not on the Criterion Channel, but yeah, on Filmstruck. The model is basically 6 months. So a theme will come up and when a theme comes up, all the movies that are associated with the theme will come up at the same time and you’ll basically have 6 months to dive into that and hopefully that will give you enough time. We just can’t, for rights reasons and, somewhat creative reasons, but more rights, it’s just impossible to keep things up and playing forever.

Would you say your main goal for Filmstruck is to create a streaming service with a unique personality?

Yeah, very much so. There are human beings behind the scenes putting this together. I don’t think you get that feeling from any other service. And I think we want to do something different that gets people to understand and appreciate that, and hopefully that will be a value to them.

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