While Amazon, iTunes and Google Play give you access to rent or buy thousands of documentaries, and sometimes even films currently in theaters, there is no shortage of award-winning films available to watch online at no cost. A Google search for websites streaming free documentaries will inevitably turn up many illegal streaming sites, but we’ve sorted through the sites, and their apps, and found 11 with the best selection. (Note that we’ve limited our list to U.S.-friendly sites.) Here they are in alphabetical order:
1. Crackle: Also a growing source for popular Hollywood films, Crackle boasts a small collection of acclaimed documentaries. Current selections include American Movie, Crumb and Dogtown and Z-Boys.
2. The Documentary Network (on YouTube): With more than 25,000 subscribers and 3 million views, The Documentary Network is one of the leading film channels on YouTube. Each film is categorized by duration and given a description, rating and video source. You can also use the world map feature on its website to select films based on location.
3. Hulu: This popular video streaming site has more to offer than just TV shows and webisodes. Hulu offers a broad selection of documentaries, and in 2011 acquired exclusive streaming rights to hundreds of films from the Criterion Collection. However, unless you have HuluPlus, your video viewing will be broken up by a series of ads.
4. Netflix: Netflix has a huge selection of documentaries, and though the site requires a subscription fee of $7.99 a month, the first month trial is free. Though the collection can be overwhelming, many sites and critics frequently rank their top picks to filter through the offerings. Netflix now has original programming and recently acquired exclusive rights to several documentaries, The Square, Mitt and more recently, The E-Team and Virunga, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
5. The New York Times Documentaries and The New York Times Op-Docs: Grouped into channels that correlate with its print sections – International, Culture, Food, Travel – the Times’s video content covers every topic imaginable and includes several long-form original documentaries from all over the world. The opinion channel will lead you to Op-Docs, a collection of short, opinionated documentaries by independent filmmakers, described in the series’ trailer as controversial, provocative and passionate stories.
6. PBS: Browse through all of PBS’s documentary series for free, including POV, FRONTLINE, American Masters, American Experience, NOVA, Nature and Independent Lens on the PBS website or apps. Log in to create a watchlist for future viewing. May we also suggest the POV video RSS feed?
7. SnagFilms: Launched in 2008, Indiewire’s parent company offers more than 10,000 free documentaries, each categorized and graded by users. The site’s “Just for You” feature can recommend films, and SnagFilms’s “filmanthropy” page exclusively lists activist documentaries — topics range from “Empowering Women” to “Building Community.”
8. True/False Film Fest: Browse through and watch previous selections from the Missouri-based documentary festival, all the way from its start in 2004 to 2014, along with “Other Docs” categorized as T/F Alumni films or classics.
9. VICE: What started 20 years ago as an edgy punk magazine has become a rapidly expanding media company with numerous video-producing platforms, including an Emmy-award-winning documentary series on HBO. In their documentaries, VICE has brought the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea, explored terrorist recruitment in Dagestan and traveled alongside ISIS through Iraq and Syria. VICE produces several videos a day, available for free on its website or YouTube channel, which has nearly 5 million subscribers.
10. Viewster: Search by the documentary genre to watch either TV series or movies, each rated with its own “hotscore.”
11. Vimeo: Vimeo has more than 27,000 videos tagged as documentary films, though the majority are shorts, and allows users to search documentaries with its channel feature. The documentary film channel is Vimeo’s most popular, with 700 videos and 36,000 followers.
What are your favorite sites and apps for watching documentaries free online? Share your picks in the comments…