Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Friday, 25 July 2008 15:46 UK

Hollywood's digital graduation

Click's editor Richard Taylor investigates how Hollywood is beginning to change the way it distributes and allows people to watch its films.

Film studios are beginning to embrace digital delivery
Two years ago Click reported on Hollywood's struggle to beat illegal downloaders.

At the time its primary impulse was to aggressively pursue the offenders inhabiting the so-called "darknet", the internet underground.

But the studios' will to sell and distribute its content digitally over the internet appeared to be half-hearted at best.

There were a few American-based sites offering poor-value packages which restricted how you could transfer the content, but that was about it.

Battling pirates

At first glance not a great deal has changed since then.

Hollywood's still churning out mega-budget movies, and the fight between what they see as the forces of good and evil continues unabated.

Entertainment industry lobbyists are still aggressively pursuing freeloaders. In the UK they have just announced they will be working with big Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to scare off persistent file sharers.

But films are not just available as illegal downloads, but also as streams from YouTube-style websites which have sprung up.

Happily, there are some positive signs that the Hollywood suits are not just on the warpath, but are beginning to embrace digital delivery of movies.

New markets

The studios are in an experimental mood.

Online, they are busy forging alliances with established players in the retail and entertainment world.

We can tap our content into high broadband-penetration markets like Korea, that have typically underperformed for the studios on the DVD side
Alex Carloss, Paramount Pictures
There are downloads-to-own, or downloads-to-rent, tie-ins with subscription services - for those prepared to pay the high wholesale prices the studios are demanding, you will find sites offering hundreds of recent movies - in reasonable quality.

"The exciting thing for us is that we can tap our content into high broadband-penetration markets like Korea, that have typically underperformed for the studios on the DVD side, over-performed at the box office, but there's the infrastructure there to deliver those contents at high speed," said Paramount Pictures' Alex Carloss.

"In Western Europe there's a huge amount of broadband expansion in terms of speeds and penetration, so I think you'll see studios like ourselves rolling out deals with many more partners in each of those different territories, with a number of different business models," he added.

Accessible films

Some of the most significant deals involve the big games console makers.

Apple TV
Apple TV has a library of about 1,000 films that users can rent
At the E3 entertainment expo earlier this month, Sony launched its network video store for the PS3, finally giving at least some competition to Microsoft, who also used the occasion to further expand the movie library available on the Xbox 360.

The upside for the studios is a secure and easily accessible outlet for their films, not just on computers but in people's living rooms, where they might conceivably want to watch them.

The consoles are not the only show in town though.

We are now seeing dedicated set-top boxes which plug into your TV and suck content in from various online services.

The most successful of this service and hardware combo comes, unsurprisingly, from Apple.

It already owns the music downloading space. And with Apple TV, users in several countries can download and stream movies and TV content from the iTunes store.

The movie library currently stands at around a 1,000 titles, thanks to a landmark deal earlier this year.

It saw all the major studios license their content to Apple. Some titles even lack the 30-day delay after the DVD release which has traditionally been used to protect high-street retailers.

"It was a real acceptance that the studios were prepared to make deals beyond keeping their existing DVD customers - Wal-Mart and the like - happy," said Arash Amel, a senior analyst with research firm Screen Digest.

"It also meant that there is an element of acceptance that they're potentially tapping into different markets, that the movies that are topping the list on iTunes are not necessarily the movies topping the DVD charts," he added.

Portable films

Of course, part of the beauty of digital content is that you are not just limited to watching this stuff at home.

Person selecting a film from a kiosk
DVD kiosks allow people to burn a movie quickly and legitimately
The studios are beginning to tap into our desire to watch stuff whenever, wherever, on whatever we want. Some websites allow you to download and then sideload the content onto your mobile. Even handset makers are getting in on the act.

If you want the physical object as well then you are also catered for. Most of the studios are flirting with the idea of giving us a digital copy of the movie in a portable format on the physical DVD.

And if your DVD store is closed you can burn a disc in just a few minutes at a kiosk in the high street.

DRM restrictions

But common to every single piece of digital content mentioned is the thorny issue of copy protection which is making our digital lives way more complicated than they might be.

Arash Amel said the issue of copy protection and technology being used to prevent files being moved to different devices will become increasingly important over the next few years because people do not own full "ecosystems".

"Some people would own a PlayStation and a PSP, some people would own an iPod and an Apple TV box, but ultimately we all own a little piece of each.

"Getting these devices to talk to each other and move content between each other, is going to be difficult enough without having lots of incompatible file formats,

"For music this has gone away with MP3, but for movies, we're not going to see this change for quite a while," he added.

Net firms in music pirates deal
24 Jul 08 |  Technology
Q&A: Music and file-sharing
24 Jul 08 |  Technology
Apple launches TV service in UK
29 Aug 07 |  Technology
Set-top boxes put to the test
25 May 07 |  Click

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