Correction to This Article
The Fast Forward column in the May 14 Business section gave an incorrect title for Bruce Eisen, an executive with the CinemaNow movie-download site. He is the company's president, not its chief executive.

Movielink and CinemaNow: Hardly Worth the Effort

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 14, 2006

There's never been a better time to get movies online -- as long as you're paying NetFlix, Amazon or some other company to ship a DVD to you. If you want to download the movie, however, you're going to be frustrated. Still.

Three years after Apple's iTunes Music Store brought online music sales to life, the movie industry continues to treat Web distribution as an experiment it can tinker with at its leisure.

The latest belated addition to the movie-download market is the ability to purchase movies instead of just renting them. The two major sites, Movielink (owned by most of the major studios) and CinemaNow, added this option last month.

If you must obtain a movie in the next few hours but can't leave your house or have anybody else pick up the flick, these two Windows-only stores might work. Otherwise, it's unclear who would bother with them: They stock far too few movies, charge too much for them, offer them at a quality inferior to any DVD and grossly restrict your use of these purchases.

Movielink ( http://www.movielink.com/ ) is less annoying than CinemaNow, but not by much. It had 522 movies on sale last week, many of them deservedly obscure titles. Prices ranged from $8.99 to $27.99, with most releases going for $19 and up -- that is, twice the cost of a back-catalogue DVD on Amazon. Buyers can watch these movies on three Windows computers but no DVD players.

That limit of three computers, however, amounts to a lifetime quota -- you can't click a button to transfer viewing rights from one computer to another. (Movielink chief executive Jim Ramo said customers could call the company and ask that an old computer be deauthorized.)

The idea of asking permission to watch your own property might seem odd, but Movielink's terms of use say you don't actually own these downloads: "You shall not acquire any ownership rights by downloading any Retained Content from the Service."

A purchased movie ("Field of Dreams," $19.99) looked fine in a window on a computer's monitor, but when shown at full screen, its dull, slightly unfocused appearance made it obvious that I wasn't watching a DVD. Almost all of these downloads also lack the extras -- outtakes, alternate endings and so on -- that make a DVD worthy of repeat viewing.

CinemaNow ( http://www.cinemanow.com/ ) includes most of the defects of Movielink, plus a few of its own. It had only 116 titles for sale last week, all restricted to playback on a single computer. Chief executive Bruce Eisen said the company had signed resale agreements with studios after Movielink but would match its competitor's inventory and usage permissions over the next few months.

New releases sell for $19.95, while older titles go for $9.99. My purchased movie (continuing the baseball theme, "The Natural," at $9.99) looked just as bad as the Movielink purchase.

Even if the video-quality and playback-rights problems could be fixed, Movielink and CinemaNow would still suffer from the movie industry's "value chain" business model, in which different companies take turns at reselling movies. In this case, the deals studios have with pay-per-view and pay-TV services require each site to stop selling most new releases after a certain point.

Customers don't think or act like that; when a popular title vanishes from the shelves, they're justifiably puzzled. (A newer movie-download service, Starz Entertainment Group LLC's Vongo, is even more of a pest about these schedules; its software automatically deletes downloaded movies after their release windows shut.)


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