Monday, April 03, 2006
Six major studios plan to begin selling movies over the Internet today that buyers can download and keep for watching at any time. Until now, the only downloads the studios have offered have been online rentals, which can be watched only for a 24-hour period — an idea that has not caught on with consumers. But the high prices and technological limits of the new permanent downloads suggest that they may not be an instant hit. New movies will cost about $20 to $30 to download; older titles will cost as little as $10. The downloads will be available on the same day that the DVD is released — quicker than rentals, which are put online about 45 days later and cost $2 to $5.
The studios hope that more people will want to own digital copies of movies, just as more people pay to download songs than sign up for online music subscription services that require a monthly fee. Download sales have been discussed for several years in Hollywood, but the studios have been spurred to action by the success of television programs sold through Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store.
"The Internet has really come of age now, and it is a viable method of distributing our content," said Rick Finkelstein, the president of Universal Pictures, a unit of NBC Universal, who noted that the studio's sales through iTunes have been much greater than he expected. Moreover, Universal's research showed that the majority of those downloads were watched on computer screens, not video iPods, indicating that people are willing to watch video on their PC's.
Starting today, nearly 300 films will go on sale through Movielink, which until now has been largely an online rental site. Movielink (owned by Warner Brothers, a unit of Time Warner; Sony Pictures; Universal; MGM; and Paramount, a unit of Viacom) will offer films from all of its owners and from 20th Century Fox, owned by the News Corporation. Another movie site, CinemaNow, will start selling downloadable versions of about 75 movies from Sony, MGM and Lions Gate, which owns a large stake in CinemaNow. Curt Marvis, the chief executive of CinemaNow, said he was talking to other studios about selling downloads. Apple, Amazon.com and other online retailers are also busily trying to cut deals with Hollywood to sell downloads, according to several studio executives. In general, the studios want to make downloads available on largely the same terms, in as many places as possible.
"We are talking to a lot of people, and hopefully our movies will be on many other sites shortly," Mr. Finkelstein said.
For now, these movie downloads are a bit cumbersome, and the studios have limited the way they can be watched. A movie will need about 1 gigabyte of hard-drive space and will take an hour or two to download using a high-speed Internet connection. CinemaNow will allow the movies to be played only on a single computer. Movielink will allow the movie to be copied onto a DVD, from which the movie can be downloaded to two other computers, but it cannot be played on a conventional DVD player. Nor can the movies be copied to Apple's video iPod or the much less popular handheld video players that use software from Microsoft. The studios expect to permit downloads to portable devices later this year.
For now, it is difficult but not impossible to watch the downloaded movies on a television. Some computers, like those using Microsoft's Windows Media Center, are designed to be connected to a television in the living room....
It will be interesting to see how this works out.
What I wonder is what download model the studios are using. iTunes, Napster, and audible.com (for audiobooks) all use a model that allows you to use the service itself as your library, retaining records of what you've purchased, and allowing you to download as many times as you need, as long as it's always to a previously authorized computer. I would also assume, regardless of subscription model, that the downloads encode some sort of information that identifies purchaser.
Another issue, and one where they may have been misled by television over iTunes, is that those television shows are inherently designed to be disposable. They're cheap, you usually know that they will be released on DVD later, and if somehow you lose the file or it gets damaged or destroyed, you've only lost $1-$2, nothing to get too exercised about.
Yet another issue: frankly, I'm not sure that I want to use a gigabyte of space on my computer harddrive to keep a movie. And if I'm going to copy it to a DVD -- for all that I might be able to put more lower resolution files on a DVD to get up to four movies per disk -- honestly, I'd rather just buy the DVD. You can get full video quality, you know it's going to play on your PC or your television (all things being equal), and frankly, it's just easier. iTunes and Napster are making a bunch of money from people who aren't technophobes, but who just don't want to be bothered with hauling out their cassette or record player, doing all the wiring needed to connect it to the computer, learning and using the software, and then finally digitizing the music.
Not that I think downloadable movies aren't an idea whose time has come; I'm just not quite certain that this model is quite the idea that it's time for.
Posted by iain at 03:03 PM in category film
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