This article’s a little different from my normal subject matter, but I felt the strong urge to have a bit of a rant, and explore some feelings, so buckle up. Digital content distribution (particularly for feature films) as it relates to consumers has been a mess for some time. It still is in my opinion. I wanted to work through some of my issues with it in this article. I don’t have a lot of answers, so if it’s resolution you’re after, you’re in the wrong place.
It’s been a long time since video tape was the de facto mechanism for film consumption for the average punter. Unlike VCRs, DVDs (and Blu-ray) were readable on computers at around the same time they became available to the consumer to watch on standalone devices plugged into televisions. DVDs also came with a bunch of protection mechanisms that were pretty easily thwarted (if you were adept at searching the Internet). As a result you could take feature films and store them in a digital format relatively simply. So why not just distribute those files to consumers?
For some reason we’re okay to treat the storage and distribution of music in a way that’s different to movies. To wit, the iPod was massively successful in the market, but movie storage devices (even after we got past the capacity limitations of the time) have struggled to gain traction, commercially or legally. Even legitimate content delivery services like kaleidescape were, in my opinion, crippled by the licensing requirement to have the physical discs in the unit when they played files from their internal storage.
It took a long time for companies to get behind the idea of distributing movies in a digital format. Studios focused on using Digital Rights Management (DRM) to cripple consumption in a way that seemed positively hostile. In some instances it felt like they were not terribly interested in you actually consuming the film in a fashion that was simple or convenient. Movie studios to this day seem mighty afraid of putting content in the digital realm. This isn’t necessarily unwarranted, with tools like AnyDVD lasting a lot longer (and doing a lot more cool stuff) than anyone had imagined. I think some of this focus on making things difficult was the idea that consumers were merely accessing a license to consume the content, and the transport mechanism could be determined by the content owners. The problem with this is that people think of films in much the same way as they think of books. They have the idea that once they purchased the media, that should be sufficient to consume the film forever. Content owners (the studios, really) are pretty happy for you to think that, but they were also chuffed when we transitioned from VHS to Laserdisc to DVD to Blu-ray (and now, potentially, some new UHD variant). I have The Way of the Dragon on a variety of formats at home. I’m an edge case perhaps, but what about that copy of Throw Momma from the Train that you have on VHS? You probably don’t have a working deck anymore, but I’m sure you’d like to dip back into a cinematic masterpiece every now and then, wouldn’t you?
The other problem with digital content distribution was that, once the studios decided to go ahead with it, it was Apple versus the world in terms of distribution standards. In much the same way that Blu-ray was pitched against HD-DVD, Apple’s iTunes was promoted as a superior delivery mechanism. And it can be, as long as you’re all in with Apple, and happy with the content catalogue they have in place. Disney was also guilty of this approach. But if there’s stuff you want to watch that isn’t part of their ecosystem, you need to look at alternative methods of consumption. Like streaming, for example.
But Not Everyone is Streaming
Bandwidth is a problem in Australia. It’s a first world problem, to be sure, but it’s still a problem. And for a lot of people. A common connection type is ADSL1 or 2+, and fibre to the home was killed off in a political stoush that we should all be ashamed of. But I digress. In any case, things aren’t overly fast, and streaming content options are fairly limited (it’s a small market). Since its launch in Australia Netflix has been steadily improving its content catalogue, but it’s nowhere near as extensive as the one in the US.
It’s for that reason that I still buy movies on Blu-ray. And I get access to “Digital Copies” of movies along with these discs. In the olden days, these were often files I could import directly into iTunes off a separate DVD. Sometimes they were DRM-protected wmv files that I couldn’t really play anywhere except on a Windows PC. Nowadays they are primarily UltraViolet-based redemption codes. This makes sense, as a lot of computers don’t have optical drives any more. I don’t use UltraViolet services as my primary consumption mechanism, as I tend to watch movies on a big screen connected to an Apple TV running Plex. But from time to time (particularly when travelling on long-haul flights) I’ve found the ability to load up a reasonably sized file on an iPad or laptop to be very convenient, particularly when the in-flight entertainment system fails.
The idea behind UltraViolet is / was pretty cool. People realized a few things about content distribution. Firstly, studios weren’t always going to agree on which service to use for distribution, or which device the content could be consumed on. And sometimes you wanted to change the way you consumed your media. So the narrative changed from media or streaming to licensing, and you were granted rights to consume the content you wanted, ostensibly on any platform you liked. Sounds like a great idea, and even in Australia, a number of content providers jumped on board. I found the redemption process to be fairly straightforward, although I didn’t like how some studios insisted on me handing over my details in order to gain access to the titles (after I’d already created accounts with UltraViolet and a provider of my choosing). I found the number of standalone devices that actually supported UltraViolet titles to be pretty small, despite what the FAQs were saying. I had the most success consuming content via the website of one of the providers, rather than using an app on an Apple TV or similar.
Is it still working? Sort of. If you read through the change notice of this FAQ you’ll notice a bunch of providers slowly disappearing from Australia and around the world. Again, I’m an edge case, consuming content in a small market. But it seems like just when every Blu-ray has a standardized electronic rights copy included we’ve slowly started to take away the ways to consume those copies. Well, that’s what I thought at first, but apparently there’s something else, potentially better, happening.
A service recently launched called Movies Anywhere. It was originally launched in 2014 as Disney Movies Anywhere, and was rebranded and re-launched in the last month. The idea is that it ties together your content licenses from any number of providers and systems and allows you to consume them on a unified platform. That’s about all I can tell you, because it’s US-based and not available anywhere else. I’m not going to turn this into an ad for the service, because I can’t tell you how well it actually works, and whether it really does what I want it to do. But it does seem to tick a number of boxes in terms of linking a number of disparate services together.
So What’s the Problem?
I like the idea of being able to pay for content once and having access to it for a long time. I still have a Laserdisc player, but a lot of people don’t. So they’ve re-invested in media over and over again. This makes sense if you follow the progression of technology (and improvements in playback quality), but when we have better mechanisms to access content (such as digital storage) it makes less sense that we should continually pay for the same thing over and over.
The problem, as always, is that any time we do get close to having some cool tech available to do what we want, it gets restricted to a specific region. By the time this stuff gets to Australia, the rest of the world has moved on and we’re left with patchy support for what are considered legacy services. Or we get the service at launch but don’t get the full product. This is usually because of existing licensing agreements, differences in copyright law, and all kinds of other complicated reasons. Some of these reasons are even, well, reasonable. But it’s still annoying, and I think the Internet just serves to amplify this feeling of annoyance when it comes to things like this. I don’t really know how to solve the problem either. The studios will continue to do what they do until consumers stop consuming. And I think there are enough people out there going along with this that they won’t need to stop any time soon. I still think it’s a bin fire, and that’s a shame. Of course, my kids also think it’s weird that I still purchase content on media, so what do I know?