How Do People Watch Films? And How Does Apple Rent Them?

15 02 2008

Apple announced at MacWorld, way back in the dark days of last month, that they were going to start renting movies through iTunes. I discussed the pricing strategy back in earlier post, but I’ve recently started thinking about another aspect of their plan — the timing strategy of the rentals.

Let me take a detour to set this up.

Back in the early days of video rental stores, we rented by the day. Rent RASHOMON for one day and you paid “X” dollars. Keep it a second day and you paid “2X” dollars. Pretty simple. So, cheap bastard that I am, I would rent a film and return it the next day. A pain in the butt, but there wasn’t much of a choice.

After a few years, video stores realized that they could make more money if they charged slightly more money but let you keep the rental for a few days without paying additional fees. People like me would rent more than one movie at a time, so we could watch a few over a number of days without constant trips back and forth to the rental store. They also continued to make loads of money on people who kept them past the few days and called that fee a “late fee.”

Gradually, the rental period got longer until my local 20/20 (which has a fantastic selection of Criterion and foreign films) allows me to take out films for a week (except for new rentals) and even gives a discount for people, like myself, who rent three movies at a time. It’s a great rental model. Netflix, of course, takes this another step forward — you can have a movie for an unlimited period of time without late fees, but you can’t have more than a specified number at a time and you have to pay a monthly fee no matter how few movies you rent during that month. Brilliant.

Enter Apple, with their online downloaded movie rentals. Their policy (which, I suspect without a shred of evidence, is driven by the film distribution companies with whom they’ve made deals) is that you have 30 days to start viewing anything that you rent. However, once you start viewing, you have 24 hours to finish watching the film (time spent on PAUSE doesn’t count in this).

And here we come to the great divide.

For me, I don’t start watching a movie unless I know I can finish it. If a movie is three hours long, I better have three hours to watch it or it ain’t gonna happen. So, Apple’s policy makes perfect sense for my viewing habits. I’m a storyteller so I can’t see how I can have the actual storytelling experience if I’m taking a big, long, intermission somewhere in the midst of the film — especially because it’s an intermission that the filmmakers didn’t plan. The same holds true in a slightly different way for television. If there are commercials in the program, I show no reticence in picking up and meandering over to the refrigerator or the bathroom or the phone for a brief interlude. After all, even though I usually whizz through the commercials at Tivo warp speed, the original creators of the show knew that there were going to be a ton of ads in the exact place that I’m stopping.

But viewing something that wasn’t meant to have breaks in it — like an HBO or Public TV show or a feature… that’s a different story. I won’t stop it.

I feel that I am definitely in the minority now. My daughter, and many many other people, watch a movie over several days. I spoke to her last month and she had just finished watching the Krystof Kieslowski trilogy — BLUE, WHITE and RED (three truly awesome films) and was in the middle of watching THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE. She had watched the first part the night before, was going to watch some more that night, and probably finish it the following night.

I don’t get it, but it’s clear that more and more people are viewing media that way.

For them, I’d think, Apple’s policy is a non-starter. If you put the film away until the next night, and when you return to it then it is completely gone from your iTunes or Apple TV, you simply can’t watch media the way you want to watch it.

In a funny way, Apple is trying to create a new media opportunity, using an old viewing model. They are trying to distribute film in a new way (well, relatively new anyway) using the old movie theatre model. That is, you’re going to sit in one place and watch this film pretty much from start to finish.

Of course, that’s why I suspect that this is really the result of the studios license arrangements, rather than Apple’s idea. They fear losing control over their intellectual property and so, in a typically short sighted move, retreat to the old model of movie viewing, thinking it will prevent piracy somehow.

Ironically, Fox (which is one of the studios that is permitting iTunes rentals) is also the studio that is, in selected cases, putting a iPod version of their films onto a second disc in their store DVDs. This enables the user, after authorization through the iTunes store (hmmmmmmmmmmm, interesting) to upload that version of the film to their iPod, computer’s iTunes, or (I’m assuming) Apple TV. I understand that, once you’ve bought the DVD you’ve bought it, which is miles away from renting it. But the slightly innovative thought process behind putting this H.264 version in the DVD package is a different manner of thinking from the one-day rental mindset.

I expect that Apple will slowly change this rental policy. In the meantime, I find it interesting to see what this reveals about our film viewing habits.

How do YOU watch your media? All at once, or in bite-sized chunks?

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8 responses

16 02 2008
Etienne

One thing I truly enjoy is actually sleeping on a movie (sorry if this sounds crazy). Obviously I need 2-3 sessions to actually watch the whole movie. Apple’s 24-hour system is quite unfitting for me.. what if I don’t pause the film at the right moment when I fall into unconsciouness?

17 02 2008
Norman

There is no right moment to stop watching a film delivered through iTunes. You can extend the 24-hour life of a film only by pausing it and never closing the iTunes viewer. Once you do — it’s gone.

I’ve heard Alex Lindsey talk about how this happened to him once and convinced him that he wasn’t going to rent a film through iTunes again.

22 02 2008
Sydney Schrader

Hi Norman!!!

I watch all at once usually because when I watch I really set it up, buy some candy, put on pj’s, get a blanket, etc. Hope you are well, awesome blog!

❤ Sydney

22 02 2008
Norman

Hiya Sydney!!!

Yeah, for me, I can never watch a movie in pieces (too much of a purist, I guess) — whether I’m in my PJ’s or not.

Thanks for stopping by the blog!

7 03 2008
iTunes and Wal-Mart « H o l l y n - w o o d (Norman, that is)

[…] As I’ve already pointed out, Apple seems to finally be moving in the direction of multiple pricing, […]

19 03 2008
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[…] years Apple has insisted that consumers didn’t want subscription services.  In an earlier blog post I mentioned that, with the download movie rental model that Apple introduced for its iTunes film […]

28 05 2008
Tivo and Disney Agree On The Future « H o l l y n - w o o d (Norman, that is)

[…] have talked about why 24 hours is a ridiculous time frame, myself included (in the post “How Do People Watch Films? And How Does Apple Rent Them?“). Especially for households with children, the idea that you’d be able to rent any […]

29 05 2008
Luke Holzmann

For me it really depends on the film. If it’s a movie I’m loving then I go straight though. And that would be my preferred method. However, the wife (and in the future, kids) make this impossible. As much as I try to hide away in the basement and watch my flicks, interruptions occur.

On the other hand, if I’m not into the movie then I don’t really have a problem pausing or stopping. In fact, if I really don’t like the movie I find myself fast forwarding in the hope that something interesting will happen.

Love the blog.

~Luke

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