Rent Flicks on the Couch

Whether by mail or broadband, the latest new releases are coming straight to your living room

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Harry Campbell

Tech: Online movie rental
Cost: Freeâ€$30
Time: Instant to three days
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The corner video store may soon be a relic. Already millions of people are renting movies without leaving the house. Even Blockbuster, the chain that made a fortune from late fees, now sends DVDs to your door for a flat monthly subscription price. The movie-by-mail model, pioneered in 1999 by the Internet start-up Netflix, has been so successful that Wal-Mart entered the fray, and Amazon is rumored to be joining as well. Yet even DVD subscription services may have a limited shelf life. One thing the increase in Internet piracy suggests is that there is an online movie market waiting to be tapped. (According to online market research firm Big Champagne, about 28 million feature-film files are available online at any given time.) That’s why five Hollywood studios are backing Movielink, one of several legal movie-download sites that can put a copy of Dodgeball on your PC in about an hour. Paid online movie rentals account for less than 1 percent of the video market today, but if online music is any model, that number will change dramatically as more blockbuster content is made available and the sites become easier to use.

Bypassing the PC, a new class of set-top boxes promise access to thousands of hours of TV and film delivered over your broadband connection. Some cable companies are already providing a similar service, offering on-demand movies and series from premium channels such as HBO. So tear up your membership card, microwave some popcorn, and turn the page, because from now on, the movies are coming to you.

Three Ways to Have Your Flicks Sent

1. To your door
Competition in the DVD-by-mail market is heating up, and that’s good news for movie lovers. When Netflix reduced its monthly subscription fee for having three DVDs at a time from $20 to $18 (to compete with Wal-Mart’s $18.76), Blockbuster parried by dropping its price to $17.50.

Each service works the same way: Sign up online, choose the movies you want, and you’ll start receiving them in your mailbox about three days later. Send one back in the prepaid return envelope, and the next one in your queue is shipped. Watch as many films as you like during the month, keeping from two to eight at a time, depending on your plan.

So what distinguishes the three? Netflix has the most distribution hubs, so its DVDs tend to arrive more quickly than the others, but Blockbuster also throws in two free in-store game or movie rentals per month. As for selection, Netflix and Blockbuster each offer more documentaries and foreign films among their 25,000 titles, versus Wal-Mart’s 16,000, but all carry the latest releases.

Outlook: Amazon’s entry could drop prices even more. Netflix recently partnered with TiVo with an eye toward on-demand movie delivery, but the company won’t say when the service will debut.

2. To your PC
Paid movie downloading is still in its infancy, as evidenced by the confusing array of options. But if you watch a lot of movies on your monitor, a few sites warrant a look.

Backed by the studios, MovieLink offers the widest selection, but once you start a film, you have to finish it within 24 hours, and new releases cost $5. A better deal is real movies’s starz ticket: $13 a month buys you nearly unlimited access to a rotating list of about 150 films a month but the mix is similar to the Starz channel–only a handful are new releases.

CinemaNow and MovieFlix specialize in edgier fare and B-grade flicks. Along with a few $4 pay-per-view blockbusters, CinemaNow has 104 obscure download-to-own films, a $10-to-$30-per-month subscription option for streaming certain movies, and a separate section for movies that can be transferred to Portable Media Centers. MovieFlix is simpler: unlimited streaming access (in WindowsMedia or Real) to the whole catalog is $7 a month, and retro titles such as The Clutching Hand and My Son the Vampire can be had free.

Outlook: Microsoft’s push for living-room PCs and portable video players will increase download demand, but it’ll take an easy-to-use and comprehensive site to stem piracy.

3. To your set
On-demand is the final frontier for couch potatoes–any film at the click of the remote. Major cable companies, including Charter Communications, Time Warner and Comcast, already offer a small on-demand library to digital
subscribers in about 75 percent of the country. Films begin instantaneously and can be rewound, fast-forwarded, or paused and restarted.

Thinking outside the cable box, two companies are selling set-top devices that download content over broadband and store it on internal hard drives for later viewing. (Neither box lets you record to it from live TV, however.) With both, you pick the shows you want using an iTunes-like interface.

The Xport from Dave TV costs $200 and offers pay-per-view and free content. Akimbo charges $230 for its device plus $10 a month for service. It also hosts pay-per-view material and a growing number of free shows from partners such as the Cartoon Network and CNN and full-length films from Turner Classic Movies and CinemaNow. But most of Akimbo’s programming is pretty eclectic–think vegetarian-cooking instruction and Granada TV.

Outlook: Comcast plans to expand video-on-demand content to about 30,000 hours in the next five years–that’s about 30 times what’s at the average video store.