Even in a normal year, arts and culture snobs are not easy to buy gifts for. If your gift is too low-brow, they’ll hate it. If it’s too high-brow, they probably already own it. And don’t even think about a middle-brow gift, unless you want to be quietly judged for your lack of imagination. Normally, you might just toss them a pair of tickets to the opera and be done with it, but oh wait, it’s 2020.
So what to do for that discerning culture consumer in your life? A gift subscription to a niche streaming video service may be the perfect solution. The last few years have ushered in a golden age for all sorts for live-streaming and on-demand video services, and many are aimed at specialized audiences, from fans of independent cinema and classic films to lovers of musical theater and dance. When the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of live event spaces in March, many performing arts organizations also ramped up their online video offerings.
The great thing about online video is you don’t have to worry about shipping it. Streaming service subscriptions are the perfect last-minute gift-buying idea for procrastinators. And if you’re reading this article now, spoiler—you’ve procrastinated! I’ve rounded up some arts-focused streaming services below:
The Criterion Channel
Criterion is a goldmine of classic, foreign, and independent cinema, from pre-code Hollywood to the French New Wave to the indie film revival of the 1990s. It curates its content in collections, usually grouped by director or theme, and offers a ton of bonus commentary and in-depth interviews with movie experts. The TV app is a little buggy, but the movies and extras offered here make for the perfect pandemic-era escape. I personally would not have survived March and April without a nightly dose of meditative comic wisdom from Jacques Tati.
Dubbed “the Netflix of arts and culture” when it first launched in the U.K. in 2018, Marquee TV made its U.S. debut in February just as the coronavirus pandemic was about to strike. The service offers a vast array of music, theater, ballet, contemporary dance, opera, and even documentaries from a variety of performing arts organizations. Start your evening with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and end it with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. There’s really something here for everyone, including a special holiday rental of New York City Ballet performing George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.
National Theatre at Home
After a test run earlier this year in which it offered streaming access to some of its past performances for people on lockdown, London’s National Theatre has launched a permanent on-demand option for British theater connoisseurs. National Theatre at Home lets you watch a number of live productions that were filmed at the U.K.’s premier performing arts organization, with new plays appearing every month along with behind-the-scenes content.
Met Opera On Demand
Backstage drama at New York’s preeminent opera institution has been downright operatic recently, including high-profile #MeToo scandals, reckoning with racism, and ugly battles with labor unions. The Met closed its doors in March when the pandemic struck New York City and eventually canceled its entire 2020-2021 season. The most optimistic outcome is that it reemerges as a better version of itself when the curtain rises again late next year. For now, opera fans who are holding out for better days can stream more than 700 performances from the Met’s back catalogue with a subscription to Met Opera on Demand.
This is the place to be for classical music. It also offers access to hundreds of ballets, master classes, concerts, and documentaries.
When I spoke with the Tony-winning founders of this theater-centric service three years ago, they mentioned some of the logistical challenges of bringing a large library of Broadway content to streaming, not least of which was stubborn resistance from stage purists who insist that you can’t capture the magic of live theater on a screen. Those debates are still with us, but the pandemic has changed the equation. With live Broadway shows shut down, more theater fans than ever are seeking out their favorite plays and musicals wherever they can find me. BroadwayHD has a library of hundreds of shows, and it’s constantly adding new ones.
This is another great one for cinema buffs who just can’t get enough. Mubi has long offered a limited selection of hand-curated independent and foreign flicks. It recently launched an additional service called Library, which includes hundreds of movies from its back catalogue. Its “now showing” section currently runs the gamut, with a collection that spans from South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo and Chile’s Alejandro Jodorowsky to classic Popeye cartoons from Dave Fleischer.
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