One thing about having a job that you do in public is that when you say something dumb, you get spanked. Last week in my column rounding up 10 less-remembered movie gems from the past, I took a casual swipe at the streaming service Hoopla, because I didn’t know what it was. After hearing from about 13,749 of you, I know what it is: an on-demand service offering thousands of movies and TV shows for free provided you have a library card with a participating institution.
That’s right, it’s like the better-known Kanopy, which offers a similar deal — and similarly curates its offerings to put quality fare up top. Both cap the number of titles you can watch per month, based on limits set by your local library (which pays the services a fee for each view — it ain’t free for them). Luckily, Kanopy has a section for “credit-free viewing.” Hoopla lets you search by a wide variety of categories, including cutting-edge distributors like A24. Other than that, they’re about the same and can be accessed on the Web or on your TV via a streaming device like Roku.
The other batch of complaints I got from last week’s column is that every title I mentioned was available on a for-pay streaming service or for a rental fee. We’re all stuck inside for who knows how long, fighting off unease and desperate for diversion. Where was the free stuff?
This is a column about the free stuff.
A caveat: Type “free streaming movies” into Google and you’ll be led to a ton of dodgy websites offering the very latest Hollywood releases — in pirated versions that are likely coming to you from a server somewhere in Kyrgyzstan. They’re illegal, the quality is often terrible, and unless you want to scrub your hard drive as often as you’re washing your hands, this is not a good idea.
Some pay services have started offering free 30-day trials during the pandemic, including premium service Showtime and Marquee TV, which bills itself as a “Netflix for the Arts” with a lineup of opera, theater, ballet, and documentaries. Read the fine print, though: You’re usually signed up for automatic charges once the free month is up.
Generally speaking, if you want to watch movies and TV shows for free — again, either on the Web or via a streaming device on your TV — you’re going to have to put up with ads, just like in the old days. There are a variety of legit services out there, most of which tend to feature movies that have been around at least a few years. Here’s a quick guide.
Crackle — Once owned by Sony, which last year sold a majority share to Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment — yes, the book series folks. The Sony library, including many films from the Columbia Studios years, is well represented, the video quality is excellent, but the curation is minimal. With six “genres,” three of which are Anime, Crackle Originals, and "Fandom,” you’re pretty much on your own.
IMDb TV — Amazon launched this as Freedive last year, using its Internet Movie Database subsidiary to undergird an ad-supported free movie site. Renamed to take advantage of the IMDb brand, it has a deep bench of films and TV shows in broad, not especially useful categories (“Chills and Thrills”), but you have to put up with a lot of commercial breaks. Available only on the Web and via Amazon’s Fire TV stick.
Pluto TV — An odd one, courtesy of ViacomCBS, that lets you watch movies and TV shows live as they’re airing on various free channels and on demand with ad breaks. The film categorization goes impressively deep and weird.
Popcornflix — More ad-supported older movies, thrown together without much thought to curation or organization beyond broad genre groupings. But, hey, free. Parent company Screen Media Entertainment was bought in 2017 by the Chicken Soup for the Soul guys (see above), who are clearly planning some kind of streaming Chicken Soup coup d’etat.
The Roku Channel — You don’t need a Roku device but you do need to set up an account. More ad-supported programming, again with pro forma categorization. Still any service with a “Fantasy” genre that includes cult film "Donnie Darko,” kiddie flick “The Smurfs 2,” and the gonzo French art house masterpiece “Holy Motors” is doing something right, even if unintentionally.
Snagfilms — “Philanthropic movies and TV shows online,” which means a smaller but more intelligently curated library of docs, features, classics, and comedy shows.
Tubi — Tap into the 15,000-title library of the country’s largest independently-owned video service. Setting up an account allows you to sync your viewing across devices and track your viewing history, but it’s not necessary. As with the majority of these sites, there’s little quality control: lots of titles but no way to tell the good stuff from the stinkers.
Vudu — It’s a streaming rental service like iTunes and Amazon, but unlike them, there’s a free section of ad-supported films. You have to set up an account and log in first, though.
YouTube Movies — The Wild West of movies on demand. There’s a "free” section, but it largely consists of movies you’ve never heard of, and you have to sign in to watch anything R-rated or unrated. Only for the intrepid.
Other sites worth a look:
Streamdor.com — Because YouTube doesn’t do jack about curating its free movie offerings, here’s a site that does it for them. The catch: Who knows what kind of video quality you’re getting, or what kind of foreign subtitles. But if it takes me to a pristine Technicolor copy of 1945’s homicidal wife thriller “Leave Her to Heaven,” I’m good.
Yidio.com — A reasonably useful if slow to load aggregator for all streaming movies. Click on a title and you can find out which platforms it’s on and how much it costs to rent. There’s a “free” category, which clicks you through to Tubi, Crackle, or wherever.
Internet Moving Image Archive — If YouTube is the Wild West, this is Babel: 5.6 million features and shorts across the history of cinema. Bonus: The site houses the Prelinger Archives of industrial and other “ephemeral” films. Dive in and swim for your life.
ShoutfactoryTV — Movies, TV shows, and a fantastic collection of classic rock, pop, and soul concert films, including “The Night James Brown Saved Boston.” Available on the Web or through Tubi, Popcornflix, and Pluto TV as well as on streaming devices, some of which offer an ad-free subscription version.
National Film Board of Canada — If you’re burned out on American movies, slip over the border and explore 3,000 films made by our neighbors up north. Your kids are going around the bend from lock-down boredom? Show ‘em “Neighbours,” “A Chairy Tale,” and other films by the pioneering stop-motion animator/mad inventor Norman McLaren.