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  • Movie Downloads: Technology in Search of a Market

    October 27th, 2006

    All right, some 125,000 movies were downloaded from iTunes the first week the service was available. Since then, things have been fairly silent on that front. That only one studio is participating certainly limits your choices, but there’s a larger question, which is whether it makes any sense at all to buy a movie from any download service except as a novelty. Or maybe you’re stuck in a hotel with nothing to do.

    True, Amazon has more studios on board, just about all except Disney in fact, but the situation is little better, and Mac users aren’t allowed right now.

    Both services have severe restrictions, even though the prices are barely less than what you’d pay for a physical DVD from a discount retailer. You can copy the downloaded file to a DVD, but only for backup. You can’t take that disc and play it on a regular DVD deck. Foolish, but true. The movie studios also make a big deal of all those extras on the DVD versions of your favorite movies. You have a regular cut, a director’s cut, deleted scenes, background information, and lots more.

    But not on those particular movie downloads.

    Now to whom do you assign the blame? Is it Steve Jobs and his crew Apple for not making a better deal, Amazon or any of the other services out there? Or do you put the blame four-square in the hands of the movie companies and their lawyers who came up with these silly notions in the first place?

    Yes, we all know there is DRM on music downloads too, but at least with Apple, the restrictions aren’t so severe as to inconvenience most law-abiding people, which is why there are not a lot of complaints. Aside from exclusives, the music companies are essentially agnostic about which services they’ll sell to. That means that Microsoft’s forthcoming Zune Marketplace, and the existing services, have many of the same titles that you find on iTunes. To the greedy companies who license that music, they’re happy to take your money and they don’t care where you get your music, so long as it’s from a legal source and they benefit.

    Now I’m sure the movie companies understand that technology is changing, and that someday broadband speeds will be sufficient that you’ll be able to download high definition movies in just a few minutes. They need to prepare for these developments, and they are just wading in the waters right now and trying all sorts of lame solutions hoping that some will gain traction.

    Today, however, I find little reason to download a movie, except as an experiment, as I did on the day iTunes began to carry such fare. All my movie rentals come from Netflix. They have a great selection, even of older titles, and, if you get on the waiting list early enough, you will rarely be passed over when a hot new release is available. Yes, I know some have complained that folks who rent too many titles over a month may be getting short shrift. Perhaps Netflix is acting like the ISP when you use too much bandwidth, but I don’t think it happens to that many people.

    For the rest of us, Netflix is cheap, flexible, reliable. If I truly do want to buy a movie, and I do on occasion, Netflix often offers previewed DVDs at discount prices. Or you can save money on new product and go to Wal-Mart or Amazon for your favorite titles. The former, for example, often sells new releases at a discount, a loss-leader, just to get you in the store to buy other merchandise. Regardless, it makes plenty of sense to take advantage of those great prices.

    So if I can do all this, why would I want to save a couple of dollars for a crippled movie download? The answer is, that I don’t, and I won’t until the movie studios and the services that carry their product get together and come up with a sensible solution.

    What does that mean? Pure and simple, the download version must be just like the one you buy at a store. You can make a DVD copy of it, the resolution and content, with all the extras intact, is identical. The only possible difference might be some minor restrictions on copying the file to a certain number of DVD blanks, which makes perfect sense.

    And it should be cheaper than the physical version, since the studios don’t have to pay for manufacturing, packaging, shipping and wholesale distribution. But, at a time when movie studios can waste tens of millions of dollars to fawn over an overpaid star, you can’t really expect them to do something that makes sense, right?

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