Silicon Insider: Hooray for Bollywood

Bollywood is coming to your home computer screen, thanks to the aptly named COW.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you'd better start your education right now. Because while you were worrying about something that's not that important -- such as the inevitable shifting of lower-grade tech jobs from places like San Jose, Calif., and Phoenix to places like Bangalore, India, and Bangkok, Thailand -- another phenomenon is emerging that should have you very scared. This is the one in which the risk-taking of high-tech moves offshore to other nations -- and with it the potential for rapid growth, economic power and technical leadership.

A perfect example of this can be found in the story I referenced above. To translate: a clever new company based in San Diego, called Cinema on Web, has begun to license the Indian film industry (Bollywood), which is the most productive in the world, to offer all first-run movies on the Internet for a small fee.

The deal for the moviemakers is brilliant in its simplicity: In exchange for delivering their content to COW, they are allowed to set their own ticket prices. This brings a new dynamic to the price/demand equation that we currently don't see in traditional theaters or cable PPV, where you are obliged to pay the same price whether you are watching "The Rules of the Game" or "Gigli."

In theory, a filmmaker selling a flick on COW might choose to charge a buck a view in hopes of a mass audience for a mediocre movie, or ten bucks for a high-quality film targeted at a more exclusive or affluent audience -- or, after monitoring sales in real time, even adjust the ticket price dynamically with a changing audience or shelf life. This feature alone, uniquely possible with the Internet, makes the COW concept interesting.

Security, Distribution Benefits

Needless to say, that's only part of it. For the moviemaker, the appeal of COW rests not only on potentially vast distribution -- no long drives to a cruddy shopping center multiplex, no waiting for third-tier theaters to get scratchy copies late from the distributor -- but also security.

As Al Mason, COW's chief executive officer, noted when he announced the project, thanks to piracy, every new Bollywood film is inevitably available on Internet download sites before it even premieres in theaters. Understandably, this drives Indian studios completely nuts, and they are thus more than motivated to find an alternative -- even if it means adopting a radically new distribution system.

COW is one company's attempt to answer that need. As part of its solution, the company has teamed with technical partner DivXNetworks, which creates an Open Video system that allows filmmakers to deliver broadcast-quality movies to customers -- and take their money in return -- on secure networks available in a wide range of formats (wireless, dial-up, mobile and broadband) to an equally wide range of platforms, from PCs to consumer devices to, one assumes, even cell phones. This kind of versatility is especially important, given the likelihood that many future customers are likely to come from the developing world.

As much as it understands the needs of Bollywood filmmakers, COW also seems to appreciate the desires of its likely customers as well. Thus, the company has already run out and signed a distribution deal with the famous Indian movie star and producer Dev Anand -- the equivalent to an American audience, I suppose, of signing Clint Eastwood.

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