As the streaming wars between major platforms such as Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max have expanded, so too has the world of smaller, more specialized streaming services that focus on serving a specific niche to fans who want more than what the bigger mainstream players have to offer.
Since they aren’t trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, these boutique streaming services can offer carefully curated selections that cater to the special interests of their viewers. But because these services also tend to fly under the radar, it’s not always easy to know what’s out there. So we’ve put together a rundown of some of our favorites.
The list below covers a range of specialized streaming platforms targeting everyone from anime-loving geeks or theater nerds to international audiences. Among all of them, there’s almost certainly something for everyone. Because the list can be daunting, we’ve categorized them by content type.
The basic setup: About 2,000 movies from the Criterion Collection are available at a time, and they rotate monthly so there’s always something new to watch. The catalog contains Hollywood classics, independent films, and world cinema, as well as behind-the-scenes features and interviews, all curated by theme, era, genre, and more.
The pros: The Criterion Channel offers startlingly affordable access to a film catalog that’s much richer than what you’ll find on your average streaming service, especially since the pickings are slim on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime if you’re looking for something made before 1980. You can find most anything on the service, from universally acclaimed works of art to influential B-movies that changed the genre game. The Channel’s curation — in the form of double features, family-friendly “matinees,” and collections of films themed around eras, artists, or techniques — is helpful if you feel overwhelmed by the number of choices. And for cinephiles, the interviews, commentary, scene breakdowns, and explorations of film history are invaluable.
The cons: You won’t find much in the way of TV on the Criterion Channel (though a handful of series pop up from time to time). There aren’t any new releases. And if you’re looking primarily for a huge base of films and TV shows that kids can watch, Criterion isn’t for you; most of the content is strictly for adults, and a fair amount of offerings aren’t in English.
Best for: People who love classic, independent, and foreign films; those who want to dive deeply into the details of cinematic masterpieces; and people who want to expand their cinematic horizons beyond Hollywood standards.
Cost: $10.99/month or $99.99/year; includes a free 14-day trial.
The basic setup: Fandor curates arthouse, independent, and international films for the highbrow film fan.
The pros: Fandor claims to have more than 4,000 films in its catalog, which is truly impressive, given that it’s half the cost of its nearest competitors. It comes off like a slightly hipper Criterion, emphasizing users’ personal tastes by drilling down its catalog into specific genres, subgenres, years, and other considerations. The website includes reviews and editor’s notes and curates selections from film festivals around the globe, which is really cool.
The cons: Many of Fandor’s films are available on other sites. Its community is much smaller than those of Criterion or Mubi, so things such as user reviews are less reliable. And as with other arthouse-film platforms, you won’t find much in the way of genre entertainment.
Best for: People who love independent and foreign films but who might want to try a different approach than the Criterion method of curation.
Cost: $5.99/month or $49.99/year; includes a free seven-day trial.
The basic setup: A carefully curated, rotating streaming catalog of arthouse and independent films. It comes with a time limit: Most films are available on Mubi for only 30 days.
The pros: Mubi’s biggest assets are a commitment to thoughtful curation and an emphasis on world cinema. Because Mubi licenses films for a limited time, it’s able to offer a wider variety compared with many similar services, albeit on a limited rotation. The Mubi community is also full of film enthusiasts and offers a thriving garden of user reviews.
The cons: If you miss a film during its 30-day rotation, you might not get to see it again — or you may have to wait a long time for it to reappear in the Mubi roster.
Best for: Film geeks, especially lovers of foreign and hard-to-find films, but the limited-time offerings won’t be for everyone.
Cost: $10.99/month or $95.88/year; includes a free seven-day trial.
British TV (and more from the Commonwealth)
The basic setup: Although it’s mostly focused on British television, Acorn TV offers a hodgepodge of international offerings, from the beloved Canadian drama Slings & Arrows to the beloved Australian mystery series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (which fan-funded an original movie sequel that’s currently available only on Acorn), as well as the 2019 Nordic noir Wisting. Acorn’s original programming is also solid, with mysteries and dramas from stars such as David Tennant.
The pros: It offers original programming, plus a deep catalog of mysteries, dramas, and older and more obscure BBC and ITV content that didn’t find its way to the much better-known streaming service BritBox.
The cons: Some of the more mainstream titles are also available on other sites.
Best for: Fans who like to binge epic miniseries and murder-mystery series like Midsomer Murders and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
Cost: $5.99/month or $59.99/year; includes a free seven-day trial.
The basic setup: A streaming catalog exclusively containing BBC and ITV-produced shows and films — including the full catalog of the classic Doctor Who, current BBC news programming, and iconic British comedy series such as Are You Being Served?, Absolutely Fabulous, and Fawlty Towers.
The pros: A dauntingly large catalog of BBC and ITV content. The sheer variety of content here, from British Dramas You’ve Actually Heard Of to Shakespearean adaptations and soothing lifestyle shows, is enviable.
The cons: If you’re a fan of older BBC and ITV programming, some of the omissions here may be puzzling. For instance, you can watch seven seasons of Prime Suspect, but there’s no Wire in the Blood — that one’s on Acorn TV, even though it’s an ITV show.
Best for: British TV enthusiasts of all forms and varieties.
Cost: $6.99/month or $69.99/year; includes a free seven-day trial.
Theater on demand
The basic setup: Broadway HD offers a large streaming catalog of live and adapted theater, musicals, opera, and concert performances. As the older Broadway streaming site, Broadway HD has worked hard to bring streamable theater to the masses. Its selection isn’t huge, but it is generally very good.
The pros: If you want to watch a wide variety of theater and don’t mind older or pretaped performances, you really can’t miss with this platform. Its selection of plays and dramas is particularly enticing: You’ll find everything from BBC adaptations of Shakespeare to Paula Vogel’s superb Indecent to the 2017 production of the Pulitzer-nominated Thom Pain (starring Rainn Wilson).
The cons: Though its selection has grown dramatically, the lack of more recent theatrical hits may be a turnoff.
Best for: Fans of Shakespeare, niche cult faves like Jerry Springer: The Opera, and a wide variety of staged dramas.
Cost: $8.99/month or $99.99/year; includes a free seven-day trial.
The basic setup: Broadway on Demand is a recently launched streaming catalog of Broadway shows, concerts, web series, and adapted theater. The platform focuses on scheduled, livestreamed pay-per-view events, some of which the site then hosts for a limited time. A small selection is available to watch for free or with a 48-hour rental.
The pros: If you miss live theater, Broadway On Demand has constructed an elaborate platform designed to bring live theatre into your home. This includes innovative programs like “Show Share,” which brings you livestreamed shows at specific times from unexpected places around the country — like Tallahassee Community College or a high school in Greenfield, Indiana. That’s pretty neat. The platform also provides (for an additional cost) a bundle with Broadway Access, another boutique site that emphasizes theatre teaching and instruction.
The cons: The site is frankly confusing, glitchy (on a laptop, it’s often difficult to get clips to play), and difficult to parse and navigate. The app is currently only available for Apple devices and Roku. And the pay-per-view structure will be off-putting to many people used to a monthly streaming charge.
Best for: People who like watching live theatrical events.
Cost: A selection of livestreamed events and other content is currently free. BOD primarily uses a pay-per-view “ticket” model, where “tickets” to view a livestreamed performances range from anywhere from $3 or $4 to over $30. Additionally, there’s a service charge that ranges from $2.85 to $4.95 with every livestream ticket purchase. A premium subscription tier that presumably lets you bypass the pay-per-view ticket structure is reportedly launching later this fall. Additionally, the Broadway Access bundle is currently a yearly fee of $119.88.
The basic setup: Crunchyroll offers an extensive streaming catalog of anime, manga, TV dramas, and other related media, primarily from Japan and China.
The pros: A longstanding and trusted source for anime, Crunchyroll has gotten great at offering options like localized subtitling and dubbing, simulcasting content, and curating a wide-ranging, interesting selection for picky fans. Don’t forget that it also offers manga for users to read, as well as shows and movies. Best of all: much of the content in Crunchyroll’s vast library is free to stream.
The cons: Although much of Crunchyroll is free, if you want access to subtitled anime episodes that are simulcast on Crunchyroll with their first-run airing in Japan, you’ll need to purchase a premium subscription. And if you’re a fan of dubs over subs, Funimation will likely be your first anime stop rather than Crunchyroll.
Best for: All of us anime-lovin’ fools. Though HBO Max now offers a very small anime selection cross-curated from Crunchyroll, it won’t be enough to satisfy many fans. And Crunchyroll also has an edge for subtitle fans in the subbing versus dubbing war — many US fans prefer it as a source for professionally subtitled anime.
Cost: A basic subscription costs $7.99/month and includes access to Crunchyroll simulcasts as well as the Crunchyroll manga catalog and HD streaming. Higher tiers cost $9.99/month and $14.99/month; each higher tier includes bundled access to Nickelodeon and VRV as well as special Crunchyroll perks at varying levels. (The pricier the tier, the more plentiful the perks.)
The basic setup: Similar to Crunchyroll, Funimation boasts another large streaming catalog of anime, J-drama, and other content, all of which is produced or distributed by anime stalwart Funimation.
The pros: Again like Crunchyroll, most of Funimation’s catalog is free (ad-supported). — but Anime fans who prefer dubbed content to subtitled content will also be drawn to Funimation, which has long been known for quality dubbing. And because Funimation is primarily a distributor, it’s also great for fans of simulcast episodes and quick releases — so anyone who prefers not having to wait months for dubbed episodes and films to be released will want to give it a look.
The cons: Funimation’s anime catalog is frankly huge, but it’s still limited compared to Crunchyroll’s. Also, access to ad-free episodes and simulcast subtitled episodes with the original Japanese airing requires a subscription.
Best for: Fans of dubbed anime, and people who prefer well-curated series with lots of info about what they’re watching.
Cost: Tiered pricing is $5.99/month or $59.99/year for ad-free episodes and the ability to stream on up to two devices simultaneously; $7.99/month or $79.99/year for up to five simultaneous streams and downloadable media; and $99.99/year for everything in the lower tiers plus additional Funimation merch discounts and perks, including swag.
The basic setup: A late entry into the anime streaming field, HiDive launched in 2017 and has since made a name for itself as an independent streaming platform.
The pros: HiDive offers exclusive distribution for a number of animation companies, including its owner Sentai (known for Akame Ga Kill and other recent hits), Section23, Switchblade Films, and a few others. HiDive offers subtitling with dubbing on select titles. It also gives paid users a lot — including the ability to customize subtitles! — for a pretty low monthly fee. The platform also has a Vrv bundle, so with a Vrv subscription, you can watch many of its shows there.
The cons: Unlike the larger anime platforms, you can’t watch HiDive shows online for free. Because it’s an indie platform often limited to direct distribution, HiDive has a significantly smaller catalog than Crunchyroll or Funimation. But it’s still an impressive catalog with a lot of recent hits a well as old classics, and anime fans will want to consider taking it for a trial run.
Best for: Hardcore anime fans who want access to Sentai shows and other titles exclusive to HiDive.
Cost: $4.99/month or $47.99/year for access to episodes and the ability to stream on up to two devices simultaneously, plus simulcasts, multiple user profiles, and lots of customization.
The basic setup: The AMC-owned Shudder boasts a carefully curated rotating streaming catalog of horror films new and old.
The pros: Shudder is great for horror film lovers, because it runs the gamut from wacky B-movie horror to esoteric arthouse picks. It has an opinionated community of fans, and occasionally features live events like the popular movie marathon series The Last Drive-In. Coolest of all, it has a live movie stream where paid users can watch random selections from its catalog play 24/7.
The cons: Shudder’s catalog rotates pretty regularly, so it’s easy to miss something if you don’t check in often. And the site is pretty glitchy — for instance, you might have to click titles a few times for them to play, or to add them to your customized list.
Best for: Horror buffs of all kinds, whether you’re into the gore or the arthouse variety.
Cost: $5.99/month or $56.99/year; includes a seven-day free trial.
The basic setup: Screambox serves horror films for the voracious horror fan.
The pros: Horror fans love horror any way they can get it — and for a subset of those fans, the more extreme or lowbrow, the better. Screambox aims directly at that target audience, with a category just for “extreme” films with titles like Virgin Cheerleaders In Chains, and genres broken into subgenres: Do you want your serial killing with a side of home invasion, backwood butchery, or murderous clowning?
The cons: Screambox lacks the prestige of the AMC-backed Shudder, with many of its offerings lower-profile and thus wildly varied in quality. Many horror fans consider B- or even C- and D-movies as their bread and butter, but many others won’t.
Best for: The kind of horror fan who can tell you every instrument of torture used in the Saw franchise, probably.
Cost: $4.99/month or $35.88/year, includes a free seven-day trial.
Asian TV and films
The basic setup: Asian Crush focuses mainly on Korean, Chinese, and Japanese movies and dramas in a wide variety of genres.
The pros: Asian Crush is a versatile site depending on what you’re into — fans of J- and K-horror will be delighted by the site’s horror and thriller offerings, while K-drama fans should have plenty to keep them occupied. The site’s curated collections are solid; most of the films are available to stream for free and they’re subbed, which is a great way to get hooked.
The cons: While most of the site is free, many films are completely behind a paywall, and there’s little to tell you which are free and which aren’t. The site is also an odd duck. For one thing, it doubles as a media site, serving regional celebrity and pop culture news — except most of the news is months and even years old.
Best for: Asian film and drama fans looking to branch out beyond the most well-known titles that find their way to Netflix and other mainstream platforms.
Cost: $4.99/month; includes a free 30-day trial.
The basic setup: Roukuten Viki, aka Viki, offers a streaming catalog of TV dramas, variety shows, and films from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand.
The pros: If you want Chinese and Korean TV, this is your best bet — the site has over 500 K-dramas and hundreds of shows and films from China and other Asian regions. Most of the titles in Viki’s catalog are free to stream, but newer releases and the most popular titles typically require a subscription.
Viki has a unique approach to distribution and access, in that it works with teams of fansubbers across the globe who contribute foreign subtitles to licensed titles on its website. That means that the quality of subtitling and translation can vary, but it also means fans in numerous countries can get broad access to a tremendous selection of shows and films.
The cons: Viki has a smaller selection of dramas and films from regions outside of Korea and mainland China, and some shows in its catalog have yet to actually be released.
Best for: K-drama lovers who’ve already watched everything on Netflix and want more. Fans of The Untamed will also find the full series and its two side movies here, along with many more TV dramas from mainland China. And K-pop and J-pop lovers will find plenty of music-related content in the many variety and reality shows, including current smash-hit K-pop show I-Land.
Cost: Tiered pricing is $4.17/month ($49.99/year) for access to movies, ad-free HD episodes, and early access to some episodes; or $8.33/month ($99.99/year) for even earlier access to all episodes. Includes a free 30-day trial.
Help keep Vox free for all
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.