RealTime IT News

Movie Studios Offer Downloadable Films

Now playing on a PC near you: downloadable movies available for purchase on the same day they're released on DVD.

But movie fans will have to decide whether the convenience of quick access to the latest films compensates for higher costs and strict digital rights management restrictions.

The downloadable movies will cost up to twice as much as the DVD versions -- $20 to $30 for the newest titles -- and are only viewable via a personal computer running Microsoft operating systems and software. And don't look too closely for the extra features typically added to DVDs.

Previously the only film downloads that major studios offered were online rentals, which can only be watched for a 24-hour period. But on Monday, Movielink began offering nearly 300 films for purchase.

Movielink is a joint venture among Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros.

Another site, CinemaNow, is also selling downloadable versions of about 75 movies from Sony, MGM and Lions Gate, which is a large shareholder of CinemaNow.

"With more than 25 million broadband residences, we believe the market is now ready for the launch of a new Internet movie rental service," Movielink CEO Jim Ramo said in a statement. "We are combining cutting-edge technology with the best in motion picture entertainment to offer consumers an exciting entertainment experience."

"Cutting edge" is up for debate.

Movielink doesn't support Macintosh or Linux users. Movie downloads are offered in RealNetworks RealPlayer 8.0 and Microsoft Windows Media Player formats and can run only on Windows.

Nor does Movielink work with Web browsers other than Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which is likely to aggravate the presumably important tech-savvy early adopter market, a user population that tends to prefer the Firefox and Opera browsers.

The licensing rights allow users to use their digital downloads on up to three computers and create a backup DVD. Downloaded movies can be viewed only on PCs, unless consumers opt to connect their PCs to their televisions.

"Finding ways to keep track of content is important, but this doesn't necessarily mean locking it up," said Mike McGuire, vice president of research with Gartner Industries Media Team.

"This offering needs usage rules that are closer to what iTunes is doing with TV shows. The challenge then becomes not keeping honest people honest, but rather looking for the bad actors out there."

CinemaNow's site and product offerings have much the same restrictions as MovieLink with support only for computers running Microsoft's software, but the company does provide a handy guide to hooking PCs up to the TV.

Some of the digital downloads also lack the special features that are often offered with DVD versions.

For example, Memoirs of a Geisha costs $16.96 on Amazon.com and includes a dozen in-depth featurettes on the life, history and style of geishas. Movielinks' digital download is $25.99 and doesn't offer the features.

Consumers will have to check digital versions against the physical (DVD) versions to gauge what features their desired downloads may be missing.

"If they [the studios] aren't careful they're going to get bypassed," said McGuire. "Technology providers are making it easy to get content off hard drives and onto big screens. You've got to wonder what the studios are doing. Today's consumers are expecting a much higher degree of portability.

"Frankly, these kinds of hurdles don't make consumers feel particularly excited by offerings coming form conventional studios."