Peter Becker has done about as much for film culture as anyone still working in film culture.
The Criterion Collection president has helped to foster the discovery, restoration and/or distribution of hundreds of classic films, some of which would have been otherwise lost.
Becker, who will discuss films and film preservation with Alexander Payne at a local event this weekend, has worked for the distribution company Criterion for 25 years and has been the president for nearly as long. Criterion, founded in 1984, has been at the vanguard of home video, standardizing such staples as the letterbox format, special features and commentary tracks. Over the years, the company has brought foreign, classic and independent films to movie connoisseurs through LaserDiscs, DVDs, Blu-rays and, now, streaming. FilmStruck, Turner Classic Movies’ subscription service, has become the online home to the Criterion Collection.
“We’ve always seen our company driven by a mission rather than a medium or market,” Becker said. “The idea was basically to foster an audience of people who love movies and connect them with the movies that they love through any means that made sense.”
The mission hasn’t really changed. Medium is incidental.
“All that matters,” he said, “is that when you approach a new medium, you say, ‘What can I do with it?’ ”
The curated subscription service FilmStruck is a perfect example of how Criterion continues to innovate. As streaming decimates the DVD market, commentary tracks have likewise begun to peter out. But not at FilmStruck, where the (admittedly nerdy) art form lives on. It’s one of the few places in the streaming world where extensive supplemental film materials still exist.
(Currently, the least expensive film school in the U.S. is a subscription to FilmStruck.)
“We are really are trying to make something we wish existed in the world,” Becker said. “That’s why we’ve done everything we’ve ever done.”
Besides its low-key technological innovations, one of the more remarkable aspects of the Criterion Collection is the eclectic array of films the company licenses and releases.
“People always say, ‘What’s the criterion for the Criterion Collection?’ ” Becker said. “We say we really want these to be exemplary films of their kind, but we don’t want to be snobby about what kinds of films can be exemplary.”
So while the Criterion Collection (which is now up to more than 900 films) includes such undisputed masterpieces as “The Rules of the Game” and “The Seven Samurai” and “The Apu Trilogy,” it also includes “Armageddon” and “RoboCop” and “Tootsie.” This summer, Criterion will release a feature-packed edition of “Bull Durham.”
Time period, genre, awards tally and box office don’t matter to the Criterion Collection. The chief criterion is: Is it good? Is it important?
“My idea of a bad film experience,” Becker said, “is anything that feels like a waste of time. I like my experiences of movies to carry on long after I’ve left the theater and to be part of my world and my thinking and my conversations. Those are the kinds of films we seek out.”
Films like Alexander Payne movies. Last year, “Election” became the first Payne film to be released on Criterion. The disc included a Payne commentary and new interviews with the director and the film’s star, Reese Witherspoon.
But Payne has been a part of the Criterion family for a while now. He’s helped curate films, provide interviews and other materials. He and Becker are close friends. (As everyone knows, movie friendship is the best friendship.)
“Alexander is a genuine film lover,” Becker said. “We’ve just been going to the movies in the same places for a really long time.”
Payne is, Becker said, “one of the most clear-eyed and adventurous movie-lovers that I’ve ever met. He has a real eye and ear for things that have originality.”
Over the years, they’ve continued to talk about the films they love and how to save them. Saturday’s event will just be the latest chapter in that conversation.