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.