Criterion Channel Programmer Penelope Bartlett on What Goes into Curating Classic Cinema

     April 8, 2019

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Today, The Criterion Channel goes live. For those who were bummed when FilmStruck shut down last year, The Criterion Channel comes roaring back as a way to see classic, independent, and foreign language movies that aren’t available anywhere else. Additionally, rather than relying on algorithms to try and guess what the viewer should watch next, Criterion Channel uses real people and their film expertise to curate lineups. What a concept!

I had the pleasure of speaking to programmer Penelope Bartlett last week about The Criterion Channel. During our discussion, we talked about what goes into programming a lineup, working with their wealth of special features, the value of letting people curate movies instead of algorithms, people she’s excited to highlight on the channel, bringing more attention to female filmmakers and filmmakers of color, and much more. Check out the full interview below. The Criterion Channel is now available on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, iOS, and Android and Android TV devices.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Image via Criterion Channel

What went into programming Columbia Noir? Because obviously Criterion Channel has more than just 11 noir films. So how do you whittle it down to say these are the 11 we want to focus on for this program?

PENELOPE BARTLETT: Well one thing that was important to us from the onset was the channel was to show it’s not just about our library, the Janus Library, which is a huge library of amazing films. But we also really wanted to continue the mission that we had started with FilmStruck of also showcasing the best of world cinema, classic Hollywood cinema. So this seemed like a really great series to showcase our ongoing commitment to programming and Hollywood cinema.

Then we just started to do our research. We became really sort of fascinated by the diversity and the richness of the noir films that came out of Columbia Studios between the mid 40s and the early 60s. Then it was really what we tried to do with our series is make them, of course, rich and varied. But also manageable so people can get through all of the films.

So we’re trying not to present a series with 25 or 30 titles, but to sort of streamline and curate. Because we think often people are sort of overwhelmed by the amount of choices of things that there are to watch. So what we really want to do is curate things down to a point where you can actually watch all of the films. And really enjoy them. And they sort of tell a story as well.

What I like about this is that some streaming services are more algorithm based, where they try to guess what the user wants. And this is more curation based, where it’s trying to guide someone to say, “I don’t know if you the individual do this, but from a perspective of similar films, these are very much collected.”

BARTLETT: Yeah, 100%. And yes, I’m incredibly lucky that I do actually get to be the person who’s sort of making these with my incredibly talented colleagues. Coming up with the films that are being selected and the supplemental material that we’re making to go along with it and all the special features that we’re known for. Yeah, we absolutely … Exactly what you said, we really want the channel to feel like it was curated thoughtfully by real people, not by algorithms. And it really is. We really are actually sitting here working away, making lists of films, putting them together in thoughtful ways.

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