Library Cards Unlock Film Vaults
By GLENN KENNY SEPT. 1, 2017
Edward Furlong, left, and Willem Dafoe in the 2000 prison drama “Animal Factory,” directed by Steve Buscemi. Thomas Roma/Silver Nitrate Releasing
A few years ago, back when video rental stores were still around but clearly an endangered species (Tower Records had shut down, Blockbuster was in trouble and Netflix was still dealing in DVDs), I was chatting with a friend, a fellow cinephile experiencing an economic downturn. (As it happened, he had worked for Tower.) It was difficult to keep up with classic releases on home video, particularly stuff from the Criterion Collection, he said, but fortunately for him titles would eventually turn up at his local public library. And he didn’t have to wait long for them either, since few people in his New Jersey town (which had once been mine) were keen on art or foreign films.
People lucky enough to have a good amount of disposable income (or bad enough at managing money) don’t often think of the library as a home entertainment option. Yet I know a lot of people who have Netflix, Amazon Prime or cable with a lot of premium channels, who will balk at shelling out an extra six or seven or eight bucks a month for a more curated movie streaming service. For them, there is a solution, and all they need is their library card.
Anyone who has a New York Public Library or Brooklyn Library card now have free access to Kanopy, a streaming service that has a library of 30,000 movies, hundreds of them from the Criterion Collection.
The service is also free if you are affiliated with a college or university, either as a professor or a student. Kanopy, which is accessible as an app on Roku and Android and iOS devices, and as a website, is available to 477 public libraries and 1,424 learning institutions across the United States.
Kanopy’s offerings vary depending on where you live. Some collections and some titles may not be available at all; some may be available to an education-affiliated account but not to a public library-affiliated account. The New York Public Library version of the service offers 420 movies from the Criterion Collection’s deep library of international classics (from directors including Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin) and contemporary art house films.
Kanopy works like a standard paid streaming service, with limitations. Just as when you take a book out from the library and have a circumscribed amount of time to keep it, so it is with the movies here. Once you press “play” on a given movie, you have three days to watch it, as many times as you like, which uses up one play credit. The number of play credits for each user is determined by the library to which the membership is attached, not by the service. The New York Public Library offers Kanopy users 10 play credits a month. (Members affiliated with educational institutions get unlimited plays.)
Scrolling down the home page of the app version is awe-inspiring. In horizontal rows, 18 categories are presented, beginning with Criterion films. The others include “Popular Documentaries,” “Independent Films,” “World Cinema,” “Staff Picks,” “Audience Picks,” “New York Times Critics’ Picks” and my favorite, “Films Starring Actors From ‘Game of Thrones.’” There’s a fair amount of cross-categorization — you have to scroll far into “Classic Cinema” before you find a non-Criterion title. I was struck, and not in a bad way, by the occasional randomness of the selection. The unsophisticated but often laugh-out-loud funny 1977 anthology comedy “Kentucky Fried Movie” is here. As is the underrated 2000 prison drama “Animal Factory,” directed by Steve Buscemi and starring Willem Dafoe. As is “Boondock Saints,” an elaborate 1999 boondoggle of a crime picture that has somehow managed to attract a cult, also starring Mr. Dafoe.
In a phone interview, I asked Olivia Humphrey, Kanopy’s founder and chief executive, about such results. Many of the titles on the site are added via a “search and find” feature. College professors who need particular movies to assign to their students request titles, and Kanopy looks for them and tries to secure licensing rights.
Licensing movies is a byzantine business. I know of an independent DVD label owner whose inquiries into various obscure and hard-to-find titles in studio vaults was met with the response that the films were of such low priority that it wasn’t even worth it to do the paperwork to create an agreement. Ms. Humphrey told me that Kanopy had about 40 percent success with its searches, which is impressive, all things considered. “And yes, the challenge is usually not in finding the movie but in acquiring the rights,” she said. (I inferred from our chat that the presence of the two wildly disparate Dafoe films might have been because of some American academic researching the actor’s work.)
The site is a library vendor, not a nonprofit, and it splits revenues 50-50 with its licensees. This encourages the licensee to keep the movie on Kanopy for a long time, as it can yield a steady revenue stream. “We like to have full transparency with our licensees,” Ms. Humphrey said. “They are able to log on at any time and see how their titles are doing.”
She began the company in her native Australia in 2008. “My background was in film studios there,” she explained. “I became aware that universities that wanted to add film to their core curriculum had very little available in terms of resources. I saw college libraries with dusty DVDs and 16-millimeter cans on their shelves, so I wanted to create a way to address that.” She moved the company’s headquarters to the United States about four years ago, “mainly because the interest we were getting was largely from American institutions.”
Ms. Humphrey is gratified by how the site has been growing, and she sees Kanopy’s role in the academic world as going substantially beyond providing course resources: “At this time in their lives young people are challenging assumptions, and we try to stay relevant by offering material related to that.” She cites issues of identity as crucial to students, and points out “we have a lot of movies that address that.” As a cinephile herself, she is fervent about spreading the love. “I like to think of a whole world of other students, not enrolled in film school, watching Criterion titles,” she said. “We’re hopefully encouraging them to press ‘play’ on movies they have never heard of.”