Commentary

UltraViolet Lurches Toward All-Access Hollywood

“You bought the Harry Potter DVD? You don’t even like Harry Potter,” my wife reminds me -- because apparently I must have forgotten this fact?

“Work.”

She dragged me to see this movie in the theater, which according to our marital rules meant that I got the next pick. She is still talking about how much she hated “totally hated!” the dour and violent “Drive.”

“Dad, what are you doing with a Harry Potter Blu-ray disc?” Even my daughter chimes in. “Even I don’t like Harry Potter.” She actually is proud of this, by the way, as am I. At the height of the Harry craze almost a decade ago, my nine-year-old wouldn’t buy in. She was about the only kid in her grade school who wasn’t expert at Hogwarts trivia and clamoring for the latest tome. I admired her independence of mind at the time, although I suspected she just got fatigued looking at some of those volumes. OK by me. In the end it saved me a lot on toy wands.

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In fact, no one in my family even wanted to watch again the underwhelming “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” when I brought it home on Blu-ray. But I had to buy it. It was that or “Green Lantern.” I had limited choices when I wanted to test the new UltraViolet system of giving movie disc buyers multiplatform access to its movies. UltraViolet is a consortium of major studios and device manufacturers that tries to answer consumer demand for buying rights to a piece of content, not only to the specific medium. It uses a cloud-based locker approach to let buyers of movie disc releases access the content on the Web and on mobile devices. Buy it once, maintain perpetual, multiplatform access to the material.

Alas, the dedicated mobile piece of UltraViolet is not entirely in place yet. Warner Bros-owned and popular movie guide Flixster is being used to access Harry Potter and the few UV releases on smartphone and tablet devices. There have been a number of complaints, as the support forum of Flixster can attest. Some users are finding the sign-up process confusing and others are just not getting their movies. According to some reports, Warner Bros. and Flixtser resorted to issuing some frustrated customers iTunes redemption codes so they could access the film via Apple.

This last piece is painfully ironic, since Apple and Disney are the two notable holdouts from the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) alliance behind the UltraViolet project. The DECE group is a massive coalition, with everyone from Adobe to Warner Bros., Netflix, Fox, HP, Paramount, Sony, etc. Apple, which has its own ecosystem to protect, isn’t playing.

Flixster CEO and co-founder Joe Greenstein tells me he is not seeing the volume of problems the reports suggest. “I definitely think reports that UV is or was not working from a technical perspective are overblown,” he says. “Not that there weren’t any glitches in the launch, but I can certainly say from hard data that the vast majority of people are successfully watching their movies across a number of devices.” He says in the first month alone “hundreds of thousands” of people have created UV accounts and successfully accessed their content. “As with any launch, there have certainly been a variety of small bugs and glitches for various users on various specific devices but we’ve been tackling those as they come up and have made a lot of progress working through most of them at this point.”

The biggest complaint is from Apple users who want more direct access to their UV purchases through the Apple Store. But until Apple signs on to the DECE, Flixtser is the workaround. Users of the iOS Flixster app are supposed to be able to sign into their UV account and download or stream their lockered content via the movie guide app.

Which led me to my otherwise unlikely purchase of Harry Potter – to test the process for myself. The BD disc comes with an access code for adding that particular film to your UltraViolet locker. There are hoops, however. For a Flixster user there is a double sign-up that gets confusing. I was thwarted at first until I unraveled the confusion, after a couple of tries figuring out which entity was asking me for access when. Greenstein admits he is trying to get this two-step sign-up process streamlined.

I will say that once the sign-up procedure is vaulted, UV delivers on its promise probably better than you would expect from the notoriously protective Hollywood establishment.  You can even add family members to a household account in UV to give multiple people access to the locker.

To be sure, the pieces have been rolled out prematurely to make the holiday season. For instance, even if I log into the account from my PC or laptop, the system tells me I won’t be able to download a copy of the film to my hard drive until Dec. 20, but for now can stream through the online Flixtser account. And UV needs a mobile app of its own, which is still pending.

But across both iPhone and iPad, I had no trouble steaming or downloading the full film to my devices. Synchronized streaming is still an issue. I wasn’t able to dependably drop off viewing on one device and pick up where I left off on another. Having it available in a movie guide like Flixster is fine, and surely it had been a boon to their downloads, But integrating a UV locker with my ubiquitous Netflix account, where I do the bulk of my mobile movie viewing, would be nicer.

Still, UltraViolet is a step in the right direction, following the consumer into a new digital content paradigm: e buy access to properties, not to specific media.

Well, if you choose the right media.

“You could have gotten ‘Green Lantern’ instead?” my wife says. “I wanted to see that one.”

Doh! Not that I would want to see Ryan Reynolds and those fricking abs, but you have to think about bargaining and banking chits in this marriage business, I am discovering. A really bad superhero movie flop with one of the blandest actors on the planet?  Man, I could have traded having to watch that one for “Tree of Life” -- or maybe even something with subtitles.    

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