Darryl Wilkinson Tag

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

I am a congenital tightwad, yet I shell out a significant amount of money each year for subscription video-streaming services. The usual suspects show up on my credit card statements: Amazon Prime Video (as part of my annual Amazon Prime $119 subscription), Netflix ($15.99/month), and HBO ($14.99/month). In an unusually weak moment last June (albeit one I haven’t yet regretted), I signed up for a Mubi yearly subscription that set me back $95.58.

 

Despite well over $500 disappearing from my bank account over the course of a year, my go-to source for streaming movies (and other video content) hasn’t cost me a dime since I discovered it about eight months ago. I’m not talking about one of the more prominent, ad-supported services like Tubi—the self-proclaimed “world’s largest free ad-supported video on demand 

(AVOD) service”—or Pluto TV, the ad-supported streaming TV/VOD service. Instead, I’ve become enamored of Kanopy, a free service that’s mostly streamed under the radar of most cord-cutters.

 

Kanopy describes itself as “a video-

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

streaming platform dedicated to thoughtful and thought-provoking films” that was founded in 2008 “to provide academic institutions with essential films that foster learning and conversation.”

 

That was great as long as you were a student or faculty member at a participating university or college. Three years ago, though, Kanopy began offering its services to public libraries, a move that enabled anyone with a library card at a participating library to stream selections from Kanopy’s impressive collection of films and videos. Kanopy’s reach is pretty remarkable, too.

 

I must admit that when I read that Kanopy specializes in “thoughtful and thought-provoking films . . . that foster learning and conversation,” I assumed they meant either “boring as hell” or “incomprehensible high-concept art” flicks. Of course, one man’s cinematic gold is another man’s cure for insomnia. In this case, however, there’s enough variety among Kanopy’s 30,000-plus titles that you’d have to be the most contrarian, irritable, and thoroughly unlovable person on the planet (no offense intended for those of you who happen to fit that description) not to find something worth watching in the selections obtained from Kanopy’s 12,000-plus filmmaker and supplier partners. Some of the more recognizable of these partners include The Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber, Paramount, PBS, Film Movement, Oscilloscope Laboratories, and A24.

 

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Movie

Although using Kanopy doesn’t cost anything directly, either in subscription fees or time spent watching advertisements, it isn’t really free. Your ability to use it is funded by the academic institution you’re associated with or your local public library.

 

“Just as libraries purchase books for their patrons to borrow,” the folks at Kanopy helpfully explain, “they also offer a variety of digital resources. Kanopy can provide its viewers with free access because the public library or university covers the associated costs, allowing patrons to watch for free, with no advertisements.” As a result, not just anyone with internet access 

can log into Kanopy and start streaming movies for free. You have to have a valid library membership with a participating public or institutional library.

 

Not every public library offers access to Kanopy as part of its digital services. In my case, I live near the county line that separates two public library systems. I’m a member of both thanks to reciprocal agreements among a handful of the regional libraries in my state, but only one of these two

a sampling of Kanopy’s film collections

(click on the images to enlarge)

systems offers Kanopy. (Both, on the other hand, do offer Hoopla, a digital service with fewer movies—a little more than 10,000 last time I checked—but Hoopla also includes access to music, audiobooks, ebooks, and comics.) Kanopy says its service is available in more than 4,000 libraries worldwide with more than 45 million public library patrons potentially able to stream titles from its collection.

 

Getting Credit Where Credit is Due

In addition to the library membership requirement, there are two other aspects related to using Kanopy that potentially limit its overall appeal. One is that Kanopy is a streaming-only service. Unlike Amazon Video, Netflix, and even Hoopla, it doesn’t offer downloads for offline viewing.

 

The other drawback is that some libraries may limit the number of videos a user can watch each month. Kanopy says this number will vary by library, but in my case, the limit is six plays/month. I’ve found other libraries that offer only four plays and some that allow eight per month.

 

The play credits reset at midnight on the first day of each calendar month. Unfortunately, unused play credits do not roll over into the following month. A play credit is deducted from your account once the video you’ve selected has played for five seconds (yikes!). After that, you have 72 hours to finish watching the video or, for that matter, watch it in its entirety as many times as you can fit into the 72-hour timespan without being charged for an additional credit.

 

There is one workaround for the play-credit limit, and it’s totally legit to use. When you create an account with Kanopy, you can link it to memberships from more than one library. That way, if you use all of your play credits from one library, you can switch to the next linked membership and begin using those play credits. I don’t have that luxury. My daughter, on the other hand, can use her access to our local public library as well as the library at the university where she goes to school.

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies
Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Although my interest in Kanopy primarily involves its movie streaming library, it also offers over 6,200 educational titles from The Great Courses—plus an extensive collection of children’s titles, called Kanopy Kids. You can access the titles in either group without being charged any play credits.

 

Speaking of access, Kanopy makes it easy to access its service. In addition to streaming titles via a web browser on your computer, it has mobile apps for iOS and Android devices, as well as Amazon Fire tablets. There are also Kanopy apps for TV devices, including Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, Roku, and Chromecast.

 

Free Isn’t Even the Best Part

As I mentioned at the outset, my inner penny-pincher is what initially drew my attention to Kanopy. But if I were to make a list of all the things I like about the service, the fact that it’s free would be near the bottom.

 

For some reason—and this is entirely subjective—I am quite fond of the interface. In many respects, it’s not that much different from the look and feel of the Netflix and Amazon Prime Video interfaces. Kanopy’s, however, is more subdued (much like, dare I say it, a library), whereas navigating the others is more akin to dodging salespeople as you wander through a big-box store.

 

I especially appreciate the fact that Kanopy’s “Browse by Subjects” page is unadorned and straightforward, with none of the incessantly blinking “Watch Me!” banners or the prominent placement of each service’s exclusive content. I’ve also found that the selections offered under the “Related videos” and “People who watched this also watched” tabs are much more appealing than the suggestions I usually get from Amazon or Netflix—so much so that my watchlist of movies on Kanopy continues to grow faster than I’m able to enjoy them. (I’m up to 216 at the moment, but I always end up adding two or three movies for each one I watch.)

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Kanopy’s theatrical selection, while not being as wide as Amazon’s or Netflix’s (ever-shrinking) options when it comes to standard box-office fare, is first-rate if you’re a fan of silent movies, classics, foreign, or independent films. Just as a quick example, the latest searches I did came up with 50 releases from The Criterion Collection, nearly 950 from Kino Lorber, 86 from A24, and 152 from Samuel Goldwyn Films. Since Kanopy’s catalog covers over 100 years of filmmaking, the picture quality will vary. Many of the early titles are remastered, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (the meticulously restored 149-minute original-length version as well as 1984’s color-tinted, 84-minute reconstruction Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis that includes a most unfortunate MTV-era pop soundtrack). Other films, including many of the selections from the DEFA Film Library’s collection of East German films, are unaltered from the original source and will exhibit scratches and other flaws.

 

OK, So It Isn’t for Everyone

For most people, Kanopy won’t replace all of their other streaming services. For folks without library (public or academic) memberships, it won’t even be an option. Anyone who regularly streams more than one movie a week will likely exhaust their available play credits before the end of each month. Fans who like to binge-watch sitcoms won’t find much to watch. (Although there is an episode of “Screenwriting 101” from The Great Courses called “The Sitcom: The Simpsons” available—and viewing it doesn’t count against your play credits, either.) I can tell you that I use Kanopy often enough that I’ve moved it to the top of the list of apps on my Roku Ultra’s home screen.

 

One final note about the hidden costs behind Kanopy. I know next to nothing about the economics of libraries. Nor do I know virtually anything about the way the various movie-industry players, especially the independents, make (or lose) money. Kanopy says that “On average, over 50% of the revenue collected from public libraries and academic institutions is paid to the independent film market through royalties.” To me, that sounds fantastic. But evidently, the cost to the libraries of providing Kanopy to their patrons is not insignificant. If you’re interested in the gritty economic underbelly of the Kanopy/Public Library/Academia ecosystem, check out Chris Cagle’s “Kanopy: Not Just Like Netflix, and Not Free” post from May 2019 at Film Quarterly.

Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

If your name happens to be Alexa—as was the name of my waitress the other day—you have my sympathies. (If your name is OK Google, you probably don’t need sympathy. You need a good family therapist.) You can’t blame your parents for naming you Alexa—unless you were born after Amazon introduced the Echo in 2014.

How could anyone have predicted how absurdly popular Amazon’s Alexa voice-control service would become? Four years ago, I never imagined there’d be such a superfluity of smart devices that are “Compatible with Alexa”—thermostats, ceiling fans, robot vacuum cleaners, light switches, microwave ovens, dishwashers, humidifiers/essential-oil diffusers, washers and dryers, door locks, salt shakers, and I’m not even close to being finished yet.

 

I think I can predict that, unlike 3D, voice control isn’t going to be a fad that quickly loses its popularity and then, as the years pass, barely clings to life as a glossed-over line item on a features/specification list. I have my doubts about the staying power of an Alexa-compatible smart salt dispenser with built-in mood lighting and Bluetooth speaker (and, no, I’m not making that up). But I’m positive that, in general, voice control is here to stay.

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

the SMALT smart salt dispenser

Voice-recognition technology will continue to improve, and the entire virtual assistant experience will get better—whether you’re using Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, or an up-and-coming open-source voice assistant like Mycroft AI. While that’s all fine and dandy, it doesn’t mean that everything is all right and nifty. Although we’re not the only creatures on this planet

that use tools, our species definitely relies on tools more than any of the others. I imagine one of our distant ancestors, an industrious Australopithecus afarensis dude, bashed a rock (or somebody’s head) with another rock, turned to the guy next to him, and grunted, “Always use the right tool for the right job.” Closer to our time, another person—

most likely a Minoan or a Roman—uttered the maxim, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” (As far as “Don’t be a tool” goes, I have no idea when that pithy nugget of advice became a thing.)

 

As magical as it may seem, voice control is nothing more than one more tool in our technology toolbox. It’s in there next to the infrared remote control, the joystick, the smartphone app, and the Star Wars Talking Darth Vader Clapper. It’s a good tool, 

too. But because it’s new, there’s an irresistible urge for companies to include voice-control capabilities in devices that have no need for them—even when voice control makes using the gadget more difficult. That’s the sort of user experience that can turn a person against voice control in general, especially if it’s the user’s first exposure to it.

 

I understand the urge to incorporate voice control into everything. I’ve had a relatively good experience with the Alexa devices (mostly Echoes), and it can easily fool you into thinking of it as the Swiss Army Knife of user interfaces. A couple of frustratingly one-sided “conversations” with Alexa—involving not waking up, not understanding a command, being told “Hmmm, I’m not sure right now,” getting a response to a totally random request, and having Alexa respond to the TV—will quickly disabuse you of that notion. (One time I asked Alexa to play “The world’s most relaxing song”—and, yes, there is such a thing. Alexa’s response was to play a long recording of a vuvuzela at max volume.)

 

Although voice control is a great tool for many tasks, it’s not the right tool for every job. It’s not even the right tool for most jobs. Sometimes it’s easier to use an app on your phone. At other times, it’s by far more intuitive and faster to use a remote control. Sometimes, shockingly, it’s actually best to use the buttons on the front panel.

 

Rather than a being a one-size-fits-all tool, voice control is more of a hammer whose usefulness is limited to working with “nails” made up of very specific words and phrases that are recognized by the controller. No matter how good 

natural-language processing eventually becomes, there will always be tasks for which it will be easier, faster, or less aggravating to accomplish by some manner other than speaking.

 

Voice control is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.