Leading studios' VOD charge

Five top Hollywood studios have united in an effort to beat any pirates to the punch in Internet distribution of video content and have named Jim Ramo, primary founder of DBS service DirecTV, CEO of their broadband VOD service, Movielink.

"We have a team to build, infrastructure to build and deals to do," says Ramo. "And then, once we launch the business, we have to sell movies. So that's the job over the rest of this year."

Movielink (formerly known as Moviefly) is a joint effort of MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures, Universal and Warner Bros. The independent company has equal investments from the five studios.

"The studios are putting out a legitimate business as an alternative to piracy way before the piracy of video is anything like what existed in music," Ramo says. "And one of the intents of Movielink is to get out ahead of that curve and provide a reliable, quality product at a reasonable price."

Ramo joins the company after a stint at Shelter Ventures LLC, where he was a consultant and initiated investments. He was also CEO of datacasting company Geocast, COO of TVN Entertainment, and executive vice president of DirecTV. But now he wears the hat of VOD trailblazer.

Ramo hopes to have Movielink up and running by the end of the year. At that time, customers will be able to visit the site and download movies and other video content from the five partner studios. The faster the connection, the faster the download, he says, noting that even users with a 56k modem will be able to download content although it might take all night.

"We want to make this a convenient, quality-oriented and protected service so that consumers can come and get feature films and other high-value video content in a reliable manner," he says.

Each studio will be given the latitude to choose which content will be offered, what window that content will be offered in and how much it will cost. Companies like Microsoft, RealNetworks and Quicktime may be involved to help play the content, although no deals have yet been worked out.

According to RealNetworks President Larry Jacobson, Movielink has licensed Real's Media Commerce suite, which provides secure content delivery.

"A large part of the movie industry isn't going to go forward unless they have technology that is strong enough to ensure that it's secure, so we're happy to be part of that," Jacobson says. "Another way we can work together is for Movielink to be part of RealOne distribution channel. We're building subscribers and just passed the half-million mark, so we think it'll be a great place to promote movies. We'll be talking with Movielink about making Real a distributor as well as a technology company."

Ramo adds that the goal is to do more than just promote Internet-delivered VOD. It's also to help open up the concept of VOD. "I think, over the long term, VOD will become a significant way we all watch recorded material because of the convenience of viewing. I would hope that any content provider, whether an independent film provider or a studio television provider, would look to us as an opportunity for additional VOD revenue streams."

Another studio-launched VOD service is Movies.com, which will be offered by Disney and Fox. Plans at this point call for it to start out as a cable service, but Jacobson says it isn't as far along as Movielink.

Ramo expects the distribution channels for Movielink to be extended to cable. "We're clearly putting our initial investment into an IP Internet platform, but we're interested in driving VOD in general," he says. "If we could be constructive to the cable or satellite industry, we'd be happy to do that, and we'd love to talk to them."