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Entertainment (August 2006)

Struggling With Movies Online
by John R. Quain
Is the" last 10 feet problem" about to be solved?

Several obstacles — meager libraries, frustrating download times, copyright issues — have hamstrung online movie offerings to date. But the biggest challenge has been what those in the industry refer to as the “last 10 feet” problem. You could download a digital copy of a movie to your computer, but you were stuck watching it on the PC.

The meager libraries are quickly filling up with titles to rent or buy. And several movie sites are even on the verge of bridging those last 10 feet.

There are a variety of ways to obtain movies online — legitimately. One approach from Vongo (www.vongo.com), for example, is a subscription movie rental service. For a monthly $9.99 fee, movie fans can watch any movie on the service on their PC’s. But the selection is limited to titles licensed by the Starz premium cable and satellite service, which owns Vongo. That means that there are typically only a few hundred full-length feature films available at any given time, mostly post-DVD release titles, like “Jackie Brown” and “Bewitched.”

Vongo’s subscription model has two additional drawbacks. You cannot purchase movies to own, and each movie has “available until” restrictions. When Starz’s license to broadcast a movie ends, so does your right to play the downloaded file.

To avoid such confusion, most movie download sites try to mimic the offerings of dwindling brick-and-mortar video stores. Typically, the online rental sites like CinemaNow (www.cinemanow.com) and Movielink (www.movielink.com) offer digitally compressed movies on a pay-per-rental basis. Customers download movies from an online catalog; rentals last for 24 hours, or you can purchase titles to keep.

While the idea sounds simple, carrying it out has been anything but. A digitally compressed movie takes at least 30 minutes to download over a high-speed cable or D.S.L. connection. If you want picture quality co

mparable to that of a DVD release, it can take more than an hour to download a 90-minute movie. CinemaNow also offers several titles in a crystal-clear high-definition format, but downloading these monster files is an overnight process. In addition to the lethargic download times, the playback restrictions imposed by studios are reminiscent of the fine print on a car lease. CinemaNow’s typical rental fees for the store’s 1,000-plus library of movies range from $2.99 for older titles to $3.99 for new releases. Offerings include most of the latest major releases, matching those you would find in a video store. You have 30 days from the date of rental to watch a movie, but once you hit the start button you have just 24 hours to watch before the rental self-destructs.

If you want to download a title permanently to your hard drive, prices at CinemaNow are $9.95 to $19.95. The catch is that to adhere to Hollywood’s copyright restrictions these movies can be viewed on only three devices, all compatible with Windows Media Player, that you register with the service. You can make a backup copy of a purchase to a DVD, but that DVD will play only on the computer that was originally used to download the movie. Furthermore, not all rental movies are available for purchase — and not all movies available for purchase are available for rental.

Confused yet? If so, you should be happier with the latest CinemaNow feature, offering movies you can burn to a disc that will play on any DVD player. Intended to solve the “last 10 feet” problem, the burn-to-DVD service is still in preview or “beta” mode, but it already has a selection of over 100 titles, including “Center of the World” by Wayne Wang, the Al Pacino movie “Scent of a Woman,” and concert videos by artists like Johnny Cash and the Doors.

It took me an hour to download the $12.99 offbeat thriller “Panic.” But when it came time to burn the DVD, which CinemaNow’s software does automatically, the recording failed after 30 minutes, wasting one blank DVD. A second attempt, which took about 30 minutes, was successful.

In addition to the time investment, buyers should know that the copy-thwarting software that CinemaNow employs to make the DVD’s is not an industry standard. Consequently, some competitors warn that the discs may not play in all DVD players. But in informal tests with new and old DVD players, I encountered no problems, and the picture quality was comparable to most store-bought DVD’s.

The CinemaNow burn-to-DVD feature is a harbinger of what is to come in the next few months from other services, according to Jim Ramo, the president of Movielink. Movielink offers a similar library of mainstream films with playback restrictions that are virtually identical to those of CinemaNow. Rental prices range from $1.99 to $4.99, with download-to-own prices starting at $8.99 and going up to $19.99. Movielink differs from CinemaNow in that it does not have a section of sexually explicit films, and it offers a handful of titles in a format for new portable media players based on the Windows Ultra-Mobile PC operating system from Microsoft.

Owned by major studios — MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal Studios, and Warner Brothers — Movielink does not yet let customers burn movies to DVD’s, but Mr. Ramo says the studios are eager to do so. Consequently, in a few months Movielink will include a burn-to-DVD option with a copy protection program called the Content Scramble System (CSS), which will require the use of special DVD’s.

Other sites are trying to lure movie fans by adding downloadable Hollywood movies to the type of free amateur clips found on sites like YouTube. Guba (www.guba.com), for example, originally offered only free video clips culled from newsgroup postings but now includes mainstream films like “V for Vendetta” for purchase at $9.99. Twenty-four-hour rentals for older films, like “Rebel Without a Cause,” can be as low as 99 cents, but there is a limited selection (mainly Sony and Warner Brothers titles).

Last week, AOL introduced its own AOL Video portal (www.aolvideo.com), combining free video fare with downloadable movies and a range of TV series, like Wonder Woman and Blue's Clues. Backed by AOL's owner, Time Warner, the site is quickly amassing an extensive arsenal of shows and movies as it signs up more studios and television networks. It already has movies from four Hollywood studios, including 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures, and features ad-supported content from A&E, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and TNT. Like YouTube and Guba, it also includes free amateur videos.

Even AOL’s download service, however, can be confusing for customers trying to figure out what is free and what is available for purchase. For example, “Wonder Woman” episodes can be viewed free as a streaming video feed, while “Blue’s Clues” shows can be downloaded to a PC but cost $1.99 each. Movies, like “Spider-Man 2,” can be bought for $9.99 but not rented or burned to DVD. In September, AOL will introduce a “10-foot edition” of AOL Video designed to be navigated by remote control on a TV connected to a Windows Media Center PC.

The current online mainstream movie services are for Windows users only. But the superstar in digital downloads is still iTunes from Apple, whose offerings so far are limited to $1.99 TV shows and music videos for playback on iPod screens. Enlarging the picture even to computer monitor size yields a fuzzy image. On the other hand, Apple claims it has sold more than 35 million videos online, so it may not be long before iTunes realizes it has to join the downloadable movie movement.

Ultimately, what may hamper sales of downloadable movies may not be download times or trouble with DVD burning. The obstacle will be price. It is often more economical to rent DVD’s from local rental kiosks or mail-order outfits like Netflix (www.netflix.com). So for now the best way to solve the “last 10 feet” problem is still to get up off the couch.




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