The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

November 2003

by Terry Borst

filed 11 February 03; updated 01 Sep 03 Copyright ©2003 alt.screenwriters

Any time five (count ’em, 5) studios get together to do something, screenwriters should pay attention.

Late last year, MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Brothers collectively launched Movielink, their online movie rental service.

Movielink came online with over 170 titles (such as THE SUM OF ALL FEARS and SPIDERMAN), but its selection is still dwarfed by CinemaNow, which already offers 700+ titles, including hit movies like ERIN BROCKOVICH, THE SCORPION KING, and the first HARRY POTTER installment.

Simultaneous to Movielink’s launch, the Starz premium movie channel announced their StarzOnDemand video-on-demand (VOD) service, to be rolled out later this year.

How do these services work, and what do these developments portend for the future of feature film distribution (and, by extension, the careers of screenwriters)?

To begin with, online movie rentals and VOD are two separate animals. Let’s look at MovieLink and CinemaNow first, as they operate in a pretty similar fashion.

Anybody in the world can log onto either of these websites, select a film, fill out a registration form and supply credit card information, and for about $4, proceed to download the film to a PC or Mac.

Then you the viewer will wait. And wait. If you’re using a dial-up Internet connection, you’ll be pushing up daisies before the download completes. This type of service is really for broadband (i.e., high-speed) connections only, and even consumer DSL connections will typically need 6-12 hours for a feature download. The faster T1 connection (which very few home users have, given its high cost) will still need a couple of hours or so.

You’re going to need data space on your computer as well. Files will take up half a gigabyte or more – probably not a problem on pretty new computers, but a little dicier if you bought your computer in the last millennium.

CinemaNow offers the alternative of streaming the film rather than downloading the film. This means playback will start only a few minutes after data transmission has begun (we’re still assuming a broadband connection), but with the tradeoff that the resolution and sound and video quality won’t be as good.

Screen playback can be stretched to full-screen, or for better resolution, can be played back in a 640×480 pixel format.

The streamed version of a film won’t be accessible after its playback; the downloaded version won’t be accessible after 24 hours (hey, the studios aren’t idiots, at least when it comes to protection of intellectual property). So if you’re thinking you can burn (i.e., write) a DVD of the film for archiving or illegal duplicating, think again. Film pirates are not going to be subscribing to these services in order to facilitate their activities.

So, gee … the download takes several hours, I only get to watch the film on my computer, and I better watch it now – because it’s not like I can wait an extra day and pay the late fee. On the other hand, I can drive down to my local video store, be back in about 20 minutes, pay the same amount, and keep the DVD or videotape a few days. Or, I can subscribe to NetFlix, and rent a bunch of DVDs every month, providing I can wait for them in the mail.

Is anybody actually using MovieLink or CinemaNow?

Well, surprisingly, people are – but the demographic is primarily that of the college student with easy access to highspeed Internet connections, or the high-tech employee enjoying the luxury of pretty unsupervised downloads (if it’s a school computer or work computer, what do you care if the system’s tied up on a download for hours?).

Are masses of people all across America – and around the world – busily downloading movies they failed to catch in the multiplex last summer? No. And that’s not likely to change for awhile.

Then what prompted all these studios to band together and hurriedly (for them) launch MovieLink? Do they really need the extra pocket change they’re collecting with this service (which can’t be covering the upkeep of this new operation)?

The answer lies in the existence of CinemaNow, and even more so, in the existence of the late Napster, R.I.P. (though its reanimated corpse is expected to rise someday, so we may be talking about Napster again!).

In Napster, the studios could see a vision of Christmas Future, and it scared the hell out of them (see alt.screenwriters‘ December 2000 column). Recording companies spent millions of dollars driving Napster out of business, and while they won the battle, they may have lost the war: the music industry has suffered a rather startling drop in sales of CDs, and an entire generation is pretty comfortable downloading free music from the Internet.

With MovieLink, the studios have dipped their toes into the waters of new distribution channels, but completely on their terms. Digital rights “fingerprints” have been built into the data file formats from the start, and nothing goes out to the consumer without the consumer first ponying up valuable credit card data.

The studios don’t expect lots of people to be watching movies on their computers. A primary means of product distribution in the future may indeed be the Internet, but the delivery platform, they believe, is still going to be a TV. Ventures like MovieLink offer a dry run for VOD distribution, which StarzOnDemand gives us a first preview of.

StarzOnDemand works like this: you subscribe to Starz’ premium subscription service (called SuperPak), and if you’re also a digital cable Internet subscriber (AT&T and Adelphia are two of the initial providers), you’ll have free VOD access to the slate of movies Starz is promoting this month (with some extras as well). If the Episode Program Guide (EPG) tells you that the latest LORD OF THE RINGS won’t air on Starz for a couple of days, and you want to watch it tonight after dinner, you can (but better start the download before you start dinner).

Is this a preview of what we can expect from HBO, Showtime and the Sundance Channel in the next few years? Most likely. VOD has been something of a Holy Grail for years, and its arrival has long been prematurely forecast. As a practical matter, VOD for feature films is still not here – but when the delivery time finally becomes minutes, rather than hours (which will happen), VOD is inevitable.

We can extrapolate a little bit further on how VOD might work. For example, a DVD of all of 24‘s first season of episodes was available prior to the start of the second season. In the future, why not make all prior episodes of a series available via VOD? This creates new revenue streams, but it deflates others: broadcast-scheduled episodic re-runs may vanish, essentially wiping out residuals as we know them.

In addition, will the content and structure of television shows evolve once the old format of 20+ broadcast episodes a year and 20+ broadcast re-runs a year vanishes forever – and will these changes accrue to the benefit or detriment of screenwriters? One mantra will remain unchanged: stay tuned.

Written by tborst

September 1, 2003 at 5:06 am

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