Who Wants To Download When Hollywood Uploads?

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Tue, 04/04/2006 - 16:00

Where online movie downloads are concerned, it was never a case of will the studios do it, but when will they, and how far will they go. Watching Hollywood's vain efforts to put a stranglehold on filesharing technology and other software that it considered posed a threat to its business - you'd be forgiven for thinking that in a Hollywood exec's perfect world the internet wouldn't exist, computers would be the preserve of the rich, and people would still be traipsing to the local stores for movies on VHS.

But Hollywood no longer holds the distribution aces. Unfortunately, or not, depending on who you speak to in the film industry, the tools for ripping and swapping movies are now ubiquitous in this ever more networked world we live in.

More people have broadband than dial-up modems, and with DVD writers, portable players, and storage space plummeting in price, exchanging movies could surpass Mp3-swapping as our favourite pastime. At least, that's the fear.

The writing has been on the wall for some time (remember Napster?). But as the traditional distribution models are flipped on their head, the studios have been so reluctant to try new ways of getting their films out there that inevitably their customers have gone off to find their own ways of moving their movies from DVD to laptop to iPod to web server.

Some in the independent world, unable to compete with the Hollywood marketing machine, see the changes brought about by new technology as a world of opportunity (see Rethinking Film Distribution.)

DVD sales are still important - forming a large proportion of any film's revenue. It's estimated that around half of the revenue for the big studios comes from DVD sales. Many movies only manage to break even through DVD sales. Hollywood doesn't want to kill the golden goose.

Too little, too late?

Having failed some time ago to persuade the US courts to enforce stringent copy protection laws, Hollywood's latest step into the digital distribution game came on Monday, with the announcement that US websites Movielink and CinemaNow, will sell downloadable films.

The new medium will hardly turn the tide in its present carnation. The studios are gingerly dipping their toes in the waters of digital downloads. You just need to see what you get for your money (I say "you," but the service is only available to U.S. users).

Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, Universal, MGM and Paramount, and 20th Century Fox are selling around 200 titles through Movielink. Windows Media's DRM (Digital Rights Management) software will only allow the film to be played on one PC.

Meanwhile, CinemaNow will allow you to copy the film onto DVD for playing on two other PCs, but not for playing on a conventional DVD player. Great! And you can only play the movies through your television if you can find a way of hooking your computer up to it. Another drawback is that the films don't come with the extras that are now virtually standard with a new DVD release, yet the price for a download is around $30 (£17), the cost of a DVD.

In the UK, Universal Pictures, in partnership with AOL and LoveFilm, are trying a similar online distribution experiment starting with the UK DVD release of King Kong on April 10 (King Kong DVD), where you download the film on the day of its release and can play it for several days. They also send you the DVD in the post. To watch the downloaded film though you have to be connected to the internet when it starts so that the licence can be verified.

The BitTorrent crowd, ever more sophisticated in the art of peer to peer filesharing, are unlikely to go for Hollywood's digital downloads.

But for those who want the ease and convenience that online downloading offers, particularly being able to access some of the studios' giant archives of films, at least these are steps in the right direction. If Hollywood would just stop treating all its customers like criminals, then maybe it'll eventually give us a movie download service we will want to use.


King Kong DVD

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