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How to have a long-distance movie night with your friends and family

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Amy Iverson, top, tries out Scener with a friend. Scener is a Chrome extension that allows users to virtually watch shows from Netflix, HBO Now and HBO Go with friends.

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Some of the world is slowly coming out of quarantine, but it still may be a while before you can get a group of friends together for a movie night. Luckily technology provides ways to watch shows by yourself, while still giving us that communal movie-watching experience.

There’s just something different about watching shows with other people. There is nothing like everyone screaming at exactly the same time, seeing tears well up in your friends’ eyes — right as they stream down your own face — or hearing your grandkids erupt in laughter at a goofy cartoon. That’s been a harder experience to get during these days of isolation.

But there are some options that enable us to at least watch shows remotely with friends and family, getting us a little closer to that feeling of a big group movie night. 

The best option out there right now is Scener, which calls itself the virtual movie theater. This Chrome extension can sync shows on Netflix, HBO Now or HBO Go so you and all your loved ones can watch at exactly the same time. Scener also has a fun video chat function (you can also just choose audio or text) that pops up on the side so you can give your expert commentary as the show goes along.

To install Scener from the Chrome Web Store, click “Add to Chrome” and the purple icon will appear in your toolbar. When you’re ready to start a watch party, click the icon and then “create private theater.”

You — and whoever you choose to invite to watch with you — will need a Scener account and a subscription to whatever streaming service you want to use. 

When you start a private theater, you’ll get a six-digit theater code and a link. You can share either with friends all over the world to join your screening. I recommend sharing the code instead of the link since Scener only works in Chrome, making the process longer if Mac users click on the link and it shoots them to their default browser, Safari. But if your invitees click their Scener extension in Chrome, it will ask them if they have a code. They type in the code you’ve sent to them, and they are in.

You can have up to 20 people watching at the same time. If that isn’t enough for you, Scener says next it will begin rolling out support for even bigger co-watching parties. Versions for iOS and Roku are also in the works, according to Android Authority.

The host is in charge of the virtual remote in case they want to pause the show. The host can choose to pass the remote to someone else, but only one person at a time has the power to control the show.

This extension has been around a couple of years, but TechCrunch reports Scener usage skyrocketed 15 times as lockdowns for the coronavirus rolled out.

“By combining the worlds of live video chat and streaming entertainment,” Scener’s co-founder Joe Braidwood said, “Scener makes it easy for viewers to enjoy one of our most beloved pastimes — watching TV together — from a safe distance.”

The Seattle-based company recommends using headphones so you don’t get an echo. 

There are several other options for co-watching, but the only other one I’d recommend (because of privacy and ease of use) is Netflix Party. This is also a free Chrome extension available on desktops or laptops.

Install Netflix Party from the Chrome Web Store and then head to Netflix’s website. Choose the show you want to watch and start playing it. To create a party, click on the red “NP” icon next to the address bar and click “Start Party.” From there, you can share the party URL with whoever you want, as long as they have a Netflix account and install the Netflix Party extension. When the recipient clicks on the URL, it’ll take them to Netflix’s website (remember, they’ll need to make sure it opens in Chrome). They will need to click on the “NP” button next to the address bar to join.

The host can control the show but can also give other viewers the ability to have control. There’s no audio or video chat capability, but it has a group chat on the right side of the screen.

One small annoyance is that each new show you want to watch remotely with friends will need a new URL that you’ll have to send out to everyone. This is true even if you just want to watch the next episode of a TV show, according to LaptopMag.

And remember, these remote watch parties have a purpose long past quarantine. All of us have friends and family scattered around the globe who would love to watch the latest hot TV show with us, even from far away.