Behind the Screens: Criterion Collection President on Classic Movies in Digital Age

Peter Becker tells us how new channel keeps Special Features special

Criterion Channel on the Filmstruck app
The Criterion Channel on the Filmstruck app. Via Filmstruck/Criterion

Welcome to “Behind the Screens”, where we interview the people who decide what the most influential arthouse and indie theaters in New York 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.

For film fans, the Criterion Collection needs very little introduction. For over three decades, the company has specialized in releasing the most scholarly, best-packaged, and most impeccably produced editions of notable classic and recent films from the U.S. and around the world. After five years of offering its films on Hulu, Criterion recently joined with Turner Classic Movies to create their very own streaming channel within the Filmstruck app. (Click here for our interview with Filmstruck’s Charlie Tabesh). We spoke to Criterion Collection President Peter Becker about his goals for the Criterion Channel, his views on special features (which Criterion essentially invented back in the early ‘80s), and his opinion on how offering films via streaming affects the company’s business model. 

How has the advent of new streaming technology changed the way that Criterion approaches film presentation?

The mission has never changed. The mission has always been to use technology in the most interesting ways we can, to serve our audience and our films, and to try to be creative in the application of technology. Different platforms have different capabilities. The limits of capabilities are our friends, because to make something good, you have to know what’s possible. And then, rather than lament the limits of any platform or technology, you just try to use what it can do in the most interesting way you can. There are lots of things I’d have loved to see happen years ago. Quicktime had the ability to include a text track, for example, going back to 1997 or ’98. You could just type in a phrase and it would take you to that place in the movie on the CD-ROM of, for instance, This is Spinal Tap. You type in “This one goes to 11” and it goes right to that scene. It’s a capability that is not open to us on the channel at the moment. That just happens to be the way that technology works. With the Criterion Channel, we can do so much more than we’ve ever been able to do before, and yet, we can also think of all sorts of things we’d like it to do in the future. This is just the beginning.

Peter Becker, president of the Criterion Collection.
Peter Becker, president of the Criterion Collection. Via Grant Delin

One thing that’s so exciting about the channel is that viewers can finally see a lot of amazing special features that could previously only be seen on out-of-print Criterion editions. Is there anything you’re especially looking forward to sharing again? 

I’ll give you an example that will be available shortly after launch. We’ve designed our programming partly around a weekly rotation. On Friday nights, we’re going to be showing double features. The first double feature will be M and Silence of the LambsSilence of the Lambs has been out-of-print on disc since the early 2000s. It happens to contain one of my favorite commentary tracks we’ve ever recorded. Jodie Foster’s so smart, [director] Jonathan Demme is always great, and the surprise star of the track is this guy, John Douglas, who was an advisor on the film and the Head of Profiling at Quantico. He was basically the head serial killer tracker for the FBI, and the person that the Scott Glenn character is based on in the film. That track is fascinating because it crosses the lines from the nuts and bolts of filmmaking to Jodie Foster’s view of the world, which is filtered through stories of people coming to terms with monsters and heroism, and then this very deeply informed understanding of not only serial killers, but also about the process that Clarice is going through as she’s getting trained and how it’s all applied and how it all feeds together. It’s a really wonderful track that weaves back and forth between cinema, the broader culture, and the specifics of a certain kind of really fascinating procedural work.

That’s interesting because I feel like a lot of DVDs will have multiple commentary tracks, each about a certain aspect of the movie. Do you think it’s better when there’s just one that focuses on a lot of things?

We almost always compose commentary tracks. We’ve never been of the opinion that you can make a commentary track by sitting someone down in front of the movie, recording what they have to say, dropping the “um’s,” and saying you’re done. A commentary interview for us has always been a very interactive process. It’s always been an actual interview. We have goals for our conversation, scene-by-scene, then we go and record way more than we need for almost everything. Finally, we edit a track that works and often that means putting multiple voices together. We have also always felt very respectful of the viewers’ time, and we don’t think volume of supplements is necessarily a good thing. We think that if we can efficiently do the job with a 12-minute piece, there’s no reason there needs to be a 30-minute piece. By that same token, if we can efficiently do the job with one commentary track, we don’t need three commentary tracks. I remember when another Jodie Foster film, Contact, came out. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour film, and it had four commentary tracks. So, to me, it felt like, “I do want to hear what those people have to say, but I really don’t have ten hours, on top of the two-and-a-half hours it takes to watch the movie with its own soundtrack.” The Lambs track was recorded in three separate, individual sessions, but edited together, and there are times when that’s good, and there are times when conversation’s good. There are times when commentary is the right form, and there are times when it’s not. When we did our edition of Blood Simple, there’s a piece on there with Barry Sonnenfeld and the two Coen Brothers that I really love. They have so much to talk about, but the Coen Brothers didn’t want to do it as a commentary track. That format didn’t appeal to them. Another person who’s never done a commentary track and I don’t think ever will is Jim Jarmusch, and we’ve been working with him for years on his films. It’s not that he’s not willing to get involved, but, as he says, commentary doesn’t make sense to him as a form because the structure of his thoughts and memories has nothing to do with the structure of the film that he made. The structure of the film doesn’t reflect the chronology of the film. It doesn’t reflect the procession of ideas that he has when he thinks about the film. Commentary is an inherently inefficient format unless there really is that interplay between what is happening onscreen and the commentary track. Otherwise, you’re creating an arbitrary length of however long the film is, 110 minutes, or something, for something that might, if we didn’t have to fill every minute of screen time, be more efficiently delivered in 30 minutes as a video piece.

Because of rights issues, you can’t offer every single movie ever released by Criterion on the channel, at least at the same time. How many movies do you plan on having up at any given moment?

The idea is, there’s our standing library, the films that we control all rights to, which is a quite large library. Probably 1200 films. That includes the core classics of international cinema, the Fellinis, Ozus, Godards. Those films will always be available on the channel. That’s one of the main selling points of the channel. While Filmstruck is going to be a tightly curated rotation of about 500 films at a time, about 200 of which may be coming from our library at a given moment, that means there are a great many classics that won’t be on Filmstruck at that time, and we think they should always be available. Then, there will be other films that rotate in and out of the service, licensed at varying lengths. That includes titles from major studios and independent rights holders. Those will be incorporated into our programming in various ways. Some of those will be up for only a month. Like, The Silence of the Lambs will be available for a month, but it might come back. Other things we have for three or six months. We’re working on ways to inform people about what the limited engagements are and when they’ll be coming to an end, so no one misses anything they want to see.

Is the channel going to change the way you inducted movies into the Criterion Collection when you could only offer a DVD/Blu-ray edition? 

For sure. Our flagship line, the Blu-ray, is still the best way to watch a movie. No matter how great the streaming is on Filmstruck and the Criterion Channel, it’s still going to be more compressed than it would be on Blu-ray. Just to get it through the pipe into someone’s home, there’s a lot of magic that happens. It looks great. That said, the definitive, the maximal data, least compression, highest-fidelity image and sound is still the Blu-ray line. The physical object is also still very much a part of our consciousness. On the other hand, the channel frees us to be able to connect our audience with films we might either not have rights to put in physical media or that we want to be able to show in conjunction with another film we do control, as part of a double feature or a “short and feature” combination or as part of a curated series that someone has selected. So there’s going to be titles flowing through the service that we think are going to be rewarding experiences for our audience, but that are not necessarily coming out on disc. There are also going to be titles in our library that are worthy of people’s attention, but might not be able to muscle their way into the Criterion physical media schedule or necessarily survive in the tougher physical media marketplace. It’s allowed us to put our finger on the scale for a lot of different kinds of films that we have always wanted to connect our audience with, but previous marketplace realities had not necessarily been able to support them.

It’s tricky because of the price issue. Many people are not necessarily going to “blind buy” a Criterion Collection movie they’ve never heard of for 40 something dollars. 

Well, I’m going to give you an example right now that everyone should “blind buy.” It’s called The Executioner by Luis Garcia Berlanga. Berlanga is the least-known great master that we’ve run across since [Soviet filmmaker] Larissa Shepitko, whose career was cut very short because she died young. But Berlanga had a long and quite prolific and extraordinary career. He is considered by most cinephiles in Spain to be certainly one of two greatest Spanish filmmakers that ever lived. The other being Bunuel. His film, The Executioner, I highly recommend as a blind buy for anyone that might be interested in hearing a really powerful cinematic voice. It’s the blackest black comedy, as well as a political statement about capital punishment. Very funny, very dark, beautifully turned. Beautifully shot. Almost completely unknown in the U.S. Absolutely, we will still be putting it out there in a normal $39.95 special edition and we will still be putting our energy and passion behind that to get that thing into people’s homes and on their shelves, where we think it belongs. But at the same time, we’ll be able to program, on the channel, a whole series of Berlanga films that will follow The Executioner and will ultimately make their onto an Eclipse set on physical media. For now, we can draw some attention to him and create a channel-specific introduction and supplement that will allow people to poke around in his amazing body of work. That, to us, is hugely liberating.

Behind the Screens: Criterion Collection President on Classic Movies in Digital Age