Epix has ambitious online plan

A sneak peek at the new premium channel's Web site

NEW YORK -- Offering movies and related content online more comprehensively than any premium TV player has done so far is a key focus for Epix, the joint venture of Viacom, Lionsgate and MGM.

Part of the game plan is making films currently playing on the Epix linear TV channel available on-demand and surrounding them with fun facts and cool extras.

Epix chief digital officer Emil Rensing last week gave The Hollywood Reporter one of the first sneak peeks at the beta version of EpixHD.com, which he is continuously updating and improving for an expected launch later this year.

What is clear from the early look at EpixHD.com is that it is catering to younger consumers and their DVR and social-networking habits, as well as movie buffs.

"There has not been a lot of product innovation in pay TV," Rensing said. "It's all about choice for us. ... We want to let (consumers) do what they want to do."

As an example, he mentioned that hit movies on competitors' channels traditionally start at a predetermined time -- say 8 p.m. "I'm not home then," Rensing said. "Why can't I watch online when I want?"

About 100 movies are currently available on the beta site, which Epix is letting select people and business partners preview -- along with studio stills, movie posters and DVD-style extras, such as trailers, interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew information. Below the video window, users can also find a synopsis and 10 fun facts about the movie they are watching.

"Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise wanted the part of Iron Man, but it was Robert Downey Jr. who took the lead," says one fact about "Iron Man." "To prepare for his role, Downey spent five days a week weight training and practiced martial arts to get into shape ... the other two days were spent singing 'Na Na Na Na Na Na' to Cage and Cruise."

If users want to own the film DVD, the EpixHD.com beta allows them to connect to Amazon.com or Ebay with an easy click. Epix can even make money that way as Amazon's affiliate program pays a referral fee, explained Rensing.

For the social-networking generation, a button allows users to say "I like this movie," and Rensing said his team is working on integration features with popular networking sites.

How do people find the movie they want? The site allows users to search for films by genre, most popular, newest added and collections. The category "classics," for example, brought up such films as "Rain Main," "King Kong," "Serpico," "Fatal Attraction" and "Raging Bull."

Rensing said by giving consumers different ways to look for content, his team wants to offer browsing as well as discovery opportunities.

One of the most-discussed Epix online features is surely the "watch with friends" button that allows users to e-mail a link to up to four people, even if they are not Epix subscribers, so they can watch a movie together. In case of such a "private screening," the inviting user controls when the film plays, and the friends can send each other comments.

Via the planned Facebook and Twitter integrations, EpixHD.com could allow users to let the first four friends who sign up join them in a private screening, Rensing said.

Is Epix not concerned that people will watch too many movies for free this way? Like his CEO Mark Greenberg likes to do, Rensing pointed out that people can also gather friends at their apartment to watch a boxing match on pay-per-view without anyone being worried.

"But if someone constantly overuses invites, we may politely ask them not to do so," he added.

Overall, Rensing said, the user experience and convenience are his main focus. "For me personally, this (kind of service) would make me keep my TV service active," he said about the benefit for cable, satellite TV and telco video operators. So far, only Verizon has signed up to carry the Epix TV channel and Web offering.

Part of the user experience is that the Web site is in most cases instantaneously useable, according to Rensing. "You need no plug-ins, new browsers or (Web) players," he said. "It works on 97% of computers."

In addition, all movies are encoded in versions of six quality levels, and the quality dynamically changes depending on a user's currently available bandwidth to avoid that the picture stutter.

One final fun fact: Selected movies' pages on EpixHD.com feature the image of a red curtain, on top of which the video plays, adding a bit of traditional movie going flair. According to Rensing, it is a stock image of the curtain of midtown Manhattan's venerable Ziegfeld theater.
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