Back in April I wrote about Film Fresh, an online store specializing in indie films, getting into the downloadable-film market with the help of DivX, which was supplying the software to compress, play and burn the files. The store's approach offered something that has largely eluded other downloadable movie ventures: an easy path to the TV set, at least for the tens of millions of people with DivX-capable DVD players in their living rooms. Or rather, that's what the folks at DivX promised. I recently downloaded a couple of movies from the site and found that the claim was pretty much true: within minutes of the movie's arrival on my PC, it was playing on my TV.
The secret sauce in DivX's approach is the ability to tie a customer's DVD player(s) to his or her DivX account. Any movie associated with that account -- e.g., one downloaded from an online vendor such as Film Fresh -- can be burned onto a disc that will play only in that DVD player or players. (DivX allows users to register up to six devices over a six-month period, and 10 in a year.) The DivX software can impose other rules on the downloaded files and discs, such as a limited number of plays. That makes it possible to burn a downloaded movie that you've rented in addition to the ones you've bought.
Only a portion of the Film Fresh library was available for downloading, alas. The major Hollywood studios won't have anything to do with DivX, at least not yet. From that limited selection, I picked "The Soldier's Tale" to rent. It downloaded swiftly -- well under half an hour. Authorizing the DivX-enabled Philips DVD player I borrowed from DivX took just a few minutes and the steps were straightforward, although the process was probably too lengthy for my mom to tolerate. Burning the movie was relatively quick and simple, too, with one caveat: for some reason it took two tries to burn the movie successfully. Still, that was the only glitch in the process. Once the preliminaries were finished, everything worked smoothly. When I put the disc into the Philips player, it told me the movie could be played only three times and asked if I wanted to proceed. I did, and it played flawlessly. (I later found that it kept an accurate count of the times I'd actually watched the movie, rather than the times I'd merely put the disc into the player.) The disc refused to play in my other, non-DivX-enabled DVD player. The downloaded file, meanwhile, stopped playing on my PC after the one-week rental period expired. Later, I bought a downloadable copy of "The Story of Marie and Julien" from the site, and everything worked seamlessly. Having already gone through the authorization process, I saw no trace of the DivX DRM as I burned and then played the movie. In other words, it worked the same as a DVD purchased from the local video store.
Instead of embracing DivX, the major Hollywood studios have largely insisted that downloadable movie outlets use the same kind of encryption on burned discs that Hollywood uses on packaged DVDs. The technology isn't yet available to do this, and even when it becomes available, it will require consumers to use customized (read: costlier) blank discs and install new software onto their DVD recorders. The advantage to this approach is that it offers near universal compatibility with the hundreds of millions of DVD players already in homes. The non-trivial disadvantage is that there's no rental option. And without an easy route to the TV set, it's hard to see download-to-rent becoming a mass-market activity. That makes me skeptical about the downloadable-movie business generally, although Apple's experience with Disney suggests the right combination of marketing and technology could turn things around.