Studio-Owned Movielink Starts Uploading Its Fare

Movielink — the Web-based movie download service owned by five major Hollywood studios — made its official debut last week.

At launch, the service offered 200 titles from partners Paramount Pictures Corp., Warner Bros., Universal Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. at prices ranging from $1.99 to $4.99.

Consumers can download movies for a 30-day period. Once a user hits "play," he or she has 24 hours to watch the movie, which has full VCR functionality.

A look at the lineup finds Hart's War
and The Sweetest Thing
available for $4.99. A Beautiful Mind, We Were Soldiers
and Big Fat Liar
are available for $3.99.

Movielink uses digital rights-management software and media players from both Real Networks Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media platform. Its films are distributed during the cable pay-per-view window.

The service has three goals in mind, according to Movielink CEO Jim Ramo.

"We're creating a successful business model for one of the ways to have a VOD paradigm of viewing; we're building an [Internet-protocol] platform using the 'Net as a distribution channel; and we're helping to drive a trustworthy DRM into the marketplace," said Ramo, a former DirecTV Inc. executive.

Movielink's targets include the 15 million U.S. broadband homes, the 10 million broadband-enabled college dormitory rooms and, perhaps, office workers with high-speed connections, since only consumers can download the service.

In addition, Movielink users can download movies for later viewing on laptop computers under the 30-day, 24-hour restriction — something that could prove enticing to business travelers.

17-minute downloads

Ramo said cable-modem users can download a movie in 17 minutes. At 1.5 megabits, a two-hour move would download in 30 minutes. The slowest movie-download speed is 128 kilobits, Ramo said.

The minimum PC requirement is an Intel Corp. Pentium 3,300-MHz processor.

Once a consumer downloads a movie, it remains on their computer's hard drive for 30 days.

"You can hit play and watch the movie with full VCR functionality," Ramo said. "Once you hit play, you have 24 hours in which to watch the movie. At the end of 24 hours, the movie goes to recycle bin."

Ramo's first priority is to get the service up and running, he said. Extensive marketing and deals with broadband Internet-service providers will come later.

But cable operators have expressed plenty of interest in adding Movielink to their start pages, he said.

"We've had discussions with MSOs, and they are productive and moving along," said Ramo. "This category creates another reason why consumers want broadband."

Most films are licensed within the pay-per-view window, typically 45 to 60 days after a release hits the home-video market. "We think PPV is a high-value window," he said.

Indeed, many of the top upcoming titles —Enough, Mr. Deeds, The Scorpion King
and Windtalkers
— all have the same Movielink and In Demand release date.

The one exception is Columbia TriStar's Panic Room, which grossed $95 million at the box office. It premiered Nov. 1 on PPV, but won't appear on Movielink until Dec. 1.

Prices range from $1.99 for classic and library titles, to $4.99 for recent hit movies. But because the studios control the pricing, there are some minor variations. Queen of the Damned, Collateral Damage
and Ocean's Eleven
are available for $4.95.

In fact, Warner Bros.' Ocean's Eleven
— released months ago on pay-per-view — is still priced at a hit-movie level and was the most popular download on Movielink's first day, Nov. 11. Universal's A Beautiful Mind, also released on PPV months ago, was $3.99.

Some hit movies were priced at $3.99. Universal released Big Fat Liar
on Nov. 8, and it's priced at $3.99 on Movielink. Paramount's We Were Soldiers
and Changing Lanes, which debuted on PPV in October, are $3.99 on Movielink.

Avast, pirates

One reason Movielink launched was to head off Internet movie piracy before it gets any worse. The studios have not been immune to piracy, but Hollywood hasn't faced the uphill battle that record labels confronted in a world of peer-to-peer file sharing.

Still, many hit movies have found their way onto the Internet months before their home-video or PPV releases, and that helped spur Hollywood to launch Movielink.

"Content providers will put content out and create business models that are commensurate with the trustworthiness of the DRM," Ramo said.

Movielink is using both the DRM and media players from Real Networks and Microsoft, and both technologies drew praise from Ramo.

"We think they are great," he said. "They are committed to DRM strategically. As time goes on, we think we'll see in IP devices linking the hardware and software to create a more robust DRM. The business model will open wider, commensurate to the trustworthiness of the DRM."

The two studios missing from the lineup are The Walt Disney Co. and Twentieth Century-Fox. Disney's Monsters Inc., for instance, will premiere on PPV Nov. 16, but won't be on Movielink, yet.

But Ramo is talking with all of the studios about placing content on Movielink. "We'd like to do deals with others," he said.

On the technology side, the studios encode their own movies and send them to an IBM Corp. server and storage facility in New Jersey, Ramo said. Movielink also has a backup storage site in San Jose, Calif.

Movielink is using a content-distribution network owned by Cable & Wireless plc, the former Exodus Communications platform with 20 edge servers across the U.S. From there, movies are transported through a consumer's local ISP to a home PC.