Navigating the Tricky Paths of Digital Ownership

During a recent visit with my brother, he wanted to watch The Big Lebowski, but didn’t have the disc available. He had purchased the copy on iTunes, but his Roku smart TV doesn’t have an iTunes app. When hooking up his computer to the TV didn’t work, he considered buying the movie again through his Amazon Prime account, which did have an app on his TV.

At which point I suggested he sign up for Movies Anywhere and link his accounts, and voila, he could access Lebowski through Amazon.

That tale demonstrates what I think is the biggest asset that Movies Anywhere has: a strong foundational infrastructure that now includes seven digital retailers. Buy from one, and you can watch on any of the others … as long as it’s a movie from a participating studio.

But for all the advantages MA has provided for the concept of digital ownership, there are many aspects of the electronic sellthrough concept that continue to confuse and confound a great number of consumers being weaned away from disc (not to mention the enticements of SVOD).

For example, as great as Movies Anywhere has proved to be for digital ownership, many of the biggest holes in the service are the same ones that existed when it first launched more than a year ago.

For starters, while the service has expanded its foundational base of participating retailers, it is still limited to the same five studios that it started with: Disney, Fox, Sony Pictures, Warner and Universal.

The two big holdouts, Paramount and Lionsgate, were a part of the UltraViolet service that Movies Anywhere largely replaced. In fact, all the other studios had been signed onto UV, with the exception of Disney, which started its own proprietary digital ownership infrastructure, Disney Movies Anywhere. Since DMA had better retail representation than UV (linking to iTunes being the key advantage), four of the big studios signed on, leading to where we are now.

MA and UV are digital rights lockers, allowing members to access affiliated content through the cloud. A movie marked as available through Movies Anywhere is stored by the studio on an MA server, and that copy can be viewed by anyone who has purchased (or redeemed) the rights to access it. So people buying the content aren’t buying the movie per se, but the right to access it from the relevant platform. This differs from a disc in that the user owns a physical copy of the movie and can watch it as long as they have the compatible playback machine. Digital owners also have the option of downloading copies of their movies for local storage and offline playback.

The multitude of digital purchase options amounts to something that doesn’t quite add up to a format war due to varying degrees of interconnectedness that now exist. It’s more of a format skirmish. Swapping UV for MA may have opened up some options, but it closed others, and just shifted the impetus for whichever marketing campaign was going to have to cut through the consumer confusion that no doubt exists.

UV isn’t altogether out of the picture, but it’s certainly not as prominent as MA has become. Participating MA studios now use MA logos on the digital redemption code sheets that are included with Blu-ray combo packs. Meanwhile, Paramount and Lionsgate have pretty much stopped touting UV on their codes, leaving redemption to be handled at the retail level — meaning whatever retailer you pick for that movie is the one you have to keep using to watch it (Paramount usually allows users to redeem a single code at both iTunes and a UV-participating retailer).

That reality brings to light the simple fact that the retailers are the biggest factor in digital ownership. While the studios provide the content, the retailers provide both the means of distribution AND the playback device — in the form of that retailer’s proprietary video player.

It would be like if DVD region codes were based on which retailer you bought the player from. Then, you’d have to keep buying DVDs just from that retailer to play them on the compatible player. So the top retailers would be the ones offering as much as the studios’ content as possible. What UV and MA did is analogous to making discs that would be compatible with multiple retailers’ players. MA, unlike UV, also offered its own playback system.

This made MA a better option than UV for redeeming codes and watching movies directly. But gaps in the system still have to be filled by the retailers. And MA has to send users to a participating retailer to buy the film anyway, as purchases can’t be made directly from MA. In addition, the MA app still isn’t available on all devices, such as PlayStation 4, which does offer retailer apps such as Amazon Prime and Walmart’s Vudu.

MA also offers an advantage of allowing family members to see which movies may have been already purchased across an array of sources, if mom, dad and little Suzy each prefer to shop at different retailers. But, again, this only works with the content already contained in the ecosystem.

MA still doesn’t offer an infrastructure for digital libraries of television episodes. Granted, studios have been cutting back on their digital copies of TV seasons with disc releases (assuming the seasons still get a disc release nowadays), presumably ceding that territory to the vast number of subscription streaming options available. But that doesn’t negate the fact that retailers such as iTunes and Vudu continue to offer TV episodes for purchase, nor the collections that may have been accumulated under UV. Using MA to link TV collections could be a huge boon to digital ownership.

Another quirk of the MA ecosystem that needs to be addressed is the participation of production houses that distribute through MA-member studios, but whose content isn’t available through MA due to the lack of a separate agreement. This includes content from STX Films, such as The Happytime Murders, Mile 22 and Peppermint, and MGM, such as Operation Finale.

All three films are available through MA signatory Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, but because of the rights agreements in place, the digital copy for those films is redeemable only at iTunes. (Strangely, the redemption code slips for these side studios use the styling of the old UV codes, but are not using UV for distribution.) Since they’re already on iTunes, getting them on board MA would automatically make them available through other apps as well. And if you bought the movies at Walmart, you could redeem them at Vudu already.

There’s also the question of independent distributors, such as Magnolia, The Orchard, Cinedigm and Shout! Factory, whose content may only be offered by specific retailers. HBO, which had also been a UV member, still offers digital copies for many of its programs. Bringing them into the MA fold, in addition to Paramount and Lionsgate, would really help.

So, MA is a great marketing tool, and another option for one to access a digital movie library, but it has a way to go to truly be the end-all be-all of digital movie ownership. For my money, the individual retailer apps are still the best option, especially when enhanced by the interconnectedness offered by MA. I tend to use Vudu the most, for the primary reason that it not only collates the most content from all the studios, but also has all my digital TV episodes (not to mention I use a PS4 as my digital device and the Vudu app is readily available).

But, it’s not as if there aren’t hiccups when dealing with the retailers, either. Retailers are still expanding their libraries of 4K UHD content, and many movies only come in regular HD versions despite having a code from a UHD combo pack.

And bonus materials tend to vary widely depending on which retailer is offering them. Some have exclusives. Some offer none.

Vudu’s disc-to-digital function is a great way to add digital versions of movies you might own from before UV and MA were releasing codes. But, again, these have to be available in the system to work. As this involves a nominal fee, the disc-to-digital function within Vudu’s iOS app has been disabled, reportedly due to in-app purchase agreements between the iTunes Store and Walmart, which understandably wouldn’t want to pay Apple a fee every time someone converts a disc to Vudu. So iPhone users have to go to Vudu using the phone’s browser and then take a photo of the UPC of the disc and upload it through the browser, in order to buy the digital copy. It’s not as efficient as the app’s scan-and-pay function, but with a little patience it gets the job done.

A downside to this is that not all disc versions of the same movie are recognized by Vudu. For instance, a Shout! Factory or Criterion special edition licensed from a studio for, say, Starman or Election can’t be used to prove ownership of the movie in order to buy the $2 digital copy. Nor will it accept a Warner Archive Blu-ray version of a movie previously released on DVD. So to get the HD version you’d have to scan the old DVD, if you even have it, and pay the $5 upgrade, even though you paid for a Blu-ray version.

So, again, we have more gaps in a system that has already confused a large bulk of consumers into giving up and just looking for it on Netflix — or finding something else to watch entirely.

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