Review: SundanceNow

Indie films might be a niche market, but it's one that a lot of cinephiles hold near and dear. Unfortunately, it's not always easy (or even possible) to see a lot of the great work released each year. It's tough waiting for an indie film to come out on DVD, tougher still when it hasn't even received a distribution deal. In light of this, it's kind of surprising that so many great releases don't find their way into Netflix's "Watch Instantly" library. While Netflix does have quite a few great indie titles, just as many have yet to find their way onto a streaming video service. It's a great opportunity for indie filmmakers to recoup some costs, and an easy acquisition for Netflix, making it all the more odd that such a hole in the market exists. Enter SundanceNow, a new service inspired by the Sundance Film Festival, and featuring an all-indie library of titles available to stream instantly.

SundanceNow's library is already pretty respectable, and growing every week. It's nowhere near Netflix, or even relative newcomer Amazon Prime, but it does include a very nice mix of classic, contemporary and foreign films, many that are more than a little difficult to track down here in the states. Most importantly, many of these films are not available to stream anywhere else, making SundanceNow the only place to go if you want to see them on demand. In addition, load times are reasonably fast and I found the player to be pretty reliable.

Sadly, it's not all good news. As a relatively new service, SundanceNow is missing a lot of the polish of services like Netflix. It isn't able to calculate your connection speed and scale content quality; nor can it save your spot if you need to close your browser. And while it's relatively easy to search its library, it isn't anywhere near as convenient as Netflix's suggestion and movie rating system.

Even worse, SundanceNow is not supported by Roku, Blu-ray players or any similar devices. Watching rented movies will require viewers to hook up their computer's video output to their TV, requiring additional cabling that may not see much use outside of the service. Not everyone wants to watch movies at their computer, so not being able to easily stream videos to a TV is more than a little inconvenient.

And here's the kicker, it certainly isn't cheap. The service functions via rentals and purchases, there's no subscription model. Rentals typically run for $4 or $5 for 24-hours, not exactly a steal; while purchases often run upwards of $18. With Netflix's "Watch Instantly" program available for a low as $8 a month, it's hard to justify making SundanceNow a regular part of my monthly budget. Overall, SundanceNow shows a lot of potential, but at its current stage and cost, users will definitely get more bang for their buck on Netflix. If the service plans for a subscription model in the future, that may change, but for now, a $5 rental or a $20 purchase simply isn't worth it.

It's certainly worth noting however that SundanceNow does have the very valuable caveat of costing money only when you want to watch a movie. While Netflix and other subscription services charge you no matter how many films you stream, you only have to pay for a SundanceNow selection when you intend on watching it. Because of this, it's very easy to recommend the service as a supplement to your current streaming subscription service, whether it be Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or what have you. Keep your current plan, but consider checking out SundanceNow in the event that you can't find a title you want to see.

SundanceNow's service is reliable enough, and as I said before, it does have a number of titles that are not available for streaming via Netflix. With another year or so of experience under its belt, and with a growing library of great picks, I can definitely see the service growing into a worthy counterpart to its bigger contemporaries.

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Ryan Matsunaga's picture
Ryan is the head blogger at 8CN. He really likes pancakes. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanMatsu
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