More movies online! Via the USA

My local video stores all closed two years ago, and we switched largely to iTunes rentals, plus the occasional Bay St. video or Film Buff for obscure films. I was initially quite unhappy with the selection on iTunes Canada – we watch a lot of obscure, old and foreign films, but most of the video-on-demand services are mainly good for post-2005 North American films. So, I’ve just done a quick scan of the alternatives.

The verdict: iTunes Canada is considerably better than it used to be, and iTunes US is a little better – but not massively better. Using both iTunes US and Amazon Instant Video is probably the best bet.

Here’s the math. We’ve got a list of 81 movies we’d like to see. This list already excludes many easy-to-find titles that we’ve already rented from iTunes Canada, but still has a number of popular movies. Many films on the list are from the Onion A.V. Club’s Best of 2000s and orphans lists, the American Film Institute’s Top 100, and good films I’ve previously seen and would like to watch with my wife. You can think of my list as an “obscurity-ometer” – the more you can hit off, the better for viewing obscure films.

Of the 81 movies in our list,

  • 35/81 can be rented from iTunes Canada
  • 41/81 can be rented from iTunes US (or Canada)
  • 49/81 can be rented from iTunes US/Canada or Amazon Instant Video
  • 60/81 can be rented from iTunes US/Canada or Amazon Instant Video, or purchased
  • 66/81 if you add other providers (iTunes UK/France, Vudu, Netflix,, Virgin France)
  • the remaining 15/81 cannot be streamed, either by rent or purchase

Here’s how I’d break down the differences in catalogues:

  • iTunes US does better on foreign films and US indie films… and sometimes even Canadian films.
  • adding Amazon Instant Video appears to fill in the pre-2000 catalogue a fair bit
  • adding purchased films adds several post-2000 US titles that aren’t available for rental
  • Netflix and Vudu each add just one new US title to the list
  • Several foreign titles are only available from foreign video sites. I have no idea whether it’s even possible to buy streaming video from those stores…
  • The unavailable list contains several “high profile” omissions (Disney, Indiana Jones, Studio Ghibli, Rushmore), many pre-1990 films, and otherwise truly obscure stuff (foreign, Canadian, US indie). A few of these can still be found on YouTube and other such sites – they’re essentially the “abandonware” of the film world.

I break down which titles fall into each category below, if that interests you.

It’s remarkably easy to create an iTunes US account – no special “US unblocking services” required – and films are slightly cheaper there. All that’s needed is a US payment mechanism like the “Vanilla” Mastercards available in Shopper’s Drug Mart or the online iTunes gift card resellers like It even works fine on the AppleTV.

For the other services, I’ve been using, and to see which services carry a given film. They don’t cover Amazon Instant Video though (or Google Play’s store, which is fairly similar).

If we go with Amazon Instant Video, we’d probably try out a DNS service like or for $5/month. Or… maybe we’ll just head down to Bay St. Video for a good old-fashioned rental.

iTunes US vs. iTunes Canada

For Rent in Canada but only for Purchase in US

  • Shaun of the Dead (2004 UK)

For Rent in US but Not Available in Canada

  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007 Romania)
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938 US – available for purchase in Canada)
  • Chico & Rita (2010 UK/Spain)
  • Grizzly Man (2005 US Herzog documentary)
  • Italian for Beginners (2000 Denmark)
  • Last Night (1998 Canada)
  • State and Main (2000 US indie)
  • The Unbelievable Truth (1989 US indie)

For Purchase in US but Not Available in Canada

  • American Splendor (2003 US)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 US)
  • L’Enfant (2005 Belgium)
  • The Fall (2006 US indie)
  • The Fog of War (2003 US documentary)
  • Hard Eight (1996 US)
  • The Muppets (2011 US Disney)

Amazon Instant vs. iTunes (US+Canada)

This is the small set of films where Amazon was better than iTunes. Mostly it was poorer. Unless otherwise noted, these are available for rent on Amazon Instant and not available on iTunes.

  • Big Trouble in Little China (1986 US)
  • Hard Eight (1996 US)
  • Repo Man (1984 US indie)
  • Show Me Love / Fucking Amal (1998 Sweden)
  • Some Like It Hot (1959 US)
  • Shampoo (1975 US – Amazon: Purchase, iTunes: Not Available)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950 US – Amazon: Rental, iTunes: Purchase)
  • Tanner ’88 (1988 US HBO – Amazon: Purchase, iTunes: Not Available)

Other Providers vs. iTunes+Amazon

Mostly, the other providers can’t beat the iTunes US+Amazon Instant combination. Here are the few films that others offered for rent that I couldn’t rent from iTunes US or Amazon Instant:

  • iTunes UK: Morvern Callar (2002 UK), Chungking Express (1994 Hong Kong)
  • iTunes France: Sous le Sable (2000 France)
  • Vudu: One, Two, Three (1961 US)
  • Netflix US: Morvern Callar (2002 UK)
  • Netflix Mexico: Nashville (1975 US)
  • Netflix Sweden: American Splendor (2003 US)
  • Sous le Sable (2000 France), Vendredi Soir (2002 France)
  • FilmoTV, Universcine: Sous le Sable (2000 France)
  • Imineo, Virgin France: Sous le Sable (2000 France), Le Samouraï (1967 France)
  • PluzzVAD, VideoFutur, Video à Volonté: Le Samouraï (1967 France)

As you can see, Vudu has a little bit of back catalogue, iTunes UK/France cover regional films from those countries, Netflix is pretty random and there are other specialist foreign video-on-demand providers out there, like or Virgin France for French films.

Not Available to Stream from Anywhere

  • As It Is In Heaven (2004 Sweden)
  • Crimson Gold (2003 Iran)
  • Fitzcarraldo (1982 US)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 US)
  • The Intruder (1962 US)
  • Millenium Actress (2001 Japan anime)
  • Rushmore (1998 US)
  • The Secret World of Arrietty (2010 Japan, Studio Ghibli/Disney)
  • Spirited Away (2001 Japan, Studio Ghibli/Disney)
  • Treed Murray (2001 Canada)
  • Trust (1990 US indie)
  • Two-Lane Blacktop (1971 US)
  • Vanishing Point (1971 US)
  • What Time is it There? (2001 Taiwan)
  • The Wrong Guy (1997 Canada/US)

Not Rentable, Only For Purchase

  • 3-Iron (2004 Korea)
  • American Splendor (2003 US)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 US)
  • The Fall (2006 US indie)
  • John Carter (2012 US Disney)
  • The Master (2012 US) – but was available for rent several months ago
  • The Muppets (2011 US Disney)
  • Nashville (1975 US)
  • Tanner 88 (1988 US HBO)

5 Replies to “More movies online! Via the USA”

  1. Excellent post, David. I wonder if you have any conclusions about where things are going? A while back I was speculating that we were kind of in an availability bottleneck, at least in Canada (where Netflix is pretty dismal). All the video rental places were closing down, but more and more stuff was becoming available online. I’m not sure that online availability is really increasing significantly, though. I have a text file full of movies I’d like to see if I have a chance to rent them, and the part that simply can’t be streamed anywhere just gets longer and longer.

    I’ve actually recently started buying Blu-Rays of movies I really want to see, after several years of pretty much not ever purchasing movies on the theory they’d all just be available online soon. (Also, the fact the PlayStation 4 was announced to use Blu-Ray meant I would definitely have a player in my house for at least another 6-8 years.)

  2. One major caveat on the US iTunes store: rentals are for 24 hours instead of 48. In my current sleep-deprived stage of life, it’s hard to watch a 3hr movie in one sitting… I prefer to watch 90 mins. over two days, so this is a real consideration.

    On the foreign language stores: one of the big challenges is subtitling. I haven’t explored this enough yet, but I doubt many of them offer English subtitles to foreign-language films.

  3. Eric –

    I guess I have a few thoughts:

    For the US market:
    1) For new US releases since streaming kicked in (mid-2000s), it feels like the catalogue is decent and fairly stable, and Apple (etc) have a standard agreement in place with the studios. I have to imagine the rental revenue is vitally important to studios selling new films, and they can’t afford to skip this.

    2) The older stuff is probably just a painful patchwork of disparate owners and different weird one-off licensing agreements. It feels like Apple (at least) is trying to slowly do it anyways, to build an advantage in the “catalogue” department over competitors like Netflix. I see this continuing over time, but there’s probably a limit – at some point the cost of negotiating is greater than the benefit.

    3) Plus a few weird outliers – I can definitely see Disney trying to make rentals impossible, and push everyone to a purchasing model; or, trying to have their own “Disney store” for their films. (Studio Ghibli is Disney-affiliated, but according to this link, comment #3 it’s Ghibli that’s the stumbling block rather than Disney.)

    4) And a few interim hiccups – I’m sure Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, etc. will be available to stream soon – they just haven’t figured out their strategy yet. I see “The Master” was for rent a few months ago, and now only available “to buy” on all stores this week. (wtf guys?!)

    5) In a digital world where studios license to all players at the same price, rental stores can only compete on catalogue and ease-of-use. We may well see “exclusivity” agreements with particular services to provide brand distinction.

    6) The more obscure foreign stuff is never going to happen very well. It may well be a bit of a dark age for obscure foreign film – locked down content in their home country, no arthouse distribution route in North America, no physical media to import/export. Torrents may become our only hope – unless someone forms an online “Cinematheque” experience with a rotating catalogue of foreign film available by streaming. (Some of the French sites like may give a hint of what that might look like. This article suggests the Cinematheques are already thinking about it.)

    7) Maybe the Internet Archive could set up a “one-user-at-a-time” streaming service for in-copyright movies, similar to the “one-reader-at-a-time” book lending service that a friend of mine was working on.

    For Canada:
    8) Sucks to be you. You’re never going to be a big enough market to be worth serving. Better hope iTunes Canada keeps improving, ’cause no one else cares. Figure out how to stream from the US, and soon…

    1. A quick glance today shows that many of the gaps in the catalogue have been filled, by both iTunes and Amazon Instant in particular. Several films that were available for rent, however, have dropped out – over the last several months, I’ve watched the iTunes USA catalogue drop quite a few recent rental titles, such as David Finchner’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Judd Apatow’s Superbad.

      There’s also a new film search engine with better coverage:

    2. It looks like is filling a gap now too – looks like a monthly subscription service for cult films, with a good Herzog catalogue at least.

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