Cutting the cord has been a hot trend in the last few years, especially as streaming services increase viewers' options about where to get the movie and television content that they want. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, and other streaming providers offer original series, hit television programs, and movies to consumers who might find cable both expensive and superfluous. For classic movie fans, who have different interests from more mainstream viewers, cutting the cord is also an option, even though it means saying goodbye to cable's go-to source for classic films, Turner Classic Movies. Here are some of the best options for classic movie buffs who want to cut the cord and still enjoy their favorite films.
Netflix - This streaming provider powerhouse is the most obvious choice for potential cord cutters. In the classic movie section of the site, subscribers can choose to browse subgenres like "Classic Comedies," "Film Noir," and "Silent Movies." The selections on offer do change periodically, but an excellent collection of Buster Keaton silents seems to have become a staple, and there are always some John Wayne Westerns and screwball comedies in the mix. The more advanced classic movie buff might find the selection fairly limited, which makes getting a DVD in the mail a worthwhile add-on.
Summary: Netflix is best for the general or novice viewer who isn't looking for something specific in the classic movie category.
Hulu - Hulu Plus, as opposed to the free version, is really the attraction for classic movie fans, since this streaming provider offers a huge catalog of Criterion Collection features. The Criterion catalog is best for fans of foreign films, more obscure classics, and silent movies. Because of its deal with Criterion, Hulu Plus has classic movies you can't stream anywhere else, and it also has high quality versions of some public domain classics that Criterion has produced for serious fans. For devotees of Kurasawa, Lynch, Fellini, Bergman, and other auteurs, Hulu is the top choice. It also has hard-to-find films from silent star Harold Lloyd as well as a large selection of Charlie Chaplin features. Those offerings make Hulu Plus the best bet for the specialist fan and the hardcore expert, people who really want to see particular kinds of classics instead of a general assortment.
Summary: Hulu Plus has the goods for serious fans who really want foreign, silent, and cult classics.
Amazon Prime Instant Video - If you already have a Prime membership to support your Amazon buying habit, then you might as well peruse the instant video offerings that come with it, but membership isn't worth it for the movie selection alone. Amazon's catalog gets into public domain filler territory pretty quickly, so there may be only 50-60 high quality classics on Prime at a given time. Amazon also has instant movies as streaming rentals; these run from $1.99 to $3.99, depending on the movie. The rentals give viewers more choices, but the costs add up, especially for those who watch a lot of classic films every month.
Summary: Use Amazon Prime streaming as a bonus to membership, but don't rely on it as a primary source for classic movies.
Warner Archive Instant - Warner Brothers now has its own streaming service, and this one is designed specifically for classic movie fans. The Warner Archive catalog actually includes movies from other studios, as well, particularly MGM, which makes the selection very diverse. You'll find silent movies starring Lon Chaney, lots of spicy Pre-Code pictures, and categories devoted to film noir, thrillers, musicals, family films, and horror. The horror section sometimes features RKO classics from Val Lewton, a favorite with fans of the genre. The Archive changes its rotating catalog frequently, with new additions almost every week, so viewers won't get bored seeing the same offerings again and again. Most of the movies included in the Archive can't be streamed or even rented from other services, which makes Warner Archive Instant a great choice for experienced classic movie fans with a wide range of interests and a desire to see lesser-known movies from iconic stars.
Summary: Warner Archive Instant caters to the classic movie fan with a wide and constantly changing selection of features from many genres and decades.
All of the streaming services listed here cost about $10 a month, with the exception of Amazon Prime, so you could subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Warner Archive for about $30 a month and have more classic movies available than you will ever have time to watch. It's worth noting that all of the services except Warner Archive pad their catalogs with public domain filler because it's so cheap; beware of muddy prints of deservedly obscure lemons as well as unwatchable editions of great silent and horror features that ought to get better treatment.
Learn more about the cord-cutting trend by watching the video at the top of this article.
Jennifer Garlen writes as the Huntsville and National Classic Movies Examiner. Her newest book, "Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching," is available on Kindle at Amazon. You can also visit her classic movie blog at Virtual Virago, where new reviews of classic films are posted each week.