Warners kicks off digital VOD in China

'I Am Legend,' 'Speed Racer' among first titles offered

NEW YORK -- Warner Bros. has unveiled plans to release its films in China via digital VOD technology, a first for a Hollywood studio in one of the world's largest and most controlled broadband markets.

"I Am Legend" and "Speed Racer," among others, will inaugurate the service that Warners and partner Union Voole Technology are calling "the first transactional VOD deal of its kind in China."

Announced Tuesday in London, the deal will allow viewers to go to Voole.com to rent Warners films never released in China's theaters for between 4 yuan and 7 yuan per title ($0.59-$1.02).

Each year, China limits to 20 the number of imported films allowed to share in theatrical boxoffice revenue. In 2006, Warner Bros. withdrew investment from its theater business in China after a dispute with the government and its local partners.

Warners and Voole also plan to offer a wide range of Warners film and television library titles via VOD.

In a market rife with movie piracy, Warners puts at 300 the number of video Web sites in China, where estimates show that there soon will be more than 230 million users.

"Only a tiny fraction of these sites offer feature-length films, and even fewer actually own distribution rights to Hollywood movies," the studio said.

Tony Vaughan, managing director of CAV Warner, the studio's China home distribution joint venture since 2004, said that more than 80% of China's Web surfers viewed online video content in the last six months.

"Now we can offer them a wider selection of top quality entertainment the way they want to watch it," Vaughn said.

The Warners titles on the Voole site will offer consumers a choice of original English soundtrack with subtitles or a high-quality, Chinese-language dub.

Warner Bros. said that research has shown that this feature represents a "significant benefit versus pirated copies," which often are marred by poor sound or inaccurate subtitles.

"This new service will provide more convenience and choice to consumers, and at the same time, help us to combat piracy by offering great Warner Bros. movies in a high quality, legitimate format," Union Voole Technology CEO Shao Yiding said.

An attempt to access Voole.com on Tuesday from New York produced a message in Chinese and English denying access to would-be VOD renters outside China. The message offered a toll-free customer service hotline for users in China. According to the message, the service is not intended for use in Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.

Warners did not say in its statement when the service would go live.