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Silicon Valley Chasing Hollywood Box Office Dream

By Brian Clark
Friday, 26 Jan 2007 | 4:49 PM ET

Hollywood has long cast a wary eye on the Internet. The greatest distribution channel that ever existed, according to former MPAA chairman Jack Valenti, also happens to be the ideal channel for piracy. So it’s unlikely studio heads were happy when a new study found some 25 million Americans admiited to illegally downloading movies.

Perhaps even worse, 80% of those surveyed only use peer-to-peer file sharing sites to watch movies online, a fact that seems to substantiate Hollywood's worst fears. Just the same, Hollywood is being forced to face the Internet age. A good example is Netflix’s recent announcement that it would join a growing list of services providing movies via the web for users to watch on PCs or media center devices connected to their TVs.


The quality of your viewing experience is dependent on your Internet connection. But if you have broadband service, these sites are worth a look. Here's a roundup of the available services and what they have to offer

Netflix

Streaming means you can watch, but you can't buy. That's not a problem, particularly since Netflix members are accustomed to renting and sending back DVDs. It was slightly annoying, but tolerable. Once you download a rental, the video is stored on your PC for 30 days. Press play, however, and you get 24 hours before the movie “expiresNetflix says it has 1,000 movies available for streaming, but when was the last time you ran to your local store to get your hands on “Miss Mallard Rides to the Rescue.” That said, the service has a lot of potential and the advantage of 5.5 million Netflix members. It’s just not quite there, yet

Apple iTunes

The announcement that iTunes was adding films from the Paramount Pictures library is a huge development — suddenly the offerings at iTunes increased far beyond that of Walt Disney and Pixar’s offerings. The films can be bought for $9.99 to $14.99 and viewed on a PC or iPod, or by plugging into a TV. With such screen gems as South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and short films from this year’s Sundance Festival, the selection is solid, but not yet spectacular. Users with a large iTunes library will appreciate the convenience of storing movies in the same place.

Amazon.com’s Unbox

Yeah, the name is a goofy, but the service has over 1,000 movies, including recent releases, like “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The Black Dahlia.” I like that I can choose to rent or buy. My problem with Unbox, however, is that when I went full screen, I couldn’t figure out how to make the player controls disappear.

It was slightly annoying, but tolerable. Once you download a rental, the video is stored on your PC for 30 days. Press play, however, and you get 24 hours before the movie “expires

Movielink

All streaming prices at Movielink are $1.99 or less while purchases for new releases are $14.99. Like Amazon, Movielink allows users to store “rented” videos for up to 30 days, with the 24-hour viewing window beginning as soon as you press play.

Movielink has over 1,200 movies that you can rent or buy, depending on the licensing agreement with the studios. The service allows users to watch purchased movies on up to three PCs or devices, including some portables, and boasts a family site that allows parents or children to download films without fearing inappropriate content.

CinemaNow

Launched in 1999, CinemaNow claims to offer more than 4,000 feature films, TV shows and concerts. You can “rent” videos for $3.99, or buy them for $9.99 to $14.95. The site’s library of independent films, classic TV shows, documentaries and select programming can be watched for free—provided you’re willing to endure ads. A $100/-a-year Platinum membership enables commercial-free viewing and downloading. Rented movies must be watched in a 24-hour window. Burn to DVD allows users to burn one copy of purchased movies to be played on virtually any DVD player.

Vongo

This service’s monthly $9.99 fee allows users to watch as many movies as they want (as long as they’re available) from over 1,600 available titles, but you have to download yet another player before you can even see the services offerings. Vongo offers a pay-per-view option similar to Amazon’s—once you press play, you have 24 hours to watch the flick. And if you have a portable device that runs Microsoft’s Portable Media Center 2.0, Vongo will automatically format it for playback on that device.

So where is Blockbuster in all this? Nowhere, for now. True, the company was an early minority shareholder in CinemaNow, and last year it tried — and failed—to buy a majority stake in Movielink. And even though Blockbuster claims to have a “digital future,” the company is a big ship and steering toward new technologies has not been strength. In short, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

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