Someday we'll be able to download any video we want instantly to our PCs, set-top boxes, and portable players. But that day is not today. In the meantime, we have to settle for cobbled-together fixes that remind us how far we are from omnipresent, limitless video. The latest trend: download-and-burn DVDs.
In May, pornography purveyor Vivid Entertainment began (through the online service CinemaNow) to offer a handful of movies that customers can download to their computers, then burn to DVD. The completed disc includes the requisite menu system, subtitles, and extra features, and it works in almost any DVD player. Last month, CinemaNow made about 100 mainstream movies available for download-and-burn, priced from $8.99 to $14.99 apiece. CinemaNow's archrival, MovieLink, which recently purchased technology that allows downloading and burning of copy-protected DVDs, seems to be following the same path. And MovieLink's actions are a good indicator of what Hollywood's thinking—the company is jointly owned by MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros.
The download-and-burn system sounds a lot more kludgy than it really is. At its best, it's like Blockbuster without the drive or Netflix without the postal service. With a good broadband connection, your movie arrives in about an hour and a half; delivery requires merely clicking the download button. The download-and-burn scheme also uses equipment—broadband connections, DVD burners—that many people already own.
Of course, many people also have cable and satellite set-top boxes with on-demand and pay-per-view programming. But you can't take an on-demand movie out of your living room. DVDs are more versatile: They work in home theaters, computers, cheap handheld players, and in-car entertainment systems. Plus, on-demand and pay-per-view movies are rentals and they come with a lot more restrictions than a Netflix disc carries. Once you start watching a movie from Time Warner Cable, you have just 24 hours to finish it. There's definitely a market for movies that you can download and own. Add in the fact that movies are a lean-back-on-the-couch experience, not a lie-down-with-the-laptop one, and downloading-and-burning starts making a bit more sense.
Right now, though, this stuff works better in theory than in practice. The CinemaNow service is easy enough to use. Simply browse through the film listings and pick one you like. You also have to install a small application that monitors the download and automatically converts the Windows Media Video file into the DVD format and burns it onto disc.
That's where the problems arise. The original download, which remains playable from your hard drive, looks at least as good as a store-bought DVD. But converting it from Windows Media Video to the MPEG-2 format for burning purposes compromises the quality—it's like making a photocopy of a photocopy.In Scent of a Woman, for example, details in people's faces sometimes looked a bit blurry or pixelated. The problems were less noticeable in the adult title Third Date, because the "real" DVD was so cheaply produced that it had nearly as many flaws as the download version. (I may have been lucky to see only some quality problems. According to an article in Ars Technica, CinemaNow's "copy protection" system could be fatal on some DVD players. CinemaNow counters that the discs work in 94 percent of the players it tested.)
There is certainly a better way to do this. Since late 2005, a company called EZTakes has been delivering most of the actual data found on a real DVD. EZTakes also provides a dead-simple, iTunes-like application for browsing its film collection, setting up downloads, and burning the movies to disc. I tried out the 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which came down effortlessly and looked stunning on my television. Like the CinemaNow offerings, EZTakes downloads include subtitles and special features, plus downloads of the graphics you can print to label the disc and its case.
CinemaNow's 100-some titles are minuscule compared to the roughly 60,000 that Netflix offers. EZTakes' selection is even worse—aside from some public-domain works, indies, and a few quirky classics, it offers mostly Z-grade films. EZTakes started long before Hollywood was ready for the idea of sending DVDs over the Web, and it offers virtually no safeguards against piracy. So, Hollywood has held out, thereby crippling what could be a brilliant service.
One thing Hollywood should learn from EZTakes is the pricing structure. At $15.98, Cherbourg was expensive. But the site has a classics section with a few campy gems, like Reefer Madness, for $1.99. Such low prices might entice people to take a chance on an odd title and allow Hollywood to make some money off its old B rolls. Both the president of CinemaNow and the CEO of EZTakes told me they would sell all their films for $10 or less if the rights holders would let them. Bargain pricing makes a lot of sense for any download scheme, which still lacks all the features of a standard DVD, let alone the new high-definition Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs.
Apple and Netflix, two companies with a lot more clout than EZTakes, are also gunning for download services. Perhaps they can muscle the studios into cutting reasonable deals. What we really need is a system that provides the high resolution that current technology already makes possible, plus a reasonable copy-protection system that allows us to watch the movies on any video devices we own—TVs, laptops, iPods, phones, and game consoles. Download-and-burn DVDs will not be the ultimate solution for distributing video to consumers. But it's at least one small step closer to video nirvana.