Why there is no iTunes for movies.

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April 17 2009 11:51 AM

My Mythical Online Rental Service for Movies

Why Hollywood is so slow to catch up on offering all of its movies and shows online.

Movie on laptop. Click image to expand.
Watching Christopher Mintz-Plasse in Superbad on a laptop computer

I've been watching most of my movies and a lot of my TV shows through Netflix for at least three years now. But lately my red envelopes have been piling up; I've gone weeks without watching anything on DVD. That's because the superfast Internet connection that my apartment building recently tapped into gives me immediate access to just about every recent movie or TV show I'd care to watch. I can download an hourlong show in less than 10 minutes; a movie takes about 15. I can watch these on my computer or—with a DVD player that accepts USB thumb drives —on my TV.

I would gladly pay a hefty monthly fee for this wonderful service—if someone would take my money. In reality, I pay nothing because no company sells such a plan. Instead I've been getting my programming from the friendly BitTorrent peer-to-peer network. Pirates aren't popular these days, but let's give them this—they know how to put together a killer on-demand entertainment system.

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I sometimes feel bad about my plundering ways. Like many scofflaws, though, I blame the system. I wouldn't have to steal if Hollywood would only give me a decent online movie-streaming service. In my dreams, here's what it would look like: a site that offers a huge selection—50,000 or more titles to choose from, with lots of Hollywood new releases, indies, and a smorgasbord of old films and TV shows. (By comparison, Netflix says it offers more than 100,000 titles.) Don't gum it up with restrictions, like a requirement that I watch a certain movie within a specified time after choosing it. The only reasonable limit might be to force me to stream the movies so that I won't be able to save the flicks to my computer. Beyond that, charge me a monthly fee and let me watch whatever I want, whenever I want, as often as I want.

Sound like a lot to ask for? In fact, it's pretty much the same system that Netflix has been offering with DVDs for years. I'm only calling for someone to give me all the splendors of Netflix, but through the Web. Netflix proves that even if you give people unlimited subscriptions, they'll still watch only a handful per month. My guess is that the same sensibility governs online rentals. Sure, a few uninspired people will sit around streaming movies every spare moment, but most of us have too much to do to abuse an unlimited subscription, even when we cut out the postal service as the middle man.

But it is reasonable to charge more for the convenience. Netflix's current three-at-a-time DVD plan goes for $17 a month. Theoretically, you can get up to about 22 movies a month through the plan, which means you're paying at least 75 cents or so per movie; most people, of course, get far fewer, and thus pay a lot more per movie. (You can see how much you've been paying by analyzing your Netflix rental history.) I'd be willing to pay twice as much for the convenience of getting everything without having to wait for the mailman. About $35 to $40 strikes me as reasonable; I bet that at that price, millions of people will sign up.

The current offerings are nowhere close to this dream service. Netflix's Watch Instantly streaming plan offers a smattering of popular new releases and a slightly wider selection of films from the '80s and '90s. Watch Instantly often feels like Settle-For Instantly, since many of the titles are of the airline-movie variety. Apple's iTunes rental plan, meanwhile, sits at the other end of the spectrum: It offers a wide selection of new releases that go for $3 or $4 each, but it's crippled by a surfeit of restrictions. After you press play, you've got just 24 hours to watch the full film, and new releases tend to disappear off the virtual shelf after a few months as they enter a new circle of Hollywood's contractual purgatory.

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