Outside of perhaps the people who work in acquisitions for major streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime, I would hazard a guess that it’s reporters for the likes of Paste and our competitors who ultimately end up most intimately familiar with the contents of those streaming libraries. Why? Well, when you spend the amount of time we do compiling lists of the best films streaming on all the major streaming services, you can’t help but eventually know those libraries like the back of your hand. At Paste, we even take this a step further than most, conducting monthly updates of genre-specific lists like “the best horror movies on Netflix” or “the best sci-fi movies on HBO Max.” Suffice to say, we’re studying the contents of these film libraries very closely by default, so we’re among the first to notice when something unusual is happening.
To which I can only say: Something has been decidedly afoot at Amazon Prime Video in the last few months, and it’s time to call attention to it. In addition to the library enduring one of the biggest apparent purges of content we’ve ever seen, the streamer has been tinkering with various UI changes that have only reinforced one truism that has been known to most consumers for years: Amazon Prime Video is extremely painful to use for “browsing” films. In the wake of these changes, however, it may have become genuinely impossible to browse Amazon in certain ways, indicating that the streamer has all but given up on the idea that anyone would want to attempt to explore the breadth of their library.
As suggested above, these struggles are nothing new. Back in 2018, I wrote a long essay about the broken nature of Amazon Prime Video’s UI, and the way it haphazardly arranged films from various genres into hundreds and hundreds of pages, with award-winning quality selections often discovered 100 pages or more into a veritable no-man’s land of zero-budget garbage. This inconvenient mode of searching, combined with the sheer amount of dreck in the Amazon library (by far the biggest pure library among the streamers), made searching for specific films the only realistic way of discovering new titles on Prime Video. Left in the lurch are those who would like to treat the service like a digital video store, browsing up and down the aisles until they landed on something interesting.
In the years since I wrote that essay, Amazon has seemingly gone out of their way to make “browsing” less and less of a priority in the evolving Prime Video user interface. Currently, for instance, there’s no obvious way to do it at all from the Prime Video homepage. Let me explain how deeply broken all this stuff is.
If you start from the homepage of Prime Video and mouse over to “Categories,” the drop-down menu contains a short list of genres. Bizarrely, not all of these genres actually correlate to the tags that categorize movies in the Prime Video library—“Mystery and Thriller” is one of the genres, but films are instead tagged with terms like “suspense” rather than either of those words. Ignoring this, however, you can click on a genre such as “science fiction” and be taken to a landing page for that genre on Prime Video. From here, you can get some suggestions on sci-fi movies and TV you can stream for free or rent. Sounds great, right? Well, hold on.
You should know things are going to get rough when Beastmaster and Terrordactyl are both apparently in the top 4 sci-fi films on Prime at the moment.
Let’s say you’re not interested in the 20 or so sci-fi movies displayed in the top carousel that are streaming for free on Prime. How do you view a full list of every sci-fi film you have access to with your Prime membership? After all, you’re paying $100 a year for the privilege to access this library as a Prime customer. Shouldn’t you be able to view a list of all the sci-fi films available to you for your $100?
It quickly becomes apparent that there is no obvious way to view that full list of sci-fi movies, suggesting that Amazon doesn’t want consumers to be able to easily find that kind of information—its user experience is built around you choosing one of the small handful of suggested films, or knowing in advance what you want to see and then specifically searching it out. However, it is possible to see the full list—in order for it to display, you just have to click on any specific sci-fi film, look at the movie’s genre tags, and click on the words “science fiction” once again.
This time, you are directed not back to the sci-fi genre landing page, but to a list of all other properties tagged as “sci-fi” on Prime Video. This page is meant to include every single film available for free on Prime, along with every single piece of content, film and TV, that is available to buy or rent. In order to pare down the results to something actually useful, you can use the toggle on the right side of the screen to specify that you want exclusively “sci-fi movies included on Prime.”
So there it is, right? A full list of all the films in one genre (science fiction) available to a user of Amazon Prime. Our long quest is at its end, right? WELL BUCKLE UP, FOLKS. This is where the true brokenness of the Prime Video UI finally reveals itself.
Scroll down this list of sci-fi films available on Prime, and a funny thing happens—you realize they start repeating themselves. As in, they start repeating themselves immediately, because the UI doesn’t properly load any additional films after the first 21. Instead, as you scroll down what is supposed to be an ever-expanding list of all films tagged as “sci-fi” on Prime, you just get the same 21 movies reloading over and over and over again. Suffice to say, for someone who regularly updates a list of the best sci-fi movies available on Amazon Prime, this is very bad news indeed—how are you supposed to find new content on this service when an obvious technical error makes it literally impossible to browse? There are still likely hundreds or even thousands of sci-fi movies on Prime Video, but even after going in the equivalent of a digital back door, you’re only able to browse 21 of them? This is what a trillion dollar company, owned by the richest man on Earth, considers to be an acceptable user interface?
Zoom out far enough and you can literally see the same films twice on one page. Double the Beastmaster!
Once again, though, this isn’t a new phenomenon, or a unique one. Folks, this particular page in the Prime Video UI has been broken for MONTHS at the very least, if not for even longer, and it’s not the only one that is broken in this same way, either. Paging through the other genres, you will come to realize that if you click on the anime, fantasy or military & war genre tags, they also reroute to pages that endlessly reload a handful of movies rather than populating the full results correctly. Which is to say, as currently constructed, it is literally not possible to browse the full breadth of any of these genres on Amazon Prime Video, even if you’re Jeff Bezos. The UI has become so badly mangled, either through simple negligence or malicious obtuseness, that not even people who navigate that UI for a living can make it work well enough to do their job. Maddeningly, by the way, other genres still function normally—if you visit the “movies available on Prime” results for horror, or drama, or action, the page loads normally as you scroll down, allowing you to see hundreds of films.
It should go without saying that Amazon obviously has the resources to make something as simple as “browsing by genre” possible. Whether they care enough to do so is another matter.
These difficulties in browsing are all bad enough, but when you look at the way specific films are treated by Amazon’s algorithm, things only become more confusing.
Here’s a random example: Take the 1989 baseball comedy Major League. It’s available now to stream on Amazon Prime Video. When you visit the film’s page, it has two genre tags: “comedy” and “sports.” Follow the comedy tag, and you’ll end up with a list of comedy films on Prime that does indeed contain Major League. Good work, Prime Video! Follow the “sports” tag, though, and the list of sports films available on Prime does not include Major League, despite the fact that the film’s Prime Video page is literally tagged with “sports.”
I think we can all agree that classic 1989 comedy Major League deserves better than the Prime Video treatment. This isn’t Beastmaster we’re talking about.
What does this tell us? Ultimately, it suggests that even if you do manage to get a full list of any given genre to populate on Prime Video, it will still probably be missing prominent movies that have been left out for no apparent reason. Which of course begs the question: Why even try to browse or navigate through these menus when they are so clearly and thoroughly broken? Has this all been Amazon’s way of disincentivizing users from attempting to do exactly that, and instead simply accept whatever the company wants to promote at any given time? Are they literally trying to break the UI so badly that eventually no one even asks for a feature like “browsing a genre?”
Meanwhile, the content purge I mentioned at the beginning of this piece could potentially lend credence to such an idea, as it seems to imply that Amazon Prime Video is exploring whether a dramatic reduction in the number of overall available titles ultimately impacts the workings of their business. Perhaps it’s a way to downsize on server space, or eliminate junk, but the last two months have seen a reduction in movie titles across the board on Prime Video unlike anything we’ve seen before. I can’t quantify any of this outside the personal observations of Paste staffers, but the changes have been sudden and dramatic. Some of Paste’s genre-specific Amazon lists saw 50% or more of the titles on them go from “available on Prime” to absent from one month to the next. This is a major, major culling of titles, but one that seems to have been barely noted by users. And why would they note the reduction, when browsing has been made so arcanely complicated as to be borderline impossible for the average consumer? The only people likely to notice these kinds of purges are writers for an entertainment publication like Paste.
At the end of the day, the sheer number of titles that have gone from “available on Prime” to “available to rent” over the last two months makes me cynically wonder if the purge is just an excuse to explore whether a smaller “free” film library but more rentable films ultimately makes for a more profitable mode of business for Prime Video. It would seem to be a smart play, as it’s built around the assumption that most users would never notice the reduction—and most indeed never will. Ironically, this seems to be who Amazon views as Prime Video’s true core demographic—not the people who use it most often, but the users who will simply watch whatever is promoted by the app on any given day.
For those of us still out here kicking and scratching to find the best content available on a service like Amazon Prime Video, however, it’s just another hurdle to overcome—one that potentially portends an even worse audience experience, if such a thing is still possible. When it comes to navigating Prime Video, we’ve long since learned to expect the worst.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.