Kanopy Streaming

Interview: Olivia Humphrey on Bringing the Arthouse to Your House — for Free — with Kanopy

Amidst all the messages that Kanopy CEO Olivia Humphrey has received in the past few weeks, there was one in particular that piqued her interest.

“We just got an e-mail from someone who’s 94 years old in L.A. who said I just watched a film I haven’t seen since the ‘60s and had no idea this film was available commercially let alone on my TV right now,’ ” says Humphrey, speaking so excitedly you’re not sure if she’s merely relaying the customer’s enthusiasm or her own. “Having that massively diverse audience is something really intriguing and I treat it a bit like a treasure box.”

You could describe Kanopy the same way as a service, including the fact that it isn’t widely known yet. Since Humphrey founded the company in 2008, the streaming platform has had a relatively low profile because its availability was limited to the educational market, providing schools and universities with academically-oriented films, ranging from instructional nursing and counseling videos to Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Aventura.” But this past year, the company has quietly extended its reach by making its 30,000 title-strong collection available as part of the online offerings of over 200 public libraries across the country, covering many major U.S. cities. While the new initiative was launched in February starting with the Los Angeles Public Library, it was an innocent Twitter exchange in July between Matt Zoller Seitz and Manohla Dargis about streaming platforms, in which the New York Times critic brought up Kanopy as a way to access much of the Criterion Collection for free, that sent out the bat signal to film buffs.

Kanopy CEO Olivia Humphrey
Kanopy CEO Olivia Humphrey

“It’s been a really exciting few weeks,” says Humphrey. “From my perspective, Kanopy has been available to five million users across the world for quite a long time now and it’s been an interesting evolution where we think [we have] an amazing platform with incredible films, [but] primarily because only professors or students were able to access it, it was always very difficult to me when students left school and they called up and said, “I’ve lost my access to my library because I’m no longer a student. I’ve graduated. How do I get access to Kanopy?’ And we’ve had to say, ‘We can’t’ until now.”

Even a quick glance at Kanopy’s selection reveals why former students were reluctant to part with it. While much of the recent attention has surrounded the service’s considerable Criterion Collection titles, the company has assiduously courted some of the finest boutique labels out there to build up an eclectic and extensive array of well-established classics and deep cuts for those who feel they’ve seen everything.

With arthouse heavyweights onboard such as Kino Lorber, Strand Releasing, Oscilloscope, Music Box Films and the Cohen Media Group, films like Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Alps” and “Dogtooth,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us” are instantly accessible, but with a host of deals with lesser-known license holders, you can also dig into “Sing,” the endearing Oscar winner for Best Short Film from Hungary, catch up with Paul Harrill’s “Something, Anything,” or dive into the back catalog of underground mischief-maker Mark Rappaport. From the silent era-specialists at Flicker Alley (Abel Gance’s “La Roue,” King Vidor’s “Bardelys The Magnificent”) to the bleeding-edge indie distributor Factory 25 (Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine,” Sophia Takal’s “Green”), the breadth of Kanopy’s partnerships is impressive, but its natural focus on higher education has yielded a caliber of provocative titles unique among streaming platforms.

“Our core collection has [always] been films that resonate with that millennial market, which has [led to] a lot of films around identity,” says Humphrey. “People go to school not only to learn the one thing they’re enrolled into, [but] it’s a time of challenging their views on the world, of self-development, of trying to find their way in the world, so anything around this identity concept has always done very well on Kanopy.”

Humphrey found her own identity professionally while working in the non-theatrical department of Roadshow Films in Australia, known on U.S. shores for financing such films as “The Matrix.” Tasked with finding proper distribution for indie films, documentaries, world cinema and kids’ programming destined for a home outside of multiplexes, Humphrey’s number-crunching led to some revelations about underserved audiences, particularly within within the academic market.

“While I was looking towards various sales channels, education seemed like an obvious one to me and that millennial group, really 18-30 year-olds watched more films even back then than any other [demographic], but the films just weren’t available on campus,” recalls Humphrey. “That didn’t just didn’t make sense to me, considering students respond so well to film and there’s just so much magnificent film available, so that really gave me the idea of Kanopy in 2008, really to address this gap, having no idea that it would become what it is today.”

Initially, Kanopy supplied DVDs to college campuses, but soon pivoted to streaming, all the while cultivating relationships with distributors that has led to thousands of films often of high quality but limited reach being readily accessible to millions of users at no cost to them. By becoming a part of the institutions’ operating costs as any other resource that would be acquired, the company has developed a savvy business model where the consumer isn’t asked to pay, but the filmmakers are compensated fairly. (Like other streaming services, Kanopy is paid per minute watched of the films they’re licensed and Humphrey is proud to say over half of that revenue goes to the filmmaker.)

With the recent surge of attention, the company is already fielding more requests from libraries inquiring about bringing Kanopy to their members and adding higher-profile films such as Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” to its catalog. Yet Humphrey hasn’t only been interested in how many new signups Kanopy has been getting. Having learned from her time studying the habits of college students who have the desire to watch films but want to do so on their own terms, she’s been equally invested in seeing how Kanopy can help get that elusive demographic to the library in the first place.

“The really interesting impact has been the way Kanopy has been driving new memberships to the library… which is a really great thing for libraries and for us,” says Humphrey, who adds it hasn’t been just about new members joining. “We [recently] had a member say, ‘I used to be a library member 20 years ago and I just dusted off my library membership and reactivated it [to] watch Kanopy,’ so [having this be a part of] libraries as they redefine themselves in this modern age to stay current and relevant to their members is a really nice part of what we’re doing.”

Kanopy’s unusual position as part of a community service, whether academic or public, has also created a special opportunity to cater to those communities individually, highlighting films that would never be available on a more mainstream service because of their specificity.

“For example, we have a shelf in Brooklyn dedicated to Brooklyn filmmakers or films about Brooklyn, and that’s very interesting to us because their second most-watched video aside from Criterion Collection is probably what would be considered a back catalog documentary now about the gentrification of Brooklyn, which the local community finds very, very relevant,” explains Humphrey, who sees that kind of localization as part of the company’s growth in the future. “I think our users come to Kanopy for a very specific reason. Like when I watch Kanopy, I know that I’m arriving there as a destination to challenge me to make me think, to enrich me. I often hear I wanted to go to Kanopy because it’s time well-spent. We want to stay true to that.”

To find out if your library is participating in Kanopy, click here.