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.)
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.)
Both sites also impose the kind of pointless obstacles that get Web designers fired at competent online retailers. CinemaNow doesn't show a movie's price until you click its "Buy" button, makes you run Internet Explorer for Windows to buy anything and forces you to sit through multiple software installations before the first download starts. Movielink not only requires IE for purchases, but you can't even see its home page in any other browser.
Collectively, these sites amount to the most hostile movie-procurement option since the video store in Kevin Smith's comedy "Clerks" (which, by the way, you can't rent or buy at either site).
There is hope for movie downloads, but you'll have to look outside the big-name studios. On Monday, CinemaNow is planning to start selling video files that you can burn to DVDs and watch in any player. There's only one catch: These are adult-only films from Vivid Entertainment Group.
The TV business has also begun to grasp this "don't annoy the customer" principle. Apple's iTunes store -- which now sells dozens of series from the major networks as well as non-broadcast channels -- makes it point-and-click easy to buy episodes of TV shows for $1.99 each and watch them on an iPod. But two newer options let you watch complete episodes online for free.
AOL's In2TV site ( http://in2tv.aol.com/ ) offers free streaming video of 30 older Warner Bros. series to anybody running Windows XP-- although you need to install a plug-in if you run Firefox instead of Internet Explorer. The commercials are easily ignored ads outside the video frame, and the video's quality has been good every time. (You can download a separate "Hi-Q" program to view these shows in a higher resolution.)
The single best TV-viewing option online, however, comes at ABC's Web site ( http://www.abc.com/ ). From now through June, it's offering free streaming video of "Alias," "Commander in Chief," "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost." And it's doing this without requiring any new software; the video clips play in the Flash browser plug-in already on nearly all Windows and Mac OS X machines.
The commercial breaks consist of just a few 30-second interactive messages from one sponsor. Video playback briefly paused twice on a home DSL connection at the larger of two playback sizes but was completely pleasant otherwise.
Hollywood loves to complain about the threat of file-sharing services that distribute unauthorized copies of movies and TV shows. But its usual response -- asking Congress to pass laws requiring electronics manufacturers and software developers to build copy-control technology into their products -- won't solve that problem.
Instead, all the industry needs to do is make it easy for law-abiding customers to turn to Web sites that make money for it. Why is this so hard for these companies to grasp?
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro email@example.com.