A lot of streaming services have issues when it comes to “browsing.” Bad user interfaces abound. It’s always going to be easier to search for a specific film than it is to browse through the library to find something of interest—this is true of pretty much any streaming service.
But Amazon Prime Video is in an entirely other class, in terms of its inscrutability. None of the other major streaming services are half as difficult to browse in a way that is logical and helpful. Strike that: None of the other services are 10% as difficult to browse. Thanks to a massive library that is overflowing with thousands of bargain bin, zero-budget films that no other service would want to touch with a 10-foot pole, the average user needs the digital equivalent of a sherpa guide just to find the few legitimate movies worth watching. It’s the entire reason why we publish lists of the best films available on streaming services such as Amazon—because it’s not just “inconvenient” to browse them; it’s borderline impossible.
So buckle up. Strap in. I’m about to show you how deep this rabbit hole goes. You will likely leave mystified as to how Amazon could possibly be employing such a thoroughly, completely broken system. It’s a study in excess, terrible movies and organizational disasters that is such a mess, it becomes positively comedic.
Browsing Amazon Video on the Web
I’ll be giving examples of how broken this system is on both web browsers and the Amazon Prime Video streaming app, but let’s start by assuming you’re trying to browse this library via your PC or Mac web browser of choice.
Right off the bat, the user interface is very difficult to navigate, forcing you to go multiple layers deep to find complete film listings in various genres. Once you do accomplish this, you’re given two options for sorting thousands of films—“featured” or “newest arrivals.” The “featured” option is the default, arranging the films by whatever arcane, unhinged method has created the disaster you see before you. “Newest arrivals” is obviously useless, considering that it includes every random, zero-budget, direct-to-VOD film that Amazon picks up in any given month, which is a lot of them. Case in point: Set it to “newest arrivals” while browsing the drama genre and the first page contains the 1986 Chinese ninja film Shadow Killers Tiger Force. Classic drama, right there.
Hey look everyone, it’s the newest “drama” film on Amazon Prime Video!
Add to that a few additional layers of redundancy, as some films are listed multiple times—sometimes even three or four different times—with certain pages saying a film is “included with Prime” and viewable, but others saying the same film isn’t available, and we’re off to a pretty bad start here on the UI alone.
Now let’s examine a single genre, and see what kind of results we get.
Browsing Drama Films on Amazon Prime Video
For the sake of reproducibility, I got these results:
— On the week of Feb. 19-23,
— While browsing the “drama” genre on Prime Video,
— With the setting of “included with Prime”,
— With TV shows disabled, if only because the first page immediately offered “Psych season 2” as a drama.
After setting those parameters, I am presented with no fewer than 400 pages of films that are tagged as “drama” on Prime Video. That represented 9,120 titles at the time of my results, although at the time of my writing this, that number is now 9,392. Each page is (insanely) broken up into 16 movies, a choice so random that it makes my brain want to crawl out my ears to escape. You may be thinking “but 16 × 400 equals 6,400, not 9,392,” and you would be correct—but I can only tell you the information that Amazon displays. Maybe 400 is the maximum number of pages it can load? Who’s to say?
Notable is the fact that the UI doesn’t provide you with any way to click on or enter a specific page of the results—there’s not a box where you can type in “take me to page 127 of 400.” There’s only two ways to get there; by arduously clicking through every page one at a time or by finding the page number in the URL and modifying it by hand. If you’re saying “why would I ever want to browse that far?”, the answer is that great films are still hidden in the depths of each genre, surrounded by an ocean of garbage. Allow me to demonstrate.
Page 1 of Drama
At first, things seem pretty normal. There’s Creed on page 1, and both Fences and Arrival. So far, so good, right? Well no. The first page also prominently features 2016’s The Choice, a romantic drama with an 11% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. It’s listed on the first page well before the Best Picture-nominated Room, which won the Best Actress Oscar for Brie Larson. Now, simply ask yourself this: If you were designing an algorithm to show the movies you have access to on your service, would you want it to display Room first? Or The Choice? Do you want your service to imply “we have access to a bunch of great, critically acclaimed films”? Or “we have access to Nicholas Sparks adaptations that very few people cared to see in 2016”?
But hold your freakin’ horses, because we’re just getting started here. This is page 1. This is the safe zone. Just wait until we’re a few pages into this wasteland.
Page 2 of Drama
A faith-based 2016 movie called Priceless (25% fresh on RT), starring members of the Christian pop band King & Country, is ranked ahead of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
Who needs Scorsese when you’ve got this?
Page 3 of Drama
The abortive 2017 horror sequel Rings (7% fresh on RT), which is for some reason tagged as drama, rated ahead of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Jon Favreau’s Chef. Are you getting the idea now? It it becoming clear how nonsensical this system is?
Here are a few more highlights:
— On page 5, you can find Requiem For a Dream on the same page as Chuck Norris’ Invasion U.S.A., which shows up in a “drama” search DESPITE the fact that it’s tagged as “thriller” and “action” instead of drama … proving once and for all that Chuck Norris possesses the power to circumvent entire genre restrictions and appear wherever he chooses at will.
— On page 8, Amazon finally deigns to display Best Picture winner Moonlight, on the same page as a direct-to-video erotic thriller called Innocent and a direct-to-video romantic comedy about lumberjacks called A Frosty Affair. Clearly, these are all films of equal merit.
How is someone supposed to choose between Moonlight and this movie?
— The further you go, the more the quality deteriorates, but random critically acclaimed movies are still stuck among the junk. Among all of the sexually suggestive, possibly softcore films with titles like Cookies & Cream, Stalked By My Mom and Be My Teacher, you’ll find the Coen Bros. Inside Llewyn Davis on page 34. Obviously, no normal person is ever going to browse through 34 pages, so the only way you’d know that film was available on the service would be if you thought to type it into the search box.
— Just for fun, I paged ahead into the 150 page count and beyond (via URL manipulation, because this is the only way to do this) to see what the movies would be like that deep into the library. There’s lots of trash, as you would expect ( Blood Orgy of the She-Devils is a highlight), but guess what—there are still quality films here too! On page 175, I found 2017’s critically acclaimed Menashe (97% fresh on RT), which Paste gave an 8.2 when we reviewed it. That’s 175 pages into the drama genre, behind countless non-dramas and softcore porn films. Hey A24, how do you feel about the fact that your critically acclaimed film, released just last year, is 175 pages deep in the “drama” category when you’re browsing Amazon? Do you at least agree that it’s a worse film than Blood Orgy of the She-Devils?
I’m really not making these titles up, I promise.
Browsing Drama Films on Amazon Video App (via Roku)
If I’m going to talk about how all of these films in a single genre are displayed on the web, I should probably talk about how they’re displayed via the Amazon streaming app as well. Using my Roku, I can happily report the following:
— If you look up a genre (let’s go back to “drama”), they’re arranged in the exact same order as on the web, incorrect genre listings included, which means you’ll still find Rings or Invasion U.S.A. here.
— However, it lists only 200 movies, rather than the massive library. That means the total number of films you can browse through here is equal to only the first 12.5 pages of the MORE THAN 400 you see when you browse that same genre on the web. This makes the bizarre ordering all the more important—I can find Diamond Eye: T.H.O.T. Process 2 and Homeless for the Holidays by browsing “drama” on this app, but not The Lobster, Serpico or Glengarry Glen Ross, which are all on the next few pages. In what world does this make sense?
Another classic Amazon “drama.”
— A dirty little secret here: Not all of the movies available via the web show up on the app, even when you’re using the search function. Amazon seems to be betting on the fact that you’ll never know one film is available via a web search, but not an app search. If you go deep into the 400 pages of drama films and enter the names of random movies you find there, it seems random as to which ones are listed/available on the app, and which are not.
Browsing Horror Films on Amazon Prime Video
Lest we be accused of cherry picking a specific genre to make Amazon look bad, let’s do an abbreviated version of the same exercise in the horror genre. I think you’ll find this one even worse, if that’s possible.
Entering the settings “included with Prime” and “movies only” for the horror genre, there are 245 pages of results, which included 3,822 titles when I gathered this data (it’s now 3,833 at time of writing). Even moreso than in drama, there is zero curation on display here. There’s less than zero curation. The films seem to be arranged in an order that approaches true randomness, like they were scattered by a random number generator.
You would think that in lieu of other sensible ways to rank these films, the “featured” setting would fall back on user ratings, but it clearly doesn’t—films with much higher ratings are routinely dozens of pages behind ones with lower ratings. You might also think that the “featured” setting gives priority to recency, which it sometimes appears to be doing … right up until it doesn’t. As in “drama,” films of the wrong genre repeatedly show up here as well. Borderline pornographic T&A films show up constantly, with titles like Legend of the Naked Ghost and Mulva 2: Kill Teen Ape! The number of films that appear to be shot on cell phones by high school students is truly shocking. Even someone like myself, who is fascinated by bad movies, will be completely unable to sort the wheat from the chaff, because Amazon seems to welcome ANY motion picture, regardless of quality. Let’s get into the examples.
Mulva. Seriously. You can watch this on Amazon right now.
Page 1 of Horror
Somehow, the FIRST film suggested out of 3,822 choices is the Spanish-produced 2013 movie Anna (35% fresh on RT), known internationally as Mindscape, a film that was released in 15 U.S. theaters and made only $2,541) in U.S. grosses. Jesus, at least Rings (which is #5, because Amazon is obsessed with this movie) was produced in the U.S. How do you rationalize Anna being the thing you’re most desperate to promote in this genre?
Page 2 of Horror
Already slogging through direct-to-VOD garbage, you’ll find one of the greatest horror films of all time, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. According to Amazon’s ranking, this is a lesser film than Antisocial Behavior, The Guest House, The Monster Project, Route 666 and Dead Birds. Who would want to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when you could watch any of those?
Page 5 of Horror
It only takes five pages to not only reach zero budget softcore horror, but 50-minute documentaries about the making of zero budget softcore horror, such as The Making of Garden of Hedon. It’s apparently a better film than 2015’s critically acclaimed Green Room, which you’ll find a page later.
Other juicy tidbits:
— An entry in David DeCoteau’s infamous, homoerotic softcore series, 1313: Billy the Kid appears on the same page as F.W. Murnau’s style-defining vampire masterpiece Nosferatu.
It’s either shirtless, homoerotic cowboy fiction or the most famous work of German expressionism. Your choice!
— Vincent Price’s classic The Last Man on Earth can be found 22 pages in.
— Dario Argento’s seminal giallo Deep Red is located 36 pages into this morass.
— Even after going more than 50 pages deep, I couldn’t find the original 1968 version of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, despite the fact that it’s clearly available on Amazon Prime Video. This means that the most influential zombie film of all time is somewhere deeper into the rankings than 50 pages. I rest my case.
— Via the streaming app on my Roku, I encountered the exact same problems as I did when browsing the “drama” genre.
What do we take away from all of this? Well, “Amazon Video is impossible to browse,” obviously. But it’s more than that. None of Amazon’s other competitors are this unfriendly to browsing. Click on a genre on Netflix and you can browse through easily enough—although they do have similar issues with which films are “suggested.” But at least you can load everything on one continuously expanding page for easier scanning.
The consumers being screwed here are the ones who actually want to take advantage of the width and depth of the library. Yes, anyone can type in the name of a random movie into the search bar, and you’ll find out right away if that movie is available. But does that mean it’s the consumer’s responsibility to come up with a list of films they want to search for on Amazon, one at a time? Is that really feasible when there are THOUSANDS of movies in each genre? Some of us just want to browse what’s available, the same way you would in a video store—going up and down the racks until you make a selection. There are countless great films here, but you’ll never know it, because you’ll never know that they’re available—all the more reason to use our ranked streaming list.
When Amazon’s “featured” option deems Blood Orgy of the She-Devils as superior to one of last year’s best-reviewed features, there’s a problem here. I think just about anyone should be able to agree with me on this.
... although with that said, I highly recommend you watch Dracula’s Angel on Amazon if you want to see the most amazingly unwatchable thing that you (or anyone else) has ever witnessed. If there’s one good thing that came out of this experiment, it was the feeling of wondrous bafflement I felt while watching the opening minutes of Dracula’s Angel. Nothing can prepare you for this, I promise you.
If anything deserves to be the mascot for the overall quality level of the Amazon library, it’s Dracula’s Angel.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident bad movie appreciator. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.