iTunes and the 24-Hour Movie Rental Conundrum

July 18th, 2017

Most of you know about this, but it doesn’t make the policy any easier to tolerate. So Mrs. Steinberg and I were looking for something to watch Saturday night. Most of our favorite TV shows are on their summer hiatus, and there are a handful of summer shows, from SyFy and other channels, which only occupy a few hours of our time each week.

So we went hunting on iTunes for something worth watching, and there wasn’t much to see in terms of recent action and sci-fi fare. A couple of weeks back, we ran across “Doctor Strange,” the movie about the Marvel magical super hero, on Netflix. We’re currently catching up with Iron Fist, yet another Marvel super hero.

We returned to iTunes, and ran across a recent Tom Cruise film, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.” It’s about a former military investigator turned vigilante who has a penchant for beating up bad people and performing impossible stunts. To be fair, it’s what might be called a “B” grade action movie, and Cruise’s age is starting to show.

But at 99 cents, it was a decent way to spend a couple of hours, until, of course, the clock got in the way.

You see, when you rent a movie from iTunes, you have 30 days to start watching it, after which it expires and you have to rent it again. But once you start the movie, you better finish it in 24 hours or it self-destructs. Considering that Cruise also stars in the Mission Impossible franchise, that sounds appropriate.

Well, you know what happened next. We stopped the movie halfway through and expected to finish the next evening. Unfortunately, we sat down for dinner an hour or two later than usual, and thus, when we tried to pick up where we left off, the movie had expired. We had to rent it again.

At 99 cents, it was no big deal. But when you rent a movie for $4.99 or $5.99, the usual price for current HD fare, having to rent a second time gets a little silly. This is particularly true with many movies available for sale at $14.99 to $19.99.

Or maybe that’s what the movie studios prefer.

Now if I lived in another country, I would have 48 hours to watch the movie, and I wonder why U.S. citizens receive second-class treatment.

In case you’re wondering, I checked out the policy for Amazon Prime Video and, yes, it’s the same. It’s fair to assume this policy is set by the movie companies, not by the individual streaming services.

Now I realize the entertainment industry wants to protect itself from movie piracy. As much as you probably don’t care if Tom Cruise earns another $53 million from acting (that’s the estimate for his 2016 paycheck), there are tens of thousands of journeyman actors and production people that struggle to earn enough money to carve out a middle class existence. People should be paid for their labor, regardless of the amount. It’s only fair.

But does it make sense to inconvenience customers because of draconian rental licensing policies? How does that make you feel warm and fuzzy about renting a movie? In our situation, it was just a matter of timing. Normally when we rent a movie, there’s plenty of time to finish it. But imagine a family with several kids and the difficulty of coordinating the right time for everyone to sit together to share such an experience. More often than not, the 24 hour window is just too discouraging.

Now in the old days, when you’d rent physical DVDs from Netflix, you could keep and watch one as long as you want, and after it was returned, you’d get another disc. At the local video store, you’d normally keep your rented movies a week or a weekend before it had to be returned. Nobody forced you to watch it all within 24 ours or lose access.

Of course, this is also the price of somewhat early access. After a few months, maybe the movie will show up free on cable TV, or on Netflix. Still, the 24 hour requirement just doesn’t make sense from any logical point of view beyond greed and paranoia.

So can Apple and Amazon do something to change the state of affairs? It doesn’t seem as if it’s terribly high on their agendas. Don’t expect statements from Tim Cook or Jeff Bezos that customers deserve the right to possess a movie rental for more than 24 hours after they start to watch it.

But what about Vudu, Walmart’s video rental service? Any extra benefits? Not at all. It’s the same policy, the same 30 days to start watching and the same 24 hour window to finish before you have to pay to rent it again.

Now the tech industry no doubt has more important issues to consider. Apple has to get the next generation iPhones out on time — and I’m skeptical about the claims about production delays. Amazon is, no doubt, working on a new Echo with better quality speakers, and a version of Amazon Prime Video for the Apple TV.

They don’t care about movie rental limits. Or maybe they would, if one of those high-profile tech pundits actually asked them if they were going to do something about it.

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4 Responses to “iTunes and the 24-Hour Movie Rental Conundrum”

  1. DaveD says:

    Appreciate learning here that the weird 24-hour viewing period on iTunes movie rentals came from the strong-arming by the studios. Thought it was a dumb idea and glad it wasn’t an Apple one. I think it’s fair for 99-cent rental, the higher cost ones should be more than the same 24-hour viewing.

  2. Peter says:

    I would believe the 24-hour limit comes from the studios–most “on-demand” films work the same way.

    I’ve run into this on airplanes. I’ll rent a couple of movies before I leave home. I’ll watch one, start the other one, get half-way through and Oops! The plane is landing. Go through the airport, get to the hotel, it’s late, I’ll watch it tomorrow…

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