Popcornflix: Free Streaming Movies

The annoying thing about Internet-connected smart TVs? Accessing the smarts usually costs you bucks. Probably 95% of the streaming Internet video I watch on my Samsung flat-panel is Netflix ($7.99 a month) or Vudu (usually $4.99 per movie for 720p high-def). With the sole exception of YouTube, the motley assortment of free viewing options available on these TVs has all the appeal of wilted lettuce.

But at the moment, I'm watching a damned good documentary, The Legend of Dolemite, for free on a relatively new service called Popcornflix. Good thing, too, because my run-down Nevada motel room sports an early-'80s TV with a busted speaker and I really don't feel like calling the manager and witnessing her failed attempts to fix it.

Whenever you get something for free, it seems there's always a catch. So I talked with Gary Delfiner, senior V.P. of Screen Media Ventures, parent company of Popcornflix, to find out what the catch is.

Right now, one catch is that Popcornflix isn't available on any smart TVs or Blu-ray players. But it is available on Roku and on iOS devices; I'm using it now on my iPod touch.  Delfiner said more platforms are on the way: "We're just delivering our app to Samsung this week, and we're in discussion with all of the other electronics companies, going after connected TVs. We're five weeks away from releasing our Android app. We're in discussion with the game platforms, too."

While I talked with Delfiner, I flipped through Popcornflix's offerings using the free iOS app on my iPod touch, and another catch became apparent. There were plenty of documentaries I'd heard of, but almost no feature films I recognized. Ever heard of Chilly Dogs? No? OK, how about Amazons and Gladiators? Grizzly and the Treasure?

When I pointed out the relative obscurity of the films in Popcornflix's catalog, Delfiner had a ready response. "That's the good news!" he said. "How many times can you watch Iron Man?"

Good point, and to be fair, there's plenty of stuff I've never heard of on Netflix and Vudu. "The majority of movies are really good, with big stars and high production quality," he continued. "We have Sherrybaby with Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Cake Eaters with Kristin Stewart, Battle in Seattle with Charlize Theron, Lymelife with Alec Baldwin, Creator with Peter O'Toole....

"Ninety-eight-percent of it is full-length, feature films, but we also have a couple of web series. We have Film School Originals, which we put together by going to a lot of film schools and asking if they had student films they wanted to promote."

Still, that makes one film (Sherrybaby) I was familiar with. "Where do you find all these movies?" I asked Delfiner.

"We have over 2,000 movies, one of the largest film libraries outside the major studios," he explained. "Screen Media is a traditional movie distributor - like a Warner Brothers but maybe 1/20th of that. We distribute movies to all the usual suspects.

"Most of them are made by independents," he continued. "In some cases, they're made by major studios and the studios have domestic rights only, so we buy them from the international distributors. Sometimes we buy them from the banks when they [the distributors] go out of business. We're at 400 movies on the service right now, planning to hit 750 by the end of the year, and we'll add 1,000 more next year."

As I continue browsing the service, I notice another possible catch. The user interface is surprisingly sleek; if you know what you're looking for, you can find it with just a few clicks. You can search by genre, actor, director, etc. But with so much obscure content, how do you know what you're looking for?

"You can go on Rotten Tomatoes and find every single one of these movies," Delfiner said. "You'll find a lot of great reviews for a lot of them. We're also rolling out a 'staff picks' section, and building in collections, like Mother's Day, Halloween, girls night out, bachelor party…."

But to quote a line from the famous Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever": "It's time to pay for the soup." You see, Popcornflix has ads.

Delfiner claimed that the ad load is less than you'd typically get with network TV. "Generally there are two ads before you watch, and one or two during the movie every 8 to 10 minutes. We didn't want to create a bad user experience."

During my viewing, though, I never got more than two ads at the beginning, plus a static banner ad that was easy to click past. Once I was past those, the movies and documentaries were commercial-free. Of course, that could change tomorrow.

Sound+Vision readers will of course want to know the specifics: resolution, audio coding, etc. Here, Delfiner was sketchy on details. "We encode at a very high quality, and serve at a high bit rate. We don't skimp on the user experience," he said. When I asked about the audio, he replied, "I don't know the answer to that, I'm not a tech guy. We follow the Apple protocol."

My guess is that, like Netflix, Vudu, and Amazon Video on Demand, Popcornflix uses Dolby Digital Plus. Regardless, through the iPod touch and the excellent Rock-It R-30 headphones I was using, the 2.0-channel audio sounded notably clear and free of coding artifacts.

The iPod touch's little screen isn't adequate for judging video quality, but I can say the picture didn't break up or stutter despite my motel room's weak WiFi signal and, I'm sure, the cut-rate broadband service the motel is using. It was, indeed, a good user experience.

The real question: Is there enough stuff on Popcornflix worth watching? That's a matter of personal taste, but I found plenty enough to kill three TV-less hours in my motel room, and more that I wanted to check out later. Based on what's available now, I doubt I'll be sitting down to a long, relaxing evening of Popcornflix the way I do with Netflix and Vudu, but when I'm stuck in a motel room or an airport and in need of entertainment, I'll be glad it's there.