In my Scientific American column this month I noted that Hollywood seems perversely determined to promote illegal movie downloads, rather than fight them. If the movie studios truly wanted to turn legal movie rentals into a popular, profitable, commonplace activity, it should quit kicking and screaming and embrace the digital age. It can start by taking these steps:
1. Include the DVD extras. In the DVD age there was real value to the extras: deleted scenes, director's commentary, behind-the-scenes featurettes and so on. Not to mention subtitles and captions—important options for millions of viewers.
Online movies generally don't give us any of that. But you still have to pay the same for a rental as you did for a DVD rental.
2. Offer a reasonable viewing period. You pay, what, $4 to stream a movie—and then if you don't finish the whole thing the first night, they expect you to rent it again just to watch the last 30 minutes? That's insanity.
It means that you can't start a movie after dinner if you have kids; you won't finish by bedtime. Or you start the movie after you put the kids to bed—but if you get sleepy, you can't finish it tomorrow.
You should have three days to watch it, just as in the DVD rental days. Or at least 27 hours, so you could finish the movie the next night.
3. Eliminate the starting time. You have to start watching a movie within 30 days of renting it. Okay, this isn't a big deal—most of the time you rent a movie because you want to start watching right away—but what's the need for the 30-day restriction? If we paid for it, we should be able to watch it whenever.
4. Eliminate the "release window" concept. When a movie's run in theaters is over, the movie studio doesn't make it immediately available for online viewing. Instead, it makes the movie available for a few weeks at a time to highly engineered series of outlets: DVD; pay-per-view TV; HBO and movie channels; and so on. Each of these "release windows" offers exclusivity to that particular viewing source. To Hollywood's mind, that's the best way to make the most money from each movie.
But during each window none of the other movie sources are making any money for Hollywood. While a certain movie plays only in hotel rooms, for example, nobody online can rent it or buy it. What if—gasp—a movie became available through all channels simultaneously, so that everyone could start paying money to the movie studios at once? Radical, I know, but it deserves an experiment at least.
5. When it's buyable, it should be rentable. Often Hollywood tries to gouge out a few extra bucks by making a movie available for sale online ($15) for a few weeks before you can rent it online ($4).
Here again the logic seems clear enough—$15 is a lot more than $4!—but what they're missing is the potential revenue from lost rentals during those weeks.
But there are some counterarguments, too. Plenty of people (I'm among them) would never dream of buying a movie that they'll watch only once but would happily rent it. And time is of the essence: more people will probably rent a recent movie—while the marketing, ads, and reviews are still fresh in their minds—rather than an older one.
In other words, while Hollywood is locking up a movie in its "sale only" window, it could be losing a lot more revenue from lost rentals.
Listen up, Hollywood: Nobody ever went out of business offering a good product for sale at a reasonable price with an eye toward pleasing the customer. You should try it some time.