What Were They Thinking? — 10 Home Entertainment Format Misfires

In a year that marks the 25th anniversary of the U.S. debut of the DVD, the most successful consumer electronics product launch ever, we felt it would be fun to turn things around and take a look at 10 home entertainment products that failed just as spectacularly.

Remember the CD-i, the first attempt to put movies on a five-inch digital disc? It worked pretty well — except for the fact that the blacks weren’t black and you needed at least two discs to hold even a short movie.

Or Divx, the pay-per-play DVD variant that was more of an ego-stroke for the head of the Circuit City retail chain than anything else?

And what about RCA’s SelectaVision video disc and Digital VHS, both of which were victims of most-unfortunate timing? One was a 12-inch analog disc that was launched just before vinyl LPs were being phased out in favor of CDs, while the other made its debut right when we were told that tape was obsolete and disc was the way to go.

Here, then, is the flipside of the DVD success story.

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Betamax: The Better Man Doesn’t Always Win

The early days of the home entertainment business were marked by the swift rise of the videocassette rental market, triggered by entrepreneur Andre Blay’s 1977 licensing of 50 20th Century Fox movie titles for release under his Magnetic Video banner.

But the fledgling business’ growth was initially hampered by a cassette format war between Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s Video Home System, or VHS. By all accounts, Betamax was the superior format, with slightly better resolution (250 lines versus 240 lines) and sound and a more stable image.

But there were two problems: When it was launched in 1975, Betamax could only hold one hour of content, compared with two hours for VHS when the latter was launched in 1976. On top of that, Sony didn’t want to license its technology to other manufacturers, which limited the supply of players and kept prices high — in contrast to VHS, which was an open format.

Betamax’s capacity was subsequently expanded, and in the early 1980s Sony decided it would, after all, let other manufacturers make Betamax players. But by then it was too late: The video rental market was exploding, and VHS was by far the dominant format, with VCR players accounting for 75% of the machines sold by 1981. Sony stopped introducing new Betamax models in 1988, although it wasn’t until 2002 that the company quit making Betamax players entirely, according to Ars Technica. Betamax tapes, however, were still being made for sale in Japan only until November 2015.

Consumers can still buy used Betamax players on eBay for less than $100, while tapes are generally priced at $10 and up — although rare titles can fetch upwards of $1,000. The original MGM/UA Betamax release of The Wizard of Oz, for example, is selling for $4,050.

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SelectaVision VideoDisc: Timing Is Everything

It was the early 1980s, and the home video business was booming. Consumers were flocking to video stores to rent the latest movies on videocassette, and consumer electronics companies such as Philips, Magnavox and Pioneer were busy pushing a follow-up format to the VHS VCR called LaserDisc, which offered consumers the chance to buy movies on a 12-inch optical disc read by a laser.

It was into this environment that RCA in 1981 launched what it called SelectaVision, a 12-inch analog vinyl disc that played movies, TV shows and other filmed content. Fifteen years and $200 million in the making, Selecta-Vision launched in March with a $20 million advertising blitz. Early ads show a beaming young boy standing next to a Selecta-Vision player atop a TV, while a headline screamed, “The remarkable home entertainment system that plays sound and picture through your own TV — from records.”

With the advantage of hindsight, we can only wonder, “Why?” The Compact Disc (CD) was just one year from launch, founded on the same technologies and concepts as LaserDisc. And here was RCA, trotting out a vinyl record that played movies instead of music through a diamond stylus. And as with a vinyl LP, users could pick up the needle and scan ahead — at the risk of scratching and damaging the record, however.

According to a March 2012 Wired story, “critics were nonplussed. Some called it the least-exciting video-disc system available. Playing off RCA’s nickname for SelectaVision — Manhattan Project — Michael Schrage of New York Magazine wrote: ‘A number of people expect the result to be like the Manhattan Project — a bomb. The reason is the technology.

SelectaVision is a ‘grooved capacitance’ technology, and that pretty much relegates it to the Jurassic era in terms of state of the art.’”

In August 1981, just five months after SelectaVision’s launch, Billboard ran a story headlined “Dull summer for SelectaVision,” in which several retail clerks bemoaned the format’s lackluster sales. One told Billboard, “There was a lot of interest at first, but no one’s even asked about the product in several weeks … Most people who come in to look at the disk player end up buying a VCR.”

In its first three years, the Wired story says, RCA sold only about 550,000 players, and by April 1984 it was over. “The company lost about $580 million on the project,” according to the Wired story, “and the losses crippled the company so much that General Electric later took it over in the U.S.”

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CD-i Digital Video: Too Little, Too Soon

Before the Internet, there was CD-ROM, a CD with data, pictures and other information that could be used to distribute games, software and even an encyclopedia for use on a computer. In 1991, Dutch consumer electronics giant Philips took the CD-ROM concept one step further with the introduction of the Compact Disc-Interactive, or CD-i, which was initially marketed as a multimedia entertainment console but failed to make much of a splash. Less than two years later, the format was enhanced to hold up to 72 minutes of full-motion video under the CD-i Digital Video name, and amid much fanfare Philips announced a deal with Paramount to distribute the studio’s movies on CD-i.

It was four years before DVD, at a time when the prospect of watching movies on a five-inch disc similar in shape and size to the audio CD was tantalizing to studio executives as well as consumer electronics manufacturers. And yet save for MGM and PolyGram, no other major studio followed Paramount’s lead. Few films could be contained on a single disc, and switching discs in the middle of a gritty action or passionate love scene brought back bad memories of the eight-track tape. On top of that, the MPEG-1 compression technology of a CD-i movie resulted in picture quality that was inferior to VHS, and sound that was dulled at the highs and the lows. Some consumers also complained that the blacks weren’t really black.

Within a year, Philips abandoned CD-i hardware and instead emphasized the Video CD, which had been developed around the same time in partnership with Sony and others and sold primarily in Asian markets. A short time later Philips and Sony began work on the Multimedia Compact Disc, or MMCD, with much-improved MPEG-4 compression technology as well as copy protection, which both CD-i and Video CD lacked. But in the interests of avoiding a format war, the MMCD never came to market, with Philips and Sony ultimately agreeing to throw their support, and lend some of their software elements, to the DVD, developed by Warner Bros. and Toshiba.

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Divx: Disposable Disc Gets Deposed

What the Los Angeles Times at the time called “DVD’s disposable cousin” launched in September 1997, just six months after DVD’s U.S. launch, by a partnership consisting of the Circuit City retail chain and entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer.

The brainchild of Circuit City CEO Rick Sharp, Divx was short for “Digital Video Express.” The aim was to perpetuate the rental model, which DVD and its low purchase price was seeking to supplant with a consumer sales model. Divx discs sold for about $4.50 and could be viewed an unlimited number of times during a 48-hour period, after which they could be discarded. Divx’s most vocal studio champion was 20th Century Fox chief Bill Mechanic, who believed the studios could generate more money with it than with the outright sale of a $20 DVD movie.

The first Divx discs hit stores in September 1998. Fox, DreamWorks and Paramount were the only studios to go exclusive with the “use it and toss it” disc, although by the end of the year all three were also issuing films on DVD as that format began to catch on, big, with consumers. After the 1998 holiday season saw DVD sales soar, Divx’s fate was sealed — despite Sharp’s insistence during a January 1999 CES interview that “the reports of our death were greatly exaggerated. … In a short period of time, consumers have quickly grasped the fundamental concept of Divx, its benefits and the value of those benefits to them. … Both Circuit City and Divx are encouraged by the results, and we look forward to a very successful 1999.”

Just six months later, in June 1999, Circuit City officially pulled the plug on Divx. A year later Sharp lost his job.

What killed Divx? Circuit City competitors refused to stock it. Big rental chains such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video saw Divx as an assault on their business and likewise refused to carry it. But, most importantly, consumers weren’t buying it, as they were still enamored with DVD’s promise of being able to buy new movies fresh off their theatrical runs for around $20 and keep them forever.

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Digital VHS: The Videocassette’s Last Stand

Just as RCA SelectaVision was introduced — at the same time consumers were told to ditch that other 12-inch analog format, the vinyl LP — Digital VHS launched in 1998, less than a year after DVD, whose very mission was to replace the VHS videocassette.

Digital VHS was developed by JVC in collaboration with Philips, Matsushita and Hitachi. It was the VHS videocassette’s last stand, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The only studio that actively lobbied for Digital VHS was 20th Century Fox, whose studio chief at the time, Bill Mechanic, was looking for any obstacles he could find to throw in the way of DVD, allegedly due to concerns over piracy.

Digital VHS’s supposed trump card was that content could be delivered in high-definition, unlike DVD. But with HDTV sales only accounting for 1.5% of all TVs sold in 1998, it really didn’t matter. Widespread studio support did not happen, with only DreamWorks, Artisan (now part of Lionsgate) and Universal Pictures joining Fox in releasing select movies on the digital cassette format. But as DVD sales soared, Digital VHS was soon forgotten, with 2004’s I, Robot the final film released on the doomed format.

As Red Shark News observed in a September 2021 article, Digital VHS “had the distinction of being the only format to provide high-definition programming before the arrival of Blu-ray and HD DVD. It was also one of the shortest-lived physical-media formats, ill-served by a combination of confused marketing, competing and incompatible equipment, limited programming and a market starved of HDTVs.”

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Universal Media Disc: Game Over

Buoyed by the success of its PlayStation video game console, Sony in 2005 unveiled a portable variant called the PlayStation Portable, or PSP, a handheld gaming and multimedia device. Games were delivered on a tiny optical disc — encased in a thin, flat cartridge — called the Universal Media Disc (UMD).

To give the format a little added value, Sony began issuing movies on UMD and soon enlisted most of the other major studios. Within five months of the format’s March 2005 launch, nearly 250 UMD movies were available for sale at Walmart and other big retailers.

But a year later, it was pretty much game over. Sales had risen, plateaued, and then dropped. Problems surfaced with the plastic case cracking, making the disc unreadable. Walmart and other retailers scaled back or eliminated their UMD software sections. Disney and 20th Century Fox cut back their UMD release slates, while Paramount and Universal stopped releasing movies on UMD entirely. One high-ranking Universal executive told Home Media Magazine at the time, “It’s awful. Sales are near zilch.” Another studio president maintained, “No one’s watching movies on PSP. It’s a game player, period.”

Sony tried one more Hail Mary — TV connectivity — before it, too, stopped releasing movies on UMD in 2010. The PSP remained on the market until 2014, when it was replaced by the PlayStation Vita.

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HD DVD: Red vs. Blue

By the early 2000s, DVD sales growth had slowed and high-definition TVs were selling fast. And thus began the quest for a next-generation, high-definition successor disc.

Once again, there were two camps. One consortium was led by Sony and employed blue-laser technology, with the promise of six times the capacity of a standard DVD. Warner and Toshiba, meanwhile, were busy developing an advanced format that used red-laser technology, just like DVD, only on a dual-layer disc with three times the capacity.

Warner and Toshiba wanted to get a product into the market as quickly as possible, to take advantage of growing HDTV sales. What they called HD DVD could use existing manufacturing processes and facilities. The Sony-led group’s Blu-ray Disc, on the other hand, was a completely new product hailed by backers as a “format of the future” that in addition to twice the capacity of HD DVD also could accommodate expanded interactivity and associated broadband services.

This time, neither side would budge and both formats hit the market in mid-2006. Skeptics hinted that it all came down to money: Warner and Toshiba wanted to maximize and extend the value of their DVD patents, while Sony, which had capitulated to Warner and Toshiba in the initial development of the DVD, didn’t want to be on the losing end again.

As Ben Feingold, the former president of Sony’s home video operation, told Media Play News earlier this year, “They were fighting over patents, royalties and pride.”

In late 2006, Sony put a Blu-ray Disc drive in its hot new PlayStation 3 video game console, giving that format a decided advantage. And yet the format war dragged on for more than a year, with several studios switching sides, or supporting both formats, after receiving “incentive payments” from one side or the other.

A big push by Disney accelerated Blu-ray sales, as did Blockbuster’s June 2007 decision to give HD DVD the boot. In January 2008, Walmart and Netflix — which at the time was still primarily a disc-by-mail rental service — announced that they, too, would carry only Blu-ray. And when Warner Bros. abandoned HD DVD as well a short time later, it was only a few more weeks before Toshiba threw in the proverbial towel and HD DVD was done.

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Total Hi Def Disc: Born of Frustration

The New York Times once observed that the Red Sox’s dismal 1965 season, in which the team lost 100 games, was “born of frustration and futility.”

The same can be said of Warner Home Video’s brief attempt at appeasement in early 2007 with the much-maligned Total Hi Def Disc, commonly referred to as the “flipper” disc.

In the fall of 2006, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group chief Kevin Tsujihara, like every one of his peers, was frustrated that the launch that summer of a high-definition successor to DVD had gone off with a whimper rather than the hoped-for bang.

The reason: a bruising format war between two rival next-generation disc proponents that left consumers confused and reluctant to buy either one.

As studios vacillated between supporting HD DVD, Blu-ray Disc, or both, a lightbulb went off in Tsujihara’s head that flickered with what he must have thought was the wisdom of Solomon. Only instead of threatening to split a baby in two, he split a disc in half, with HD DVD on one side and Blu-ray Disc on the other. The Total Hi Def Disc was unveiled at the January 2007 CES, with the promise that consumers no longer had to choose between HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc. With the flipper, they got both, at no extra charge.

The press was skeptical. As the Hugh’s News website observed, “Flipper discs are a nuisance. … They have next to no labeling area, making it difficult to identify their contents let alone indicate which side faces up. … And anyone who has handled a flipper disc knows how difficult it is to keep it in good condition. Plenty of dust, debris, scratches and greasy fingerprints are inevitable, and all play havoc with reliable reading. … Flippers also face brutal cost realities. … Publishers will be condemned to perpetually pay double patent royalties (for video and audio codecs, content protection, applications, physical design, manufacturing processes, etc.) and incur the price of authoring and testing two formats, not to mention the increased manufacturing outlay. By its very nature, THD is intrinsically tricky to produce, and with far lower yields resulting in greater expense — all in a penny-pinching business reliant upon long-term cost reductions.”

Not a single other studio chimed in, although several kept switching sides, often after receiving hefty “incentive” payments. A year after the flipper was introduced, Warner announced it would henceforth exclusively support Blu-ray Disc, putting an end to the flipper. Six weeks after the Warner announcement Toshiba announced that HD DVD was officially dead.

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3D Blu-ray: A Perfect Storm

After Blu-ray Disc’s 2008 triumph over HD DVD ended a nearly two-year format war, backers of Blu-ray Disc wanted to really show off the format’s capabilities. The industry saw the introduction of BD-Live, which allowed users to connect their disc machines to the internet for new, updated trailers and various interactive extras. Disney even released a Blu-ray Disc of Sleeping Beauty in which the sky behind the castle on the main menu page would change in accordance with the local weather.

But the grandest scheme, and the biggest flop, was 3D Blu-ray, which sought to capitalize on a fad then sweeping cinemas: a high-tech throwback to the 3D craze of the 1950s, triggered by the 2009 film Avatar and perhaps most effectively deployed that same year in The Final Destination, where objects seemed to fly out of the screen and hit you in the head.

3D Blu-ray was doomed from the get-go, as theater owners soon realized that not every movie — only a scant few, really — lent themselves to 3D, particularly if moviegoers had to wear a pair of glasses the entire time. But consumer entertainment companies plunged into 3D Blu-ray headfirst, developing expensive TVs, expensive players and a wide assortment of 3D glasses that for the most part were incompatible with those of other CE manufacturers.

Ultimately, the response from consumers was a resounding “No, thank you.” Keep in mind this was 2009, a time when the country was still in the midst of the Great Recession. Spending thousands of dollars on new TVs, players and even glasses — some of which sold for upwards of $100 a pair — was simply not in the average household budget. On top of that, millions of consumers had just bought new HDTVs that met new broadcast requirements.

Adding to what was already a perfect storm of obstacles was rampant consumer confusion. I remember getting a new 3D Blu-ray TV and player from Panasonic, but the salesman never could figure out which glasses were right for my particular model. I had a stack of 3D Blu-ray Discs in my bedroom, and was never able to watch a single one of them.

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UltraViolet: Rumblings in the Cloud

Launched in 2011, UltraViolet was a cloud-based “locker” that allowed consumers to buy a movie or TV show on either a DVD or Blu-ray Disc or through a digital retailer, access it from the cloud by entering in a code or proof of purchase, and then play that movie on whichever device they wanted to.

UltraViolet’s launch was supported by a consortium of more than 60 content and hardware companies known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE).

In a pre-launch interview with Home Media Magazine, DECE head Mitch Singer talked up UltraViolet’s “buy once, play anywhere” philosophy, telling the trade, “UltraViolet will mean consumer choice, confidence and freedom. When consumers see the UltraViolet logo on a DVD or Blu-ray Disc it means that they will be able to watch that movie not only from their Blu-ray player, but also on other devices, such as mobile phones or other Web-enabled devices with apps from UltraViolet partners. Consumers will know exactly how, when and where they’ll be able to access and play their movies and TV shows. UltraViolet will give consumers a flexible, consistent and predictable entertainment experience.”

The first UltraViolet-enabled title was Horrible Bosses, released by Warner Bros. on Oct. 11, 2011. From the start, however, UltraViolet was hampered by the fact that while five of the six major studios supported it, the one that didn’t was Disney — and Disney was in the process of developing its own cloud-based locker, Disney Movies Anywhere, which launched in 2014. By then, UltraViolet had grown to more than 20 million accounts.

But just as the service grew, so did complaints — mostly about ease of use, particularly the consumer interface. Questions also arose about how many account holders were actually using the service, as well as further growth prospects, given the soaring popularity of subscription streaming. The death knell was sounded in October 2017, when Disney rebranded its proprietary service to Movies Anywhere and invited other studios to join in. All but Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM did, and in July 2019 UltraViolet was officially shut down.

Paramount Shutters Digital Movie Transaction Service

Paramount Pictures has stopped selling and renting movies at ParamountMovies.com, citing the pending shutdown of the UltraViolet cloud-based storage platform on July 31.

UltraViolet is shuttering after most studio members – except Paramount and Lionsgate – joined rival platform Movies Anywhere.

ParamountMovies.com stopped offering transactional content on March 18 but cautioned the site would still be functional to redeem digital codes and peruse new Paramount releases.

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Consumers who purchased digital titles on the site can still access them through their UltraViolet accounts – provided they are linked to another service such as Vudu.com or FandangoNow.

ParamountMovies.com will also cease offering UltraViolet links on July 31.

 

 

 

 

UltraViolet: A Lost Opportunity

I, like millions of registered UltraViolet users, received the Jan. 31 email informing me that the digital content storage locker is shuttering July 31.

My reaction: Indifference.

I, like possibly millions of other UV users, had forgotten I was even registered to the platform launched in 2011 by studios seeking to enhance ownership of packaged media in a digital era transformed by SVOD and Netflix.

Indeed, the email was the FIRST communication I ever received from the platform boasting 30 million registered users — a captive audience larger than any over-the-top video platform not named Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

The missed advertising/marketing opportunities upon a segment of active movie consumers larger than the combined Comcast Cable, Sky, AT&T U-verse and Verizon Fios Video subscriber base should be a business school case study.

Thirty million registered consumers should have been a field day for marketers considering YouTube begins monetizing third-party videos with just 1,000 subscribers — users who follow a video series for free.

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As a stack of UV digital activation movie registration cards attest, actually engaging in UV was challenging. Each studio for awhile required the laborious process of registering titles to a proprietary platform.

I remember a friend asking me the purpose of the UV card enclosed with the Blu-ray Disc case.

When I tried to explain, she rolled her eyes.

“You lost me,” she said.

That sentiment, in a nutshell, should be on UV’s gravestone.

UltraViolet, from the start, was hampered by Disney’s refusal to participate. The media giant opting instead to roll out a competing platform (Disney Movies Anywhere) that now has been embraced by Hollywood studios not named Paramount and Lionsgate, and rebranded Movies Anywhere.

Movies Anywhere claims a user base of 6 million – 20% the size of UV – and a rosy future. I’m looking forward to my first email.

 

Digital Movie Service UltraViolet Shutting Down July 31

The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) will officially shut down the UltraViolet cloud-based digital rights locker service July 31, according to a notice posted to the UltraViolet website Jan. 31.

Until then, the notice said, users can continue to access UltraViolet movies and TV shows, but only through retailers linked to their UltraViolet libraries.

The notice instructs users to verify the retailers linked to their accounts. “If your library is not currently linked to a retailer, or if you would like to link to additional participating retailers, select one or more retailers to link to your UltraViolet library.”

After the shutdown date, the notice said, “your UltraViolet library will automatically close and, in the majority of cases, your movies and TV shows will remain accessible at previously linked retailers.”

The shutdown was first reported by Variety.

UltraViolet launched in 2011 to help promote the digital sellthrough of movies and TV shows by providing an infrastructure that would allow consumers to purchase access to content (or redeem codes included with packaged media) at an online retailer but play it back through a variety of participating online retailers and compatible devices.

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The service had the support of all the major studios except for Walt Disney Studios, which established its own proprietary service, Disney Movies Anywhere. Major online retailers such as Apple iTunes and Amazon Video didn’t sign on with UV, but did join DMA, limiting UV’s functionality and fracturing the electronic sellthrough market.

UV was also plagued by user confusion over having to sign into multiple accounts in order to get it to work properly, leaving consumers unsure about what sites they needed to access to watch their content, as the UVVU.com website didn’t offer a playback viewer.

Vudu signed on with both UV and DMA, making it one of the few sites were users could find almost all of their content in one place, a fact many consumers didn’t realize due to muddled marketing efforts.

The beginning of the end for UltraViolet came in 2017, when Disney expanded DMA by adding support for 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures and Warner Bros., and rebranded the service as Movies Anywhere, which had retail support from iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and Google Play. Movies from the participating MA studios previously redeemed through UV were converted to MA accounts by the MA-affiliated retailers.

Movies Anywhere subsequently signed FandangoNow, Microsoft Movies & TV, and Comcast’s Xfinity cable service, meaning that movies from the participating studios bought at any of MA’s retailers could be viewed on any device using apps from any of the other retailers, as well as MoviesAnywhere.com, which unlike UV offered its own playback system.

The Movies Anywhere participating studios soon began to brand their digital redemption codes using the new service. Paramount and Lionsgate did not sign on with MA and stayed UV compatible, but eventually dropped UV branding on their digital redemptions.

UV was also hampered by the rise in subscription streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, which not only blunted the studios’ push to encourage digital ownership of movies, but the TV-heavy libraries of SVOD services obscured the fact that UV’s ecosystem included support for digital ownership of television episodes, which MA has yet to provide.

Still, DECE president Wendy Aylsworth told Variety that the end of UV “doesn’t really have anything to do with Movies Anywhere,” adding that the future course of DECE is still under consideration.

Though the UV website still lists support from its original member studios (Lionsgate, Paramount, Fox, Sony, Universal and Warner, as well as HBO and BBC, plus Anchor Bay, which is now owned by Lionsgate), its retail partnership is down to Vudu, Verizon Fios, Kaleidescape and FandangoNow (which absorbed former UV signatory Flixster), as well as the studio stores of Paramount and Sony Pictures. Other former UV retailers included Target Ticket and Best Buy’s CinemaNow, both of which no longer exist. And the Sony Pictures Store website is shutting down Jan. 31, recommending users turn to Movies Anywhere or Vudu instead.

DECE has been emailing UV users to alert them of the shutdown and advise them to make sure their accounts are linked to a retailer, rather than delete their UV movie libraries. If the retailer is also a participant in Movies Anywhere, such as Vudu, users who sign up for that service and link their retail accounts will have their libraries from participating studios available through MA.

After more than seven years of service, UltraViolet has more than 30 million users, whose cloud libraries include more than 300 million movies and TV shows. Movies Anywhere after its first year reported having 6 million users with 150 million movies collected.

This notice appeared on the UltraViolet website Jan. 31.

Sony Pictures Store Website to Close Jan. 31

The Sony Pictures Store website will discontinue operations after Jan. 31, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment announced.

Users were informed via a series of emails in January about the pending closure, and advised that any movies and TV shows they purchased through the site could still be accessed through Walmarts’ Vudu and Movies Anywhere. Users are instructed to make sure their Vudu.com account is linked to both UltraViolet and Movies Anywhere so that their Sony Pictures content can be accessed at those services.

As part of the shutdown process, Sony Pictures is offering a free digital movie through Movies Anywhere. Users can choose from 13 Going on 30, The Grudge, Underworld, The Water Horse, Big Fish, Maid in Manhattan, Freedomland or Lockout.

Sony has been consolidating its digital operations through its PlayStation Store, and the closure of the Sony Pictures Store is likely due to eliminating redundancies. The advent of Movies Anywhere also made a proprietary Sony store for movie playback less relevant.

The Sony Rewards program, which lets consumers earn points from movie and PlayStation Store purchases that can be redeemed for merchandise and gift cards, remains active at SonyRewards.com, though the system for redeeming codes from Blu-rays is being revamped and is expected to open again in early 2019, according to a notice on the site.

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.

‘Downsizing’ at UltraViolet?

As studio home entertainment divisions trumpet the Disney-spawned and re-jiggered Movies Anywhere, Paramount Pictures and Lionsgate remain on the sidelines.

Paramount recently announced the digital (March 6) and 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray Disc (March 20) street dates for the comedy Downsizing, starring Oscar-winners Matt Damon and director Alexander Payne.

Notable to the packaged-media release: cloud-based access via UltraViolet — not Movies Anywhere. UV users are directed to ParamountMovies.com to enter the redemption code for UV access, in addition to iTunes for Digital Copy.

Movies Anywhere touted nearly 80 million movies in user accounts earlier this year — about half the 165 million UltraViolet titles in 2015, according to DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group. The platform had more than 30 million registered accounts in July 2017.

There’s no doubt a unified Movies Anywhere platform with one-click access to cloud-based digital movie acquisitions is a good thing. UltraViolet attempted to meld physical media with the cloud — a strategy that required burdensome input.

It would be a shame if all that effort was lost in the cloud.