Originally Published June 9th, 2015. Updated & republished June 16th, 2016.
We introduced VidAngel to you previously, when they offered crowd-sourced, edited movies from YouTube. You had to purchase or rent the film or TV episode, then use the Chrome extension to play it with the edits. At the time, they offered granular controls over what kinds of content you want to see, and what you don’t. Later, their video that compared vulgar and impolite language to paintballs being shot at a family, went viral and got blocked by YouTube for a time. Since then, VidAngel has been quietly working on a new streaming service, that makes it all much easier for the average, non-techie, to watch edited films. The following is my review. I’ve used affiliate links throughout, so signups support MLH. I think you’ll see it’s an honest review, we only use affiliate links to keep MLH going, on products we praise, and those we pan.
Overall, the experience is WAY better than having to watch on a computer, with the Chrome extension, after renting the movie/show from YouTube. That whole process was clunky. Now VidAngel has their own streaming service, that they control end-to-end (from what I understand), and have built various apps for Apple TV, Roku, Android (with Chromecast support), iOS, Kindle Fire, and more, to make the experience as smooth as possible. I personally used the Android app to rent and set individual filtering settings for a few films. Then I watched them via the Roku channel on my Roku 3. You can also set your filtering settings through a web browser, but not the Roku channel (which would be clunky with such fine-grained settings).
The same granular controls are still there, but otherwise its an entirely new experience. The streaming quality was quite good, as good as you’d expect from Netflix or Amazon. I don’t have a surround sound system, so I can’t speak for all the details, but the visual and audio quality both appeared to be what you’d expect from the best streaming services. The controls were mostly just the Roku defaults, and the Android app worked in a similar way to the Netflix app.
Birdman wouldn’t play on my Android phone. Well, it did at first, but when it got to the first edit point, it just stopped and would not play further. So it’s definitely still Beta. There was no issue playing it on our TV via the Roku 3 though. Update: The Android App works great now, without any of these early issues!
The films I watched had varying degrees of watchability. Snowpiercer
didn’t have subtitles for the scenes in Mandarin, which forced me to switch to Netflix and watch a scene on there, unedited, to understand what was going on. They said they’re working on getting subtitles back into some films that don’t currently have them. There was also a couple of F-words that seemed to have been missed by the editing. Birdman regularly silenced language, and skipped over some inappropriate parts. There was also at least 1 missed F-word in that. Update: I believe these are all fixed, and their precision and quality control has tightened, so that it’s very rare if anything is missed.
Aside from the misses, the experience is as good as you can expect when it’s just silencing or skipping parts. There’s no creative editing involved, like you might have come to expect from CleanFlicks-type movies. In those, they can get very creative with how things are edited, so as to often make the edits unnoticeable. However, that kind of editing was ruled illegal, as it says on the VidAngel home page. However, it’s perfectly legal for the end user to select what they do or don’t want to see and hear, if they own the film. So that’s what VidAngel does: sells you the film, then lets you select what you want to skip or silence. It means that particularly violent, pornographic, or language-laden films may be difficult to watch or follow, depending on your filter settings. That’s just the nature of the legalities and technology involved.
The selection is small, but growing. As you might imagine from a mostly crowd-sourced (community provided) effort, it takes time to go through several levels of “tagging” (their process of labeling edits), and there’s a lot of PG and PG-13’s in there, because that’s what the community is comfortable watching unedited (more on this below). The selection is growing however, and I’ve seen new movies pop-up every few weeks.
The interface is somewhat clunky on Roku, but it’s easy enough to rent and watch something. Playback controls are what you’d expect. It was much better on Android (see screenshots above), and fairly good on the web. There’s no trailers to watch on Roku, but there is in the mobile apps and elsewhere.
Sometimes the original rating is wrong. I saw several that were R marked PG-13 and vice-versa.
You don’t actually rent movies from them. For the same legal reasons they don’t actually edit the film, you must purchase the film or TV show from them. They then have a buy-back program where you can sell it back to them within 24hrs. That way the total cost to you is only $1 for SD or $2.00 for HD. If you wait longer, it goes up by a dollar or two each 24hr period, similar to Redbox. I selected the sell-back option from the Roku interface after I viewed each movie. Update: you can now use auto-sellback to make sure you don’t pay more than $1 (or $2 for HD).
The only “catch” to this system, is that they refund you “in-store credit.” So basically you make a $20 initial investment to get your store credit account up where you can purchase a full film. But then when you sell it back, you get most back as credit. That credit is then used to cover most of the next rental. So after the first, it’s just $1 or $2 per rental. Which is really a good deal. Even if you turn the filter down to just 1 edit (you can’t turn it entirely off), it’s the cheapest streaming rental out there, and about the same as Redbox, without the hassle of going to the store and returning the disc.
Because of the history we’ve seen with services and companies in the same vein, I don’t recommend keeping a purchased film on VidAngel. If they go away, you’ll loose access to the film. However, with time, and perhaps a legal test or two, if VidAngel sticks around, it should become safe to purchase films you only want to watch edited. For now, make sure to only “rent” by selling it back after you’ve watched it. Update: looks like their first legal test has started. They’ve been sued by WB, Fox, Disney, & Lucasfilm (owned by Disney). It’s still safe to use their service though.
Support is pretty good in most cases. They’re all super friendly and eager. But in some cases I was left hanging. Such as the issue with playback on my phone. The last I heard they essentially said “well it is still in beta, so you can’t expect it all to work right yet.” That’s fine, but I offered to help them troubleshoot the issue, and received no reply.
One issue I’ve long had with editing services, is the idea that someone else has to watch them to edit them. I wonder what effect it has on the editor, as well as if it’s okay for me to benefit from their exposure to material that I believe has a negative impact. VidAngel has a clear policy of things they stand for and against. One item is “No ‘Taking One For The Team'”. In other words: nobody watches anything they wouldn’t already watch. So the people editing, for example American Sniper for you, would have watched (probably already did) that film anyway.
The other issue I have is the idea that “it’s edited, so that makes it okay to watch.” I don’t think that’s true at all. It assumes that the reason a film is bad for us is something that can be edited. Often times the overarching themes, character motivations, and other things vital to the story, are not appropriate or good for us to consume. Yet I know many people who make everything black and white: R = bad, PG-13 = good, R-edited = good. I just don’t think it’s that black and white. I also think there’s a fair amount of personal choice, inspiration, and soul searching that needs to go into setting personal guidelines as to what kinds of entertainment we consume. So I was really excited to see that another of the concepts VidAngel stands against is “Justification To Watch More Bad Content.” The founder even stated in a recent blog post:
Even though VidAngel can cut out graphic sex, violence and profanity, that does not make a movie worth watching.
Review the tags of these movies and you’ll be able to quickly see if it matches your own personal standards. They absolutely don’t match mine. As a founder of VidAngel, I do not recommend these movies to families, even with a filter.
In fact, personally, I choose not to watch much of the content on VidAngel due to the nature of the movies. I’m kind of simple, but I really like movies that uplift me.
I applaud the attitude, approach, and stand he’s taking.
Should you use VidAngel? Absolutely. It’s a great way to watch films you would already, at pricing that’s comparable to RedBox, but you get to conveniently stream it. It’s also great if there’s films you would watch, if only one or two aspects were toned down a bit. Maybe a little less language, violence, or sex/nudity, for your own sake or the audience you’re watching with.
Just remember that at this point, it’s in beta, so some words or other things may get through the filter. Even when it leaves beta, remember that you’re responsible for what you watch. If you finish a film and feel a little sick or uncomfortable, it’s your own fault. VidAngel doesn’t automatically make everything okay or even good, and they don’t claim to. Understand what you’re watching, before you start watching it. Personally I wish I hadn’t watched Snowpiercer, even edited.
I’ll definitely keep using them for watching the occasional film I wouldn’t have otherwise watched, or taming a movie I would watch, so that my kids can watch it with me. I’ll also use it (and already have) to just get a great “rental” (though it’s actually not renting) price on films I want to see, unedited. It’s a great service, with a great start, and a great philosophy to back it up. I wish them the best and hope their very outside-the-box approach and business model allows them to be around for the long-haul.
Update 8 May 2016
A lot has improved with VidAngel since I wrote this review. I’ve made some updates to the review above. But I also wrote a quick update with more details, that you should read if you’re uncertain or interested in what improvements have been made: