Rent a Movie - 99 Cents a Day?

o))  |  18. July 2005, 10:40

Apple seems posed, with its “Year of the HD” (a.k.a. High-Definition Video) to revolutionize and redefine the movie distribution business like they did the music business. They really haven’t got a very long way to go, actually. Far less than most would think. With the iTunes Music Store Apple has fine-tuned its delivery-system for distributing huge masses of songs over the net.

Steve Jobs MWSF'05 - Year of HD
Steve Jobs at MacWorld San Francisco 2005

They do it fast and reliably thanks to their partners Akamai, hosting content-servers all over the world. They have the Store concept; so instead of a 30 second preview of a song, give customers a 3 minute, streaming, low-quality preview of each movie. This stuff is pretty straightforward, but what’s different from the music business here, is that while people want to own their music, they are much more willing to rent their movies.

N O   R E N T I N G   M U S I C

It’s certainly true as Steve Jobs said a couple of years back:

“You don’t want to rent your music—and then, one day, if you stop paying, all your music goes away”.

We perhaps watch our favorite movies a handful of times in our life, but we listen to our favorite songs ten thousand times more.

So; rent music—nah; rent movies—naturally! Just look at Blockbuster and NetFlix and their likes on the European market. They’re still going strong even with this whole “internet thing” happening. Just take this distribution mechanism a tiny step further—mentally, not technically, that is …—and there we have global distribution of movies and all kinds of video on the iTunes Video Store.

Perhaps 99 cents per day for renting a video isn’t a bad price? Just consider the vast amount of content they’ll be able to offer. All the golden oldies from way, way back that no one bothers to put out on DVD. Documentaries. Classical concerts. Indie films. I bet the cable-channels and broadcast-houses of the world could even be convinced to, eventually, offer their entire catalogs of TV-content up for rent. Sure, that will take a while, but eventually they will find it a no-brainer.

T V   N O   M O R E

I rarely watch TV anymore—I think the content mostly sucks, even here in Sweden (with the Knowledge Channel being a fantastic exception). Sure I miss some great shows, and thus I’d be very happy if I finally could be able to view these shows on my own terms (as soon as Apple gets iTunes to Sweden, that is). The “reign of terror” by the cable-companies and their damn commercial-interrupted force-feeding of (mostly) bad content is soon over, folks. It will probably also level the playing-field for independent films to finally be able to compete head-on with Hollywood, much like the iTunes Music Store has (sort of) leveled the competition for Indie music vs. the Big Five (or is it four now…?).

Now, of course there are technical hurdles left to figure out. With the Mac mini, Apple now has a fine candidate for their own Media Center. Connect it to the TV, add a Bluetooth remote control, get a DTV Firewire box, install MythTV—a free, open-source TiVo look-alike—and you’re all set. Now you can use your Mac as a video-recorder—record shows on demand to the hard-drive and skip over the commercials. You can even backup your favorite shows to DVD. Well, you can at least do this until July this year, when the FCC will enforce an unprecedented law in the United States to prohibit people to make personal copies of TV-content—which, as we all know and cheer, after all the intimidation didn’t actually happen.

The only major technical issue left to eliminate is the link between the iTunes Movie Store-servers and your home-network in order to download the movies. Unfortunately, this is a very big issue, and it’s unclear if it will be resolved well enough to allow convenient streaming of HD-video over the internet in this year of 2005.

Sure, some people already have multi-megabit broadband connections, but most people don’t. Let’s do some math: your average 2-hour DVD-movie is about 9GB today (LoTR and other 3-hour movies are about 18GB plus 18GB of extra material), so even a 10mbit line would require over 2 hours to download it (at about 1MB/s). That’s if everything goes as fast as it can, which it seldom does. What do we do?

N E W   C O D E C S   T O   T H E   R E S C U E

Well, the MPEG-2 compression used in today’s DVD’s is pretty lame considered to some new codec’s out there. This is not very surprising considering MPEG-2 was standardized a decade ago. The new codec on the block is called H.264 and promises to shrink the file-size of movies by at least four times while keeping the same quality. In other terms it could fit a HDTV 1080i resolution movie in the same space as a DVD. That’s almost 4 times the resolution from the 480i we are used to on today’s DVD’s.

But even if we stick with the 480i-format of today and shrink the movies from 9GB to roughly 2.2GB, it is still a bit too much for today’s broadband-connections, and perhaps for the hard-drives as well, considering there’s only 40GB of storage on the entry-level Mac mini. That’s less than 15 movies when you subtract the storage necessary for the OS and Applications alone.

So, what should we do? Shrink the resolution? Could be. People has put up with DivX movies, that are usually half of TV-resolution, for many years, and many people will still watch these movies on their Standard Definition (480i) TV’s. But many people won’t put up with that. Many have bought HDTV sets over the last year, and this is undoubtedly the future as both Sony and Apple together with the rest of the industry seems to agree on.

Sadly, the only solution today seems to be either to decrease the quality instead of the resolution (I don’t think Apple wants to do this), or decrease the resolution. I’d definitely go with the lower resolution since most media-players today scale and interpolate pretty well if there’s flawless material without visible artifacts underneath.

S T I L L   A   N E E D   F O R   D V D ’ S

Perhaps the business-model—at least until standard hard-drives are bigger and we have faster connections—will be to rent lower-quality movies on the iTunes Movie Store at a low price and then buy HD-DVD’s (which possibly will be more than 50GB in size) with its insane quality and resolution as well as the extra material we have come to love on DVD’s like LoTR or StarWars at a higher price in the stores, keeping the traditional Hollywood distribution chain of DVD-stores and cinemas intact—god I hate to say those words!

Personally I’d very much so like to see Hollywood lose its stronghold on the movie industry by removing their distribution monopoly. The Hollywood system would collapse following its foundations which are buried deep in its distribution-chain. That ultimate fall of the “reign of terror” of the movie industry would at last allow an open, global marketplace, never before witnessed in the history of film. Not to mention that it would probably be the end of the “reign of terror” of the MPAA. (That’s the third time I’ve mentioned “reign of terror”... ok, fourth time; now you see just how oppressed we’ve been in the last decades?!). But that’s a topic of another discussion.

While writing this article I stumbled over this post over at Slashdot which is pretty much pondering the same theory.

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