Maybe your state is staying closed. Maybe it’s opening back up, but you still don’t feel safe going out. Either way, movie nights with friends are still vital and most of the major streaming services have official and non-official solutions to facilitate them.
We’ve done a good deal of group streaming coverage at Mashable since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and the space has evolved greatly in just a few months. Arguably, the biggest developments have come from the streaming services themselves. Six months ago, the idea that Hulu and Amazon would officially let users join a remote watch party might have seemed unthinkable. Now, it’s a reality born from unfortunate circumstances.
But there’s still a long way to go before every big service lets you do this without going through third-party means. Until then, here are the best group streaming solutions for your needs.
Last month, Hulu launched Hulu Watch Party. It’s one of the easiest group streaming apps to use, likely because it’s not capable of all that much.
Before you get too excited about watching Frasier with your friends, understand that Hulu Watch Party currently requires an ad-free Hulu subscription to work. Once you and everyone else you plan on watching with has access to one, you can start a session by going to the details page on a show or movie on Hulu’s website and clicking the “Watch Party” icon. Yes, I said “Hulu’s website.” You have to be in a web browser on a laptop or desktop computer.
Once you’re there, send the URL to your ad-free friends and they’ll be able to watch along with basic text chat. A helpful little sync button will pop up anytime someone’s feed falls behind. Other than that, Hulu Watch Party doesn’t bring much to the table. That said, you don’t need to install any browser extensions or anything like that. It’s barebones, but it works.
Amazon is the most recent service to jump in the ring, having just launched Prime Video Watch Party. I haven’t personally had a chance to test it out yet, but it seems nearly identical to Hulu Watch Party in terms of features.
The good news is there’s no need to install a browser extension. The bad news is, according to Amazon, this feature only works in web browsers, but specifically not Safari. Go figure. If you’re logged into a Prime account, find the Watch Party icon on a movie or TV show’s page, send the URL to as many as 100 of your friends, and use text chat to watch anything offered through Prime streaming.
The major caveats here are that everyone involved needs a Prime account and you can only watch Prime streaming content. If you bought or rented a movie digitally, you can’t share it with your friends using Prime Video Watch Party. Still, Amazon’s extensive catalogue is now at your fingertips.
HBO’s streaming offerings are splintered and bizarre, as you’re probably aware. HBO Now and HBO Max are completely different services with completely different content. In case you’re wondering, there isn’t an officially supported HBO Max group streaming app yet. However, if you just want to watch HBO content and not Friends or South Park, Scener is the way to go.
Scener is a Chrome extension that, in partnership with HBO, gives subscribers a way to watch HBO content like the original show Succession. It does more than just enable social HBO streams, but we’ll get to that later. Make sure everyone in your group installs the extension, clicks on the Scener icon in the upper-right corner of Chrome, and logs into HBO Now using their own login.
Once you’ve done that, it’s pretty straightforward. One user has the “remote,” which is used to control playback and can be passed to someone else by clicking on their name in the chat window. The most distinctive feature Scener has above the rest on this list is video chat support. If you want to actually speak to your friends, you can do that. Text chat is there, too, of course. As far as HBO is concerned, this is the way to watch Arli$$ with your buds.
Unfortunately, not every streaming service has gotten on the ball with official support for group watching yet.
Let’s start with Netflix, one of the biggest names in the streaming space. There’s a handy little Chrome extension called Netflix Party that lets you do all of the stuff we’re talking about today. Everyone needs to install it and provide their own login, but once that’s taken care of, you can watch things with your friends while text chatting. It’s technically a third-party app funded by Patreon donations, so it doesn’t fully count here.
Neither does Scener, though that app also supports Netflix playback that works exactly the same as it does with HBO. Scener is officially affiliated with HBO, but not Netflix. That distinction doesn’t actually matter for the end user, but it’s worth noting.
If you’re a big streaming fan who isn’t familiar with Plex, don’t be alarmed. Plex is not a traditional streaming service in and of itself, and its group watch app is similarly unusual, in good ways.
For the uninitiated: Plex is a service that lets you create a media server using your own external device to store basically anything you want. If you’ve acquired some movie files over the years (legally or not), you can put them on a Plex server, share access with your friends, and stream them remotely at your leisure.
Thanks to the free (at the moment) Plex Watch Together feature, you can sync up playback with people on your Plex friends list. The best part is that you can watch on your TV, game console, or phone through the Plex app, so it’s not locked to a web browser. The worst part is it doesn’t have built-in chat features of any kind, so you’ll have to set up Zoom, Discord, or whatever video-chatting software your friends like to use.
Setting up a Plex server requires some technical know-how, but all it takes is one person in a friend group with too much time on their hands to create a group streaming service with literally anything you want on it.
The last major group streaming site we’ll talk about today is TwoSeven, which is a service that is as versatile as it is inconsistent.
Netflix, Amazon, HBO, YouTube, and Vimeo make up its free social streaming offerings. If you choose to give at least $3 per month to its Patreon, you then also get access to socially stream Hulu and Disney+. In case that wasn’t enough, you can also share personal video files with your friends and import videos from other websites that have their own custom players using a browser extension.
To top it all off, you get both text and video chat with a pretty intuitive interface. The only major issue with TwoSeven is that importing web videos and sharing personal videos can be touchy at best and totally non-functional at worst. Sometimes playback doesn’t start for everyone in the room, sometimes it doesn’t start at all. Its big-name streaming service integration does work well in my experience, though. So TwoSeven is absolutely worth a look for your group streaming needs based on the amount of services it supports alone.
The two biggest streaming services without officially supported group watch solutions that we haven’t addressed yet are Disney+ and HBO Max. So let’s address them!
As stated above, Disney+ works within TwoSeven if you pay a little bit of money. But let’s say you don’t want to spend any extra money. Don’t worry because Scener, the service we recommended for HBO Now and Netflix, also supports Disney+. Beautiful.
As for HBO Max, your best bet right now is probably TwoSeven. Going to the HBO tab on the TwoSeven streaming page loads up Max instead of Now, which puts it a step ahead of Scener. Be warned, however, that you may have to use Firefox to watch it. At the time of writing, the Chrome version of TwoSeven isn’t compatible with HBO Max yet, but the streaming page says it will be updated at some point.
Finally, TwoSeven may be your friend when it comes to miscellaneous streaming services like Funimation, Crunchyroll, and more. The web streaming feature that lets you bring in videos from other services can theoretically work with those sites, but again, understand that you may run into technical issues along the way.
The overarching theme here is that none of these group streaming solutions are perfect yet. They may not ever be… or you may just have to wait until after the pandemic is over. But until everything is just peachy in the group streaming world, for now these are your best options.