On Monday morning, I woke up, made a cup of coffee, settled down in front of my PC, and downloaded the recent Hollywood blockbuster Peter Jackson's King Kong from the Internet. And I wasn't even using a video pirating tool such as Bit Torrent, which I'll discuss in a moment. No, this time it was all legit: King Kong and other recent Hollywood hits are now available from video-download services such as MovieLink, and although the prices are still a bit high, you can't beat the convenience. It seems as if the movie industry, finally, has embraced legal digital downloads.
I last wrote about legal digital movie downloads in January and hadn't intended on discussing it again so soon. But something dramatic has happened this week: Major movie studios have finally embraced services such as CinemaNow and MovieLink, both of which are now offering recent Hollywood movies for download for the first time. That's right: The movies are truly recent—think DOOM, Flight Plan, King Kong, and Walk the Line—and you can download them for indefinite usage, not just for temporary rental.
Can I get a Hallelujah?
Religious fervor aside, this news is big. Aside from the obvious implications of legal blockbuster downloads, there are some other advantages to this change. The CinemaNow and MovieLink movie downloads are of decent quality—the widescreen version of Saw II I downloaded from CinemaNow was 512 x 288 and recorded at 2.1Mbps, and the widescreen version of King Kong I downloaded from MovieLink was 640 x 360 and recorded at 1.3Mbs. Compare this quality to Apple's tiny iTunes-based video downloads, which often look blurry or pixilated on large PC and TV screens.
Speaking of TV, because these services use Microsoft's Windows Media technologies, they work with the types of devices that are designed specifically for watching movies, such as Media Center PCs. Therefore, you can watch them on your large-screen TV and they'll look and sound great. They'll also work on any Windows-based notebook computer, so you can take them on the road and not have to strain your eyesight to watch them.
On the flipside, these movies also come with restrictions, of course. Like any legally purchased iTunes music files, movies you download from CinemaNow and MovieLink are protected by a technology called Digital Rights Management (DRM). The DRM restrictions at CinemaNow, for example, let you watch downloaded movies on as many as three PCs only, and you won't be able to burn the movies to DVD. You can't play these movies on a Mac or video iPod, either, although the latter device gets such poor battery life when viewing videos that you wouldn't be able to make it through a full movie anyway. These are large files, as well, and will take some time to download: The three-hour-plus King Kong, for example, weighs in at a whopping 1.75GB.
Finally, neither of the services offers a complete selection of movies. CinemaNow has deals with LionsGate, MGM, and Sony, and MovieLink offers films from MGM, Paramount, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Brothers. Perusing the sites for each service, however, you'll see that only a small fraction of the movies from these companies are currently available. Both CinemaNow and MovieLink say more films are on the way and that they will add new selections each week.
As for pricing, it's a mixed bag. At MovieLink, for example, King Kong costs $26.99 (although early shoppers could have snagged it for $19.99 on Monday). Compare that price with the price of the King Kong DVD, which you can find for $19.99 at Best Buy. The DVD version of the movie comes with no playback restrictions and includes a number of special features. With MovieLink, you get just the movie. Shouldn't the film cost less in digital format?
Anyway, the trend is positive, and I'm heartened to see the movie industry avoid the mistakes that retarded music-sales growth for the past few years. Expect movies to be made available digitally through a variety of services in the coming weeks—including, yes, iTunes—and prices to fall over time. It's the beginning of a movie revolution.
Meanwhile, the dark underbelly of the Internet will continue offering its pirated wares. To compare the quality of King Kong and Saw II that I legally purchased in digital formats, I fired up the Azureus Bit Torrent client to see what the pirates were offering. If you experimented with Napster or similar peer-to-peer (P2P) music-sharing clients in the early days, Azureus will be a familiar experience. It offers a front-end to Bit Torrent-based downloads, which include software, music, movies, and virtually any other file or content type imaginable. The advantage of Bit Torrent is that clients can download data that's distributed among multiple locations online, saving a single server from getting hammered. But the distributed nature of Bit Torrent also makes it a key technology for pirates. Virtually everything you'll want to get via Bit Torrent is pirated.
As such, it was easy to find both King Kong and Saw II through Bit Torrent. However, it was difficult to find versions that would download quickly. Indeed, one version of Saw II took over a day to download. The resulting files, however, generally exceeded the quality of the legal downloads. Bit Torrent-based movie downloads are often offered in XVid/DivX-based AVI formats, which are full-sized and full quality. They're not, however, legal. And that—along with the inconvenience—ultimately makes them a lot less interesting.