Why all the recent movie news isn’t good news

Lot’s of interesting movie news lately. First of all, Toshiba has released the first HD DVD players in Japan, and will soon start selling them in the US for $499 and $799, depending on the model. The debut of HD DVD will soon be followed by Blu-ray technology backed by Sony and Samsung (the new Sony PS3s will have Blu-ray built-in), and we’ll all get to relive the Betamax / VHS format wars all over again.

So what’s wrong with first generation DVDs? First and foremost, they aren’t selling like they used to, so it’s time to revitalize the market by updating the format. According to Toshiba, however, people are asking for them since television resolution has surpassed that of DVDs. Personally, I think Sony, Samsung, and Toshiba have a lot of challenges ahead of them.

First of all, I don’t think people are asking for higher resolution discs. I don’t even think most people with HD televisions realize that DVDs aren’t taking advantage of their televisions’ full capabilities. That means a lot of marketing and education which is going to be much more challenging than it was the last time we went through this. The advantages of digital discs (CDs and DVDs) over magnetic tape (cassettes and VHS tapes) were painfully obviously even to the least technology-savvy consumers. Discs are smaller, easier to manager, and the quality is both noticeably better and consistent. Now we’re being asked to go from one digital disc to another, and to pay a lot of money in the process, but the advantages don’t seem nearly as obvious this time around.

I think the next big evolutionary step in movie distribution is getting rid of the physical media altogether rather than just upgrading it. Rather than replacing my DVD collection, I’d prefer to get rid of it, and just store all my movies on a big hard disk (maybe even a remote storage system). I’d much rather be able to download movies, stream them to any room in the house, and reformat them to play on mobile devices than simply have a higher resolution piece of media which is no more flexible than the old physical media. Look what happened to CDs: the convenience of MP3s far outweighs the relatively negligible reduction in quality. And if you think sales of physical music media are still healthy, ask any teenager when they last purchased a CD.

The next big thing in home entertainment isn’t more pixels. It’s freedom and flexibility. It’s the ability to do whatever we want with the media we buy. No more "selection unavailable" when we try to skip the commercials at the beginning of DVDs. No more ridiculous and inconsistent DVD menus. Eventually someone is going to figure out that consumers will pay for what they really want rather than what they’re told is the next big thing. In other words, HD DVDs are the easy and obvious solution to a declining market rather than the right solution. HD DVDs fit with existing manufacturing and distribution processes, and don’t really require any significant changes. At the same time, they also don’t offer any significant advantages.

So are movie studios like Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, Universal, MGM, and Paramount finally figuring it out by electronically distributing movies through services like Movielink and CinemaNow? Unfortunately not. Although I do give them credit for helping to modernize (and legitimize) new forms of distribution, it’s disappointing to see that distribution is all they are willing to modernize. Downloadable versions of movies will still be released on the same day as their DVD counterparts, and be every bit as expensive. Additionally, they can’t easily be watched on televisions or mobile devices, they have all kinds of DRM built into them, and they will only play on Windows. In fact, Movielink visitors are greeted with this friendly message:

Sorry, but as of May 2, 2005, Movielink no longer supports Windows 98 and ME operating systems. Movielink also does not support Mac or Linux.

In order to enjoy the Movielink service, you must use Windows 2000 or XP, which support certain technologies we utilize for downloading movies.

Who needs format wars when we have platform wars?

So what do I think consumers really want? It’s easy:

  • We don’t want to have to watch new movies in theaters. Theaters offer a far worse experience than the average living room these days. Movie theaters are loud, the resolution is horrible, they stink, the food is unhealthy and overpriced, and moviegoers are forced to sit through dozens of previews and commercials. And for people with small children, the horrible experience isn’t even an option. I think most of us will pay the same amount of money (or even more) for the convenience of watching new movies at home.
  • We want flexibility. We want to be able to watch a movie on a laptop in bed or on the road, on a hand-held device, or on any television in the house.
  • We want fair pricing. I think movie studios will find that people are willing to pay more than they think for the kind of freedom we want, but should we really pay the same or even more for downloading a movie than buying it from Amazon? Give us what we want, and we probably will. Give us what you want, and probably not.

In a market driven economy, I think in the end we will more or less get what we want, but I think it’s a shame that it has to take so long and be such a bumpy ride full of illegal downloads, lawsuits, and failed formats and businesses. Consumers are actually much simpler than most corporations realize. We know what we want, and we’re almost always willing to pay to get it. It only gets complicated when companies try to get us to pay for what they want.

2 thoughts on “Why all the recent movie news isn’t good news

  1. This is a well written article, some of the ideas are obvious, but when put into words we can visualize our uncomfortableness with the apparent “necessity” to adopt a new technology. There isn’t enough of an improvement for the average user to ever justify the cost of a new player.
    But on the topic of paying a similar premium to watch new movies in the comfort of the home, I do think this argument is flawed only because current prices of new movies are not affordable and to pay $32 to watch one movie in the comfort of my home is still not an appealing option.
    In the end, give us freedom. You are reducing the packaging, lower the costs, and figure out what you are going to do with the major retail outlets. Strike a deal by investing money in their supply chains and technologies to update them to sell digital downloads of movies in some fashion so that you aren’t cutting off that business by under pricing them online.


  2. I agree with most of what you’ve pointed out but I have to disagree that the movie theatre experience is dead. I don’t know about you but I don’t have a 3 story screen in my living room. I don’t even have HDTV, which I venture to say is the case with the majority of people. Also, I like seeing the previews of upcoming movies. And, you’ve obviously never had a movie experience where the whole theatre is of one mind and is enjoying the movie together in a way that can’t be had at home. Additionally, I would say that most people don’t like just sitting at home all the time, going to the movies is an event to be done with several friends which I can’t do at my house with only a couple of seats that have the proper viewing angle and surround sound field sweet-spot. Lastly, I don’t know about yours but my microwave doesn’t make popcorn that even comes close to movie theatre popcorn.


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