Watching movies used to be easy. You’d see a film at the theater, at some point later you’d catch it on VHS and eventually it would end up on cable television. Before Laserdisc, before DVD and before the Internet, collecting movies just wasn’t on the radar for most people. That all changed when DVD triggered an explosion of interest in home theater. For some, an expensive trip to the multiplex began to take a back seat to watching a $20 DVD at home presented in widescreen with stirring surround sound. Suddenly it became a waiting game to see when your favorite flicks would make their way to DVD.
It was at that point in time that consumers and home theater enthusiasts began to follow not only films, but a film’s production studio. That’s because it’s the studio, in most cases, that is ultimately responsible for distributing the film on DVD – and more recently, on HD DVD, Blu-ray Disc and Video On-Demand (VOD). The same is true for television content. Simply knowing a film or show’s title isn’t enough these days. If you wish to make an educated buying decision, take note of the movie studio or television network behind the production. (If you’re not sure who it is, try searching IMDb.com or TV.com.) Once you know, you’ll have a better idea from which content providers you’ll be able to obtain it in digital form. When a studio or network signs a contract with a content provider, the terms typically apply to most or all of their properties in the same fashion.
For example, let’s say you enjoyed Paramount’s latest Mike Myers vehicle, “The Love Guru.” (I know, it’s a stretch.) You may now be wondering if Guru will be available on Hulu, Vudu or Roku. (If that’s not enough to make your head spin, I don’t know what is.) If you know you’ve seen other Paramount new releases on Vudu, chances are Guru will be there soon. There are so many movie studios and television networks that it would be silly to try and cover each one in this brief article. However, we can take a look at the aforementioned content providers – as well as a few others – and get a feel for some of today’s myriad digital delivery options.
Hulu is an advertising-supported, video streaming site which offers full-length films, film clips and television episodes for download to your computer. The bulk of Hulu’s movie content comes from Fox, MGM and Universal, but you’ll also find a few titles from Lionsgate and other smaller outfits. Hulu’s television content is varied, but of the five major networks, you’ll only find series from FOX and NBC. Hulu is completely free to use, but remember that you will encounter a few ads along the way. No set-top box or special software is required. Similar options: CinemaNow, MovieLink, Vongo, Amazon Unbox.
Vudu allows you to rent or purchase movies and television episodes using their proprietary set-top box ($299) and remote control. Once connected to your TV and high-speed Internet, you can browse Vudu’s vast library of titles (6,000+ movies) and playback begins within seconds of making a selection. A growing number of titles are also available in High Definition (HD). TV episodes sell for $1.99 each (permanent sale) and movie rentals range from $0.99 to $5.99 depending on how new it is and whether or not you’ve opted for HD. Rentals get stored on your Vudu box for 30 days, but once you push play you only have 24 hours to finish watching it. During this viewing period, you can watch the film as many times as you like. Movie purchases range from $4.99 to $19.99 and can later be offloaded to your “Vudu Vault” to conserve space locally. Vudu’s TV content is largely comprised of NBC and FOX titles but their film catalog contains offerings from every major studio. The ability to rent versus purchase varies on a title-by-title basis but many movies offer both options.
The Netflix Player by Roku
Everyone knows about Netflix and their famous red envelopes. Hoping to broaden their appeal, the DVD rentals-by-mail company recently released a new set-top box, developed in conjunction with the folks at Roku. The box costs $99 and allows you to stream video from Netflix.com, based on what you have in your “Instant” queue. The kicker is, movie and television downloads are free. Sort of. Provided your DVD rental membership is one of their “Unlimited” plans (currently starting at $8.99/month), unlimited “instant” playback is included at no additional cost. If you don’t want to watch on your TV, you can save $99 and watch those same videos on your computer at Netflix.com. Although Netflix’ DVD rental business offers virtually every disc under the sun, the number of titles available for instant playback – or at least the ones you might actually want to watch - is significantly smaller. The Netflix player is HD-ready, but no HD titles have become available thus far. Some content is available from just about every major studio and television network, but much of what’s available falls into the “old favorites” category. “Magnum P.I.” anyone?
An offshoot of Apple’s insanely-popular dynamic duo of iTunes and the iPod, AppleTV takes your iPod away from the computer and into the living room. In addition to giving consumers the ability to play their iPod’s music and video content on their living room A/V system, AppleTV’s svelte, little set-top box now allows you to rent and stream movies from all of the major studios, with rentals costing between $2.99-$4.99 each. A smattering of catalog (older) and new release titles are also available in HD. The AppleTV is available in two varieties where the only difference is storage capacity: 40GB ($229) and 160GB ($329). Although movies are available from all of the major studios, television fans will notice that NBC shows are nowhere to be found. Last year’s fallout between NBC/Universal and Apple over episode pricing eventually led NBC to yank all of their shows from the iTunes/AppleTV store. As long as you’re not looking for “The Office” or “Heroes,” the AppleTV/iTunes solution offers a healthy variety of new release rentals. (Check out: Apple TV Take 2: Even Better Than The First?)
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Greg Robinson is a freelance technology writer whose work has appeared in several national publications. When he's not evaluating Blu-ray Discs or calibrating televisions, you can usually find him thumping volleyballs at his local gym in rural northeast Connecticut.