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Documentary Streaming Services: Which Ones Are Worth a Watch?

Streaming Wars: A new contender wants to bring free documentaries to viewers, but other platforms also provide a wealth of options for all tastes.


Magnolia Pictures

Always be wary of claims of “first” or “only.” Such is the case with brand-new streaming platform Documentary Plus+, which announced this summer that it would be “the first of its kind to focus exclusively on documentary films.” The venture comes from XTR, the well-financed Los Angeles-based nonfiction film and television studio that Oscar-nominated documentary short producer Bryn Mooser (“Lifeboat”) launched last year.

XTR, which took five co-financed films to Sundance 2020 — including well-received docs “Feels Good Man,” “Mucho Mucho Amor,” and “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” — plans to roll out Documentary Plus+ this fall; a representative said they’re hoping for the end of September.

Billed as a “highly curated documentary streaming service,” Documentary Plus+ aims to “provide audiences with the best in documentary film and further serve as a permanent home for the work of nonfiction filmmakers along with added distribution and amplification of their projects across all social channels.”

It’s all free, and per its first press release, the first platform of its kind to offer only docs without subscription fees. (An XTR rep said that the platform will, however, eventually become ad supported.) Documentary Plus+ has not announced any titles, although the still offered to press includes “Lazarus” (a half-hour 2019 doc produced by Mooser about albino Malawian musician Lazarus Chigwandali). “It will be a selection of feature length and short docs along with previously distributed crowd favorites and overlooked festival titles that ultimately didn’t get distribution,” the rep said.

A still from the Documentary Plus+ platform.

A still from the Documentary Plus+ platform

Other platforms have tried very similar concepts, including the recently shuttered SnagFilms (which owned IndieWire from 2008 until 2016). Tubi and Vudu also have some free documentaries (with ads). Documentary Plus+ might have the edge on free documentary content, but it’s not the only streaming service to offer compelling nonfiction titles.

Earlier this year, international streaming service DAFilms launched in the Americas, complete with a 2,000-film catalogue of festival and documentary films. The platform is one of the main projects of DocAlliance, a creative partnership between seven of the major European documentary festivals, including CPH:DOX, Doclisboa, Millennium Docs Against Gravity FF, DOK Leipzig, FIDMarseille, Ji.hlava IDFF, and Visions du Réel.

DAFilms makes selections from those festivals’ lineups accessible in American homes for $6.99 a month (or $4.99 with an annual subscription, along with single-screening rentals also available for films). Sections include Spotlight On, Film of the Week, Featured Filmmaker, and Country in Focus, and recent title highlights include Agnes Varda’s “Mural Murals,” Petra Costa’s “Undertow Eyes,” and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Parave’s “Leviathan.”

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

Magnolia Pictures

OVID.tv, though not primarily focused on documentary and nonfiction, launched last year with an assortment of hard-to-find features, including documentaries from Chantal Akerman, Michael Apted, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Patricio Guzman, Heddy Honigmann, Chris Marker, Ross McElwee, Bill Morrison, Raoul Peck, Jean Rouch, Wang Bing, and Travis Wilkerson.

The streaming service, created by a collective of independent distributors (Bullfrog Films, Distrib Films US, First Run Features, Grasshopper Film, Icarus Films, and KimStim), continues to provide a wealth of nonfiction features for its subscribers — a listing of newly added docs is packed with gems — and is well worth its monthly fee of $6.99 (interested parties can try out a 14-day free trial now). OVID is the online home of Apted’s “56 Up”; it also has a selection of early shorts by Cheryl Dunye and Andrew Rossi’s “Bronx Gothic” on offer.

Educational streamer Kanopy, which is free for many through their local libraries, also boasts a number of documentary picks. And for tiny viewers hungry for brain food, documentary-focused CuriosityStream (which offers a number of subscription tiers) hosts thousands of kid-friendly docs about science, nature, society, animals, history, and technology.



First Look Media’s streaming service Topic went live earlier this year, and is “curated for a curious and engaged audience seeking smart, provocative and meaningful entertainment.” The fledgling platform (also hosting its own free trial) includes scripted comedies and dramas, talk shows, features, and yes, many documentaries.

Magnolia Films’ streaming arm, Magnolia Selects, also offers documentary-only arm, DOX Channel, which offers an assortment of its documentary films and series. (It’s $2.99 a month, while the broader Magnolia Selects is $4.99.) Currently on offer: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “Food Inc.,” “Blackfish,” and “The World’s Fastest Indian,” among others. Dox is currently running a week-long free trial for new subscribers.

PBS recently launched its own PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel, which boasts the entire library of lauded documentarian Ken Burns, including “Country Music,” “The Civil War,” “National Parks,” “The Vietnam War,” and “The Roosevelts,” among all of his other documentaries are currently streaming. The PBS Documentary Prime Video Channel is available for $3.99 and currently has over 900 hours of content on the channel, with many more hours being added every month.

The Criterion Channel has long turned its curated eye on nonfiction selections, and is currently playing home to an assortment of Les Blank documentaries, a Ross brothers retrospective, and even a masterclass from Kirsten Johnson. The annual fee of $99.99 might sound hefty, but it also has a 14-day free trial for anyone curious if it’s worth the price.

Tiger King Netflix

“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness”


Big names like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and newbie HBO Max also host a number of well-known documentaries. (Netflix’s “Tiger King” seems destined to be remembered as one of the top doc offerings of the year, for better or worse.) Hulu has a stacked selection, too, thanks to partnerships with Neon, Magnolia, and National Geographic, and both Tubi and Vudu, though mostly offering paid content, each provide some free documentaries (with ads).

Until DocumentaryPlus+ hits screens, there’s plenty of deep doc content to tide even the most voracious of nonfiction fans over.

Top 5 Power Rankings, Doc Edition (August 20, 2020)

1. DAfilms
2. OVID.tv
3. The Criterion Channel
4. DOX Channel
5. Kanopy

With streaming dominating the industry — and suddenly becoming the “new normal” in a changing world — IndieWire is taking a closer look at the news cycle, breaking down what really matters to provide a clear picture of what companies are winning the streaming wars, and how they’re pulling ahead.

By looking at trends and the latest developments, Streaming Wars Report: Indie Edition offers a snapshot of what’s happening overall and day-to-day in streaming for the indie set. Check out the latest Streaming Wars Report for updates to the bigger players in the industry.

Keep streaming, and stay safe out there.

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