At the same time that Brokeback Mountain hits video store shelves, savvy computer users can download the entire movie ... legally. The Oscar-winning drama is the inaugural release of a new video-on-demand service from Movielink.
Five of the major Hollywood studios started the California-based company four years ago to offer time-limited online rentals of feature films, but Movielink chief executive officer Jim Ramo says purchasers can now own a downloaded digital copy to watch over and over again. "What we've tried to do with our launch is to have a great mix of Academy Award winners, blockbusters and classics," he explains. "We have a little over 300 titles in all with our launch."King Kong is also among the recent titles now available online along with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Memoirs of a Geisha. According to Sean Carey, digital distribution vice president of Sony Pictures Home Video, the studios are responding to audience demands. "From a business standpoint," he says, "it offers us - the studios - the ability to get our content the way we believe consumers want to get it: any way, anywhere, anyhow and any place they choose."
Of course, video pirates already have those options. Warner Brothers Home Entertainment president Kevin Tsujihara says the new plan provides a legal alternative to online theft estimated to cost the entertainment industry more than $4 billion annually. "Obviously it's a factor in the decision-making. Consumers are telling us through the usage patterns that we're seeing from piracy that they're looking for our content in this form. It's one thing for people to do it when it's free. It's another when we're asking them to pay for that content, but obviously there is a demand and a usage that's being done."
Movielink CEO Ramo says the company's experience with some 100,000 rental downloads per month demonstrates that illegal copying can be prevented. "All of our content is secured with a digital rights management system," he says, explaining that means the movie file is encrypted in such a way that 'unlocking' it is very, very difficult. "Movielink has now been in business for about three and a half years and we're beginning to develop some real confidence that the Internet channel of distribution can be as secure as, say, satellite and cable."
With a high-speed (cable modem or DSL) connection, a full-length film takes about 90 minutes to download. The digital files are in Windows Media format and will only play on a PC. Purchasers can burn backup copies to DVD; however, those discs will n-o-t work on a standard DVD player. Mr. Ramo says that will change when copy protection protocols can be perfected. He also notes that the downloads will n-o-t work on Macintosh computers. "We would certainly like to work with Apple and it's a possibility, but it's also possible that Apple will work directly with the studios themselves," he suggests. Apple, which pioneered video downloads through its iTunes site, may have its own film distribution plan in the works, perhaps with Disney.
Movielink has films from Warner Brothers, Sony, Universal, Paramount, Fox and MGM in its catalog. A rival company, CinemaNow, uses similar technology to offer titles from the Sony and LionsGate studios. However, Mr. Ramo says the download-to-own service is only available within the United States. "We have a filtering mechanism that makes sure that the only people who can get Movielink are within the United States. Having said that, I think we're starting to see studios license other distributors around the world. There have been announcements recently in The Netherlands, the UK and Germany, so I think there are certainly more and more countries that are going to be opened up for digital delivery."
Will it replace DVDs that currently bring the studios $40 billion in annual worldwide sales? Movielink CEO Jim Ramo believes it is too soon to tell. For now, he says film fans should consider download-to-own another option: one that is higher quality and safer than pirate copies.