Industry slowly embracing new media

Promising gizmos banking on being biz's next killer app

Hollywood seems stuck in first gear when it comes to the race to embrace the Digital Revolution.

After more than a decade of dithering over how to release film and TV content over the Internet and other new-media platforms -- and how aggressively to do so -- the industry remains tentative in its approach to digital distribution.

"Studios are feeling their way through," says Rick Bolton, CEO of digital downloads company Film Fresh. "On the one hand, they have the cautionary tale of the music industry before them, and on the other, they have the relatively positive example of the TV side's relationship with iTunes. But the consumer is going to decide where this all is going, not the corporate side."

With that in mind, the brave few continue to pop up with bright ideas they hope will capture public fancy and studio support.

Take Digiboo, a business startup by home entertainment veteran Richard Cohen. Digiboo would place digital touch-screen kiosks in airports and other heavily trafficked public spaces where consumers can plug in a flash drive and instantly download movies and other content.

Discussions are under way with studios and retailers ahead of a proposed market-by-market rollout nationwide. The concept's premise is simple: Downloading movies would be more popular if the downloads didn't take so long.

Digiboo gets around that problem by storing films onsite, so the transmission is almost instantaneous.

"Digiboo's technology has taken portability and convenience to another level entirely," Cohen says. "We think this is exactly what the consumer wants and exactly what's been missing from other models."

Indeed, horror stories abound of inordinate wait times on many film downloads, and the download time for season sets of TV series can be measured in days, not hours. Meanwhile, wireless remains the key means for connecting computers to television screens when viewing downloaded content, but studios remain squeamish about security concerns.

The combination of business challenges and wary consumers has exacerbated studio executives' natural hesitancy about pushing too hard for digital schemes that could undermine traditional distribution and existing revenue models.

"Digital sucks," one industryite says. "Of all the companies doing digital distribution, only Apple is making money. The volume of business is too low, and the main reason for it is that the consumer experience is so bad."

Consumers demand lower pricing on digital content, so studios make significantly less profit per consumer transaction despite higher cost efficiencies compared with packaged-goods releasing. "So whenever I switch to digital, I better get twice the volume to stay even," the digital skeptic says.

Bolton's Film Fresh shares the downloads terrain with Apple's iTunes and CinemaNow. Film Fresh uses a DivX player, iTunes a proprietary player and CinemaNow the WindowsMedia platform, with a possible addition of DivX capabilities in the offing.

Then there is digital streaming.

Essentially the digital equivalent of traditional home entertainment's rental market, there are two approaches to offering films and TV shows online: subscription- and fee-based models offered by Blockbuster, Netflix, Vudu and others, and ad-supported sites including Hulu and YouTube. YouTube still offers mostly clips of films and shows but has been negotiating for a possible move into feature content.

"There are all sorts of buzz about digital and downloading and all these things, but it's still in reality a small portion of the overall business," says Bruce Anderson, the Los Angeles-based GM of Blockbuster On Demand, which incorporates the former Movielink service acquired by the DVD-rentals giant in 2007. "From our perspective, that's a great thing. It tells us there is a great opportunity for business growth."

Digital entertainment in all forms contributes $2 billion in industry revenue, according to consensus estimates. That compares with an estimated $22 billion in rental and sales revenue of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs.

A download-vs.-streaming debate has raged for years among content companies seeking a revenue sweet spot in the digital space. But a shakeout of optimum business applications for the two approaches continues.

How's this for an experimental gambit: Mobile entertainment startup mSpot has begun streaming movies through several cell phone carriers. Content deals at launch this fall included pacts with Paramount and the Weinstein Co., and mSpot says an agreement with Universal is "pending."

Underscoring the belief that consumers care about watching more than just clips on tiny phone screens, Showtime recently launched an iPhone application through which the cable network occasionally will offer entire episodes of shows. The move continues a trend in which select episodes and occasionally newly created webisodes are used to promote key TV series.

Qualcomm has introduced a handheld device dubbed a Personal Television that syncs with FLO TV to offer content similar to its offerings via mobile carriers' AT&T and Verizon's respective Mobile Television and V Cast subscription services.

Eventually, studios may give consumers the opportunity to purchase film-viewing rights spanning all home and mobile platforms.

Disney and Sony have launched separate, multi-studio efforts to develop related technology for a possible market rollout during the next couple of years. But it's unclear how studios would price such schemes and thus impossible to know whether mass consumers will be interested.

Meanwhile, the concept of TV pay-per-view seems almost old-school compared with watching movies on computers or TV shows on mobile devices. But PPV via cable and satellite providers, aka VOD, represents another still-evolving area of digital distribution.

Several studios allow their titles to be distributed via VOD simultaneously with release on DVD and Blu-ray. But don't expect the simultaneous release of major movies on VOD and in theaters for years to come as the fear of revenue cannibalization and content piracy have executives clinging to the status quo.

Theatrical revenue is a key consideration, but the packaged-goods side of the home entertainment business is another area where caution is the watchword.

Heck, "Titanic" isn't even available on Blu-ray yet. Executives deem the current installed base of Blu-ray players too small to warrant its HD debut until more consumers embrace the format.

The situation makes it worth recalling: Survivors of the music biz also know a thing or two about the perils of hidden icebergs.