With its pedigree in independent film, Sundance Now seems like the perfect pick for indie-minded cord-cutters. But is it really? Fans of independent films and documentaries have several streaming options beyond Sundance.
Our review will guide you through Sundance Now’s features and costs as well as the wide range of out-of-the-mainstream content in its catalog. You’ll get to see some of the other options in the indie streaming world as well before hearing our take on Sundance Now.
What is Sundance Now?
Robert Redford founded the Sundance Channel to promote independent filmmakers and his Sundance Film Festival. The company’s on-demand streaming service, Sundance Now, has evolved over the years to offer a solid set of features and a promising international footprint.
Where can I get it?
Unlike most streaming services that are limited to one country (usually the United States), Sundance Now is available in the United States, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Catalogs will vary by country based on the ins-and-outs of licensing deals as well as local tastes.
Sundance has plans to expand Sundance Now globally, but no word yet on which countries are next.
Which apps work with it?
Sundance Now is available via web browsers and a range of apps for mobile and the living room.
- Mobile and tablet: iOS, Android, Amazon Fire TV
- Set-top boxes: Apple TV and Roku
- Gaming consoles: Xbox One
You can also subscribe to Sundance Now through an Amazon Prime or Amazon Prime Video membership and watch the on-demand content through Amazon’s apps.
While not as comprehensive as some streaming services, Sundance Now’s app support will meet the needs of most households, but new apps are in the works: “Smart TV Apps and additional gaming platforms are definitely on the horizon.”
What can it do?
Sundance Now is on-demand only so don’t expect many features beyond media playback. The video player lets you play and pause the stream. Grabbing the progress indicator lets you scrub forward and back through the video. You can also toggle closed captioning on videos that offer it.
Beyond the basics of a media player, Sundance Now offers a My Lists feature that lets you pick curate your own watch list. My History gives you quick access to titles you started on other devices.
Or does it?
Features vary across Sundance apps. My History, for example, appears in the iOS app for iPhone but does not appear on the web or in the Apple TV app. My Lists appears on the iPhone and the web, but not the Apple TV. The Roku app has both My History and My Lists, but they are buried in a “Favorites” section.
How much does it cost?
Pricing for Sundance Now in the United States runs at $6.99 monthly or $59.99 annually. In either case, you get seven days to try the service before the first payment is due. Subscriptions in other countries are the same amount, adjusted for exchange rates.
You can subscribe directly through the Sundance Now website or through the in-app payment systems on iOS, Apple TV, Android or Roku. No matter how you subscribe, activating your account with Sundance Now opens full access to its web interface and the other apps.
If you buy your subscription through Amazon Prime or the Fire TV, however, you can only watch Sundance Now through Amazon’s apps.
Sundance Now streams most films at 720p resolution. Some older titles will stream in 480p. Neither full 1080p high definition or 4K ultra high definition streams, much less high dynamic range video, are included.
Even with these limitations, you may see artifacts and other glitches if Sundance Now’s servers detect a slower internet connection. The servers’ top priority is to minimize buffering at the expense of picture quality.
The worst streaming I experienced was was over WiFi to the Chrome browser on my laptop. Excessive buffering through the first six minutes of God Bless America made it unwatchable. Sundance Now is probably not to blame for that as I had no issues with a WiFi stream to my Roku Stick or iPhone or over Ethernet to my Apple TV.
What’s on Sundance Now?
Sundance Now curates a content catalog that places independence, inspiration and influence above mainstream popularity. This is not where you go to see the latest CG-filled superhero blockbuster. Quiet movies, quirky comedies and important work is the order of the game.
The easiest way to find something in the Sundance catalog that matches your tastes is to skip over to the Collections section. Sundance Now’s in-house staff, as well as influential creators, have curated lists of films and documentaries to get you started.
Several of the collections are built around themes like The American New Wave Collection. This particular new wave consists of filmmakers from the last decade. Chloe Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, for example, is set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where a young Native American faces the prospect of getting a job in Los Angeles to support his family.
The Fact to Fiction Collection offers based-on-a-true-story films like the Red Riding series chronicling Britain’s Yorkshire Ripper killings.
Celebrities from the worlds of music and film offer their picks from Sundance’s catalog. Musician Laurie Anderson recommends documentaries like 5 Broken Cameras about a photographer in Palestine.
Up-and-coming filmmaker Sophie Takal offers up How to Survive A Plague about the struggle to get HIV-AIDS research funded as well as the comedic drama Gimme the Loot about two teen graffiti artists determined to “bomb” the Mets’ home run apple.
Sundance Film Festival Collection
You may be surprised when you peek into The Best of The Sundance Festival Collection. Very little of Sundance Now’s content actually screened at the event that gave it its name. The list includes only twenty-one titles going back to 1993’s El Mariachi. You will find about sixty titles that screened at other events like SXSW, Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival.
In the face of competition from other streaming services, the Sundance TV channel began developing exclusives and original content of its own like Rectify, The Red Road and The Honourable Woman. None of those are on Sundance Now. Instead, you get nine original or exclusive series specific to Sundance Now. Two recent additions were produced in Europe.
The Swell is a Dutch miniseries only available on Sundance. It follows a mixed group of people struggling to survive as a super-storm submerges Holland. The series received critical raves in Europe for its storytelling quality. Director Hans Herbots explained to Variety that, more than making another disaster movie, he wanted to explore “how do you go back to normal when normal does not exist anymore?”
The thriller Riviera is a Sundance Original starring Julia Stiles as the wife of a billionaire art collector. After he is murdered on a Russian tycoon’s yacht, she uncovers the truth and must do what she can to survive. Set against the backdrop of the French Riviera, the Hollywood Reporter calls the series “lovely to look at but completely ridiculous.” Ridiculous enough, that is, to be a ratings hit in Europe.
Sundance Now has more than 320 titles in its movie catalog. Search is made a little easier with a drop down that filters the list into categories such as Biography, Drama and International.
Break-out indie films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, popular action films like In the Line of Fire and the original Swedish production of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are among the titles you’ll find.
If you’re a fan of documentaries, Sundance Now’s 279-title catalog is worth a look. Rather than the science focus of a service like CuriosityStream, Sundance Now’s documentaries emphasize culture and society.
Dive into fan culture by watching Trek Nation or explore the dark underside of the War on Terror in the Academy Award-winning doc Taxi to the Dark Side. Discover untold stories about singer-songwriter Nick Drake’s life, music and death in Nick Drake Under Review. Finish the session with The Red Chapel as you follow Danish comedians into the heart of North Korea – totalitarianism at its funniest!
Programmatic series are the weakest aspects of the Sundance Now catalog. Beyond the nine originals and exclusives, you will find a couple of dozen licensed TV series, mostly documentaries and travel shows.
British actor Richard Ayoade, for example, makes travel “more efficient and less tedious” in Travel Man. Nimrod Nation follows a small town high school basketball team on its quest for glory.
With all this great content, it’s a shame that the Sundance Now web interface makes browsing so difficult. The designers set it up as an infinite scroll, which certainly looks pretty.
The trouble comes after you’ve scrolled down a few pages and clicked on a title to see what it’s about. The interface returns you to the top of the screen, forcing you through yet another infinite scroll to find your place again. A minor annoyance, but one that’s way too common.
Alternatives to Sundance Now
Should your taste in film, documentary and series programming align with the Sundance Now catalog, you might be thinking the subscription is a great deal. Yet there are other options you ought to consider.
First of all, there’s Sundance TV itself. Many of the movies and series currently playing on Sundance TV are not part of the Sundance Now catalog. Sundance Now is more a complimentary on-demand service to Sundance TV’s live and on-demand service.
Simply use your TV provider’s login credentials to stream from the Sundance TV website or its Sundance TV apps.
Other indie subscription services
Sundance is not the only streaming service dedicated to indie film fans. Several streaming services offer competitive catalogs.
FilmStruck combines selections from the Turner Movie Classics catalog with the Criterion Collection’s deep library for $10.99 per month (or $99 per year). FilmStruck offers more of cinema history’s “important” works than Sundance Now, but Sundance features more contemporary filmmakers.
Mubi simulates the arthouse movie experience by restricting its catalog to thirty titles. Each day a new title joins the list and an old title disappears. That brings spontaneity and variety to your indie-film viewing at the price of predictability… and at the price of $5.99 per month. For only a dollar more Sundance Now delivers a larger, more predictable catalog.
Fandor ramps up its indie cred by promising to share its subscription revenue 50-50 with filmmakers. That plus licensing deals with major studios lets it offer “over 5,000 of the best movies from around the world” for $10 monthly or $90 annually. A strategy shift reported by Indiewire, however, threatens to divert Fandor towards more mainstream movie fare.
Overall Review: 8
With so many options to consider, Sundance Now could be the best choice for those who want a professionally-curated library of contemporary indie films and documentaries. International support (something few other services offer) and a decent range of apps round out Sundance Now’s benefits.
The question is whether those benefits compensate for the little annoyances. There is no original content from Sundance TV. It only offers a slim selection of films from the Sundance Film Festival. And features vary between Sundance Now’s apps.
Taken for what it is, a complementary source of indie films, Sundance Now is a great option for people tired of mainstream movies.
Content quality: 9
Even though Sundance Now’s series programming is anemic compared to more mainstream service like Netflix, I have not held that against it. From the film festival to the cable channel, the Sundance brand has always been more about feature-length films and documentaries rather than TV. That’s where Sundance Now shines.
Streaming quality: 8
I’m sure there are solid reasons Sundance Now caps its video streams at 720p, especially for older films. The thing is, filmmakers have had access to affordable 1080p equipment for at least a decade. Technology and user expectations keeps advancing. Sundance Now’s bandwidth caps may not be viable for much longer.
Device support: 7
Sundance Now’s range of apps provides adequate coverage for many households. The lack of support for Smart TVs is understandable given how fragmented and proprietary those interfaces can be. The only significant gap is the absence of an app for the PlayStation 4.
I removed an extra point here for the inconsistency of Sundance Now’s feature set across its apps.
Provided you’re a fan of indie films and documentaries, the $6.99 monthly cost (less with an annual subscription) makes Sundance Now an excellent value for an ad-free streaming service. That is, of course, if the inconsistent apps don’t turn you off.