OPINION

How to pick a streaming service: A breakdown of Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, Hulu, Starz

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This article originally published in January 2019.

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Netflix announced a hike in prices this week. Is the world's most popular streaming service still worth the money? And what are some other (perhaps superior) services for movie lovers?

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There have been an ungodly number of movies since the oldest surviving film (1888's "Roundhay Garden Scene") announced the arrival of the moving image — about 330,000 known feature films and another 80,000 short films.

So where are they?

Certainly not on streaming. The five most popular streaming services (Netflix, Prime, Hulu, HBO Now and Starz) carry just a sliver of cinematic history, though some do better than others. (Data ahead! Charts and consumer tips!)

Movies are now easier and cheaper to watch than ever before, yet the catalogs of the most prominent streaming services remain limited. Film libraries are contracting, with older movies bearing the brunt of the shrinkage.

Many movies from cinema’s earliest eras are lost entirely. Many more still exist but remain unavailable digitally.

Of all the movies now available to stream (or rent digitally), only about a quarter are older than than 20 years. Streaming services, with some exceptions, are skewing newer and newer, with the goal of building libraries of their own in-house content — like dueling Fyre Fest documentaries! — instead of licensing the rights to older movies they don’t own.

Netflix offers a particularly conspicuous example of this. Though the world’s most popular streamer is churning out fresh content faster than anyone, it's also been steadily whittling down its movie library over the years. Netflix has shed nearly 3,000 movies since 2010, according to the third-party Netflix search engine Flixable.com.

Netflix’s dwindling collection of movies leans new, aggressively new. Of the near-3,900 movies in its catalog, just 285 (or 7 percent) came out before the year 2000; only 58 movies came out before 1980; just 19 before 1960.

“You can forget about Netflix for classic films because Netflix simply wants to push their own product,” said Wheeler Winston Dixon, an author, filmmaker and professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “They’re making things like the ‘Bird Box’ movie. And very successfully.”

The new Sandra Bullock thriller has been viewed by more than 45 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix claims. The endless-supply-of-new-content strategy appears to be working, but it's costly. And now Netflix is raising its fees.

The service announced this week that it will raise prices, from 13 to 18 percent depending on your plan. This is Netflix's biggest increase since it started its streaming service a dozen years ago. The most popular plan will spike from $11 to $13 a month.

"The company’s appetite for content means it has to spend big," writes Edmund Lee of the New York Times. "More money is going out the door than coming in, a difference that Netflix covers by borrowing even more." 

The money being poured into movies and TV series like "Bird Box," "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" and "Stranger Things" is considerable because, Netflix believes, this is what keeps people subscribing month after month: Not an HD print of "Casablanca."

Older films likely wouldn't make a blip even if Netflix did highlight them on its homescreen.

Streaming services “don’t make that much money from the earlier films,” Dixon said, “because they’re in black and white, because there’s a prejudice against black and white films.

“Statistics have long been established, if a movie comes on, and it’s black and white, you lose 50 percent of your audience instantly. If the movie is silent, you lose 90 percent.”

Most contemporary viewers live in the now. The right now. Yesterday isn’t relevant, let alone a film 20, 30, 80 years old. The disposable thrill of the new trumps everything else. (This content will self-destruct in five seconds.)

What's lost in the process, Dixon said, is a sense of history.

"What's happening now is that the entire history of 20th century cinema is vanishing," he said. "With the demise of DVDs and the switch to all-streaming, literally hundreds of thousands of classic films — from around the world — are being pushed into the shadows of oblivion."

Late last year, cinephiles lamented the death of the FilmStruck, TCM’s streaming library of classic and foreign films. The message of its demise is clear: niche services will take a backseat to high-volume juggernauts like Netflix. (That said, services like Fandor, Mubi and Shudder continue to cater to more rarefied tastes, and the Criterion Collection will launch its own service this spring.)

But in any case, if you want to stream a movie that’s older than a college freshman, your options will grow increasingly limited. (Which is why it’s always a good idea to hold onto your DVDs, Dixon said.)

In the age of cord-cutting — 33 million Americans canceled their cable subscription in 2018 —  some mixture of streaming services has become the new norm for couch-bound content consumers: Netflix because it's the most popular. HBO because it has “Game of Thrones.” Hulu because it has last night's ep of your favorite sitcom. And any other blend of services (broad or niche) depending on what combo of subscriptions best suits your needs.

For film connoisseurs, which service works best for you isn't always clear. So we've combed through the movies, decade by decade, genre by genre. We’ve broken down the five most popular streaming sites (1. Netflix. 2. Amazon Prime Video. 3. Hulu and 4. HBO Now. 5. Starz) to see which ones best cater to viewers looking to escape the tyranny of the now

Note: Figures were taken on Jan. 11, 2019. Data from JustWatch.com, a third-party streaming search engine.

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Netflix

Price: $7.99 to $13.99 a month, depending on number of screens, video quality. (Soon to increase to $8.99 to $15.99.)

Summary: Over the past decade, the number of movies on Netflix has gone down as the streaming service has boosted its TV titles and its own original content. In 2010, the service had more than 6,700 movie titles in its streaming catalog, according to Flixable.com, but now has about 3,000 fewer films. Netflix focuses on newer titles: About 93 percent of its movies came out in the year 2000 or later. About 64 percent aren’t more than five years old.

Best reasons to subscribe: A rapidly growing library of original content (TV and movies); a substantial number of newer movies; the Coen brothers' endlessly rewatchable "Ballad of Buster Scruggs."

Total movies: 3,869

Total TV shows: 1,304

Movies that came out before 2000: 285

Oldest movie in the catalog: “Prelude to War,” a 1942 war documentary directed by Frank Capra.

Strongest genre: comedy

 

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Amazon Prime Video

Price: $12.99 a month or $119 a year (comes with all the Prime perks)

Summary: Amazon Prime carries four times the number of movies that Netflix does — more than 18,000 films. About seven in 10 movies on Prime came out in 2000 or later. But the sheer volume is so great that Prime offers the strongest catalog of old and obscure films by default. Granted, a lot of these movies are trash, but a lot of people like trash.

Best reasons to subscribe: A massive catalog, many of the films older and/or hard-to-find; full seasons of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire”; free two-day shipping on toilet paper.

Total movies: 18,288

Total TV shows: 1,459

Movies that came out before 2000: 5,263

Oldest movie in the catalog: “Ben Hur,” the 1907 silent version.

Strongest genre: drama

 

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Hulu

Price: Plans start at $7.99 a month

Summary: The third-most-popular streaming service has a relatively slim catalog of movies and a lot of overlap with Prime, with each service licensing many of the same titles. If you’re just in it for the movies, it doesn’t make sense to have Hulu if you already have Prime. However ...

Best reasons to subscribe: Hulu offers next-days streaming for most shows on the major networks. If you missed last night’s “Law and Order: SVU” and didn’t DVR it, your options are Hulu or purchasing the ep for $2 on iTunes, Amazon, etc.

Total movies: 1,521

Total TV shows: 1,287

Movies that came out before 2000: 196

Oldest movie in the catalog: “The Eagle and the Hawk,” a 1950 Technicolor Western.

Strongest genre: drama.

 

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HBO Now

Price: $14.99 a month

Summary: It’s the most expensive of the major streaming services, yet has the weakest selection of movie titles (and older movie titles). Though HBO does nab exclusive streaming rights to a lot of newer films.

Best reasons to subscribe: No streaming service compares to HBO for original content. Netflix might be growing its catalog, but HBO had a decades-long headstart, creating some of the best TV shows of all time when Netflix was just a DVD mailer. Of course the best reason to get HBO: "Game of Thrones," final season, April 14

Total movies: 810

Total TV shows: 151

Movies that came out before 2000: 146

Oldest movie in the catalog: “The King and I” (1956).

Strongest genre: action/adventure

 

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Starz

Price: $8.99 a month

Summary: The channel and streaming company (which at one point licensed its movies and TV shows to Netflix) lacks the cultural cachet of the big four streamers, but it does offer one of the stronger libraries of pre-2000 movies of any service.

Best reasons to subscribe: A healthy proportion of older films, with an especially rich selection of classic Westerns and monster movies. Paired with a Prime, a Starz subscription could keep classic film buffs busy for years.

Total movies: 1,231

Total TV shows: 86

Movies that came out before 2000: 588

Oldest movie in the catalog: “Dracula” (1931)

Strongest genre: action/adventure

 

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Number of movies with a Fresh score

(60 percent or above on Rotten Tomatoes)

Amazon: 1,843 movies

Netflix: 1,045

Hulu: 540

Starz: 381

HBO: 265

 

Number of movies with an IMDB score of 7.0 or above

Amazon Prime: 4,013

Netflix: 1,198

Hulu: 395

HBO Now: 341

Starz: 297

 

Best movies to stream

(By highest IMDB average rating. Excluding short films/comedy specials/concert films/really obscure stuff you’ve never heard of.)

Netflix

“The Dark Knight,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Schindler's List,” “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Seven,” “City of God,” “Coco,” “The Departed,” “The Pianist,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Amazon Prime

“12 Angry Men,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Dear Zachary,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “For a Few Dollars More,” “The Apartment,” “Paths of Glory,” “Hoop Dreams”

Hulu

“Amelie,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “For a Few Dollars More,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Exorcist,” “Chinatown,” “Rain Man,” “Shutter Island,” “Akira”

HBO Now

“Inception,” “Goodfellas,” “The Prestige,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Logan,” “Fargo,” “The Princess Bride.”

Starz

“The Good, the Bad, the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Up,” “The Sting,” “Inside Out,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Roman Holiday,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

 

The highest-rated movies on IMDB, if you were wondering:

1. “The Shawshank Redemption”

2. “The Godfather”

3. “The Dark Knight”

4. “The Godfather: Part II”

5. “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”

6. “Pulp Fiction”

7. “Schindler’s List”

8. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

9. “12 Angry Men”

10. “Inception”

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