In the ongoing hubbub about online streaming services replacing traditional television, it’s easy to forget that these digital platforms are also home to a massive number of movies. Netflix, after all, began as an alternative to Blockbuster for renting DVDs, and HBO was known for showing recently released films before it became the home of gangsters and dragons.
For the movie buffs out there, we’ve combed the offerings of HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu Plus to see which has the best film library. We’re trying to assess quality rather than quantity, so we’ve ranked the four services in three different categories: recent blockbusters, all-time classics and independent films.
These stats only reflect a snapshot of the different platofrms’ offerings as they stood on April 14, 2015. Streaming services are constantly swapping movies in and out as licensing contracts expire and new ones are struck. However, the data provides a good general perspective on which services are best for different types of films.
HBO has a clear advantage when it comes to showing recent, popular films. Almost a quarter of the 50 top-grossing movies of 2013 and 2014 are currently available on its streaming services HBO Go and HBO Now, including The Lego Movie and X-Men: Days of Future Past. The standings are even more lopsided if you only consider 2014—HBO has 12 of the 50 highest-grossing movies from that year currently streaming, while Netflix has two and the other services have none.
HBO is trouncing its competitors here because it has several long-term deals with movie studios for the right to show films during the so-called “pay-TV window.” That’s a period of around eight months after a film’s theatrical release when it hits premium cable channels but isn’t yet being played on broadcast TV or basic cable. Netflix’s first major pay-TV window deal with Disney begins in 2016, at which point the streaming service’s movie library should improve significantly. However, HBO still has deals with sister company Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures.
Some people use movie streaming services as a way to rewatch old favorites or view culturally important films they’ve never seen. On this front, Netflix is the best service available, if we use the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films of all time as a proxy.
Thanks to the vastness of its library (and the affordability of nabbing licensing rights to old movies compared to newer ones), Netflix is a pretty good place to watch classic films. Hulu Plus is also a solid option thanks to its licensing deal to host the entire Criterion Collection, a selection of more than 800 classic films including Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and The Gold Rush. You’ll have to be patient to watch old movies on HBO, which has a limited selection and focuses mostly on newly released films.
Again, the vastness of Netflix’s library gives it an advantage here. The service has almost a third of the 30 highest-grossing independent movies of 2013 and 2014. Still, the other services have some notable exclusives, with HBO carrying Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is the highest-grossing film of the lot, and Amazon featuring both The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers.