Download Movies Legally, for a Price

First came legal music downloads. Then, last fall, Apple's iTunes Music Store unleashed download-to-own television shows for portable devices. Now, the two leading Web-based movie services--Movielink and CinemaNow--offer digital movies for purchase.

Both Movielink and CinemaNow launched the new services earlier this week. Previously, both services focused on online rentals, letting customers download a movie for a limited rental period. The movies available ranged from catalog titles to recent releases.

The services weren't competing with what you could buy at your local WalMart or Best Buy, but rather with your cable TV service: the movies available were in what Hollywood has come to consider the video-on-demand category, as opposed to home video releases (which include DVD and VHS releases).

Movielink, owned by five of the eight major studios, will features titles from MGM, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Warner Brothers (among the hits: Academy Award-winning Walk the Line, King Kong, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.)

CinemaNow, whose major investors include Lions Gate Entertainment, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and Blockbuster, will initially feature only movies from the Sony, MGM, and Lions Gate libraries.

Jim Ramo, Movielink's CEO, notes that the older model of online movie distribution envisioned online movies being delivered 30 to 60 days after the home video release. "The studios decided to move the window up; so we'll have Brokeback Mountain available at the same time as the DVD. This shift indicates a more fundamental change in importance the movie studios are assigning to legal downloads," he said. CinemaNow has similar plans to launch films for download simultaneously with the DVD release.

With the new services, studios are trying to cook up new ways to distribute their content--and make money doing so.

Ramo credits a convergence of factors for making the time right for these types of digital movie downloads. More users have broadband connections, he says, and "there's increasing confidence on the part of the studios that the Internet is a secure delivery platform for content." The success of Apple's iTunes Music Store has helped, too, he adds: "In the last year, there has been a significant growth in consumer downloading of video of all types, and this has been driven by Apple's iPod. There's a broader awareness of downloading video, and now there's a real opportunity to fill that demand."

The advantages of digital downloads are, according to Ramos, "the convenience and the functionality. You can imagine someone having a laptop with 30 movies stored in it. You can move the files around pretty easily, and you can store [the laptop] pretty easily, too. We're really focused on the digital file and the digital delivery, and to make sure we have a really flexible delivery, so you can get what you want when you want it."

Unlike its download-to-rent model, Movielink's download-to-own service will allow you to play a 1GB file--described by Ramo as "digital cable" quality--on up to three PCs, including a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC that streams content to an Xbox or other Media Center Extender.

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