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
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
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.
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’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.
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