By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 30, 2009 at 12:45PM
When I first heard that three studios--Lionsgate, MGM and Paramount--were bypassing pay-TV deals in favor of a new online streaming venture, I thought the new distribution order was at hand. While the other studios were still hung up on the old ancillary paradigm, this gang was skipping windows and jumping into the future.
Well, the new online site is called Epix (pronounced like epics), and it goes live Friday October 30. If you get an invite or subscribe through Verizon's FiOS TV service, you can choose from an attractive 3-D Wall of offerings. Click on a tile and soon you can stream The Curious Life of Benjamin Button, the two-hour Madonna concert Sticky and Sweet: Live from Buenos Aires, Madea Goes to Jail, Pink Panther 2 or Iron Man. Or dig into background info and trailers, set and junket interviews (see amusing Star Trek clip below), edited EPK interviews with Martin Scorsese or Iron Man 2 stunt guys, and archive material like Jon Voight's audition for Midnight Cowboy. (Phase one, at least, boasts no links to Netflix or Amazon, reviews or social networks.) We get to mine some fun things," says Epix CEO Mark Greenberg. "We have to find ways to make it more engaging and interesting for a younger audience. We have to find ways to make our content fit into their lives and not the other way around."
But the pay-TV window is still nine months to a year after theatrical. First you have PPV, VOD and homevideo windows to get through. So this is not a question of bringing the viewer a movie any sooner. It's just another delivery mechanism inside the pay-TV window. "We're putting it on as soon as it's available," says Greenberg. "It's evolution, not revolution."
Greenberg is talking to Roadside Attractions and Goldwyn, his two indie suppliers, about experimenting with the windows even further. He's answering to his studio owners and keeping the filmmakers in mind, as well, in terms of making their money back. "We can lead the charge," he says, as studios hang onto their assets and no longer sign away rights for 15 years into the future.
But for all the bells and whistles, the question is, who's going to subscribe to Epix, especially if (much like that old disastrous multi-studio experiment Movielink) the quality of the stream is variable. At least via my DSL line (even when I took off Skype), at 500 kps, Iron Man was frustratingly herky-jerky and slow. I wasn't able to get the tantalizing "best" quality stream. Even with my fab new wide-screen monitor, I didn't dare go full-screen. (Clearly, even if I "dim the lights" on Epix, I'm going to need to get better shades in my office for day-time movie-watching.)
"It's designed to be ready-to-use," promised Greenberg, adding that you were supposed to be able to lock in HD quality by waiting for it to load, or if you accept lower quality, they adjust the bit rate and code to the size of your home pipes and stream without interruption. (I didn't seem to have that option.)
Calling itself an HD television channel in competition with the premium movie channels, Epix launches with 100 titles from Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, MGM, Paramount and Goldwyn. These studios are opting out of the old pay-TV window while the other studios are still collecting millions from Starz, HBO, and Showtime. (Until those deals expire.) Epix buys some films and licenses others. They supply consumers with on-demand movies via computer, cell phone, and TV.
Epix is loading titles onto the site now. By November they'll have 250, by December the Godfather series and 17 remastered Bond films will be up, by January they'll have 4-500 titles and by the second quarter of next year, they'll have 3000. Only Netflix has so many. Newer films will move in and out of the pay-TV window.
The site is going full bore on Bond, adding Casino Royale, starring Woody Allen, and a black-and-white 50s CBS pilot for an American CIA agent, Jimmy Bond, as well as creating Bond fan pages on Facebook.
I can see the archive titles doing well in a long-tail way. The average pay-tv customer is older than the target Epix demo. But I would imagine that adults would enjoy watching archive material. There is an easy search function--and if your title isn't on the site, you will be directed elsewhere.
Clearly, Epix is targeting the multi-tasking younger demo that happily watches movies on laptops and mobile phones. What could take off is the "watch with friends" app, which allows a subscriber to invite up to four pals to watch a movie at the same time, even if they aren't subscribers. Over the summer my daughter watched movies on her laptop at the same time as her out-of-town boyfriend across the country while they talked on Skype. She would love this function.
Try as I might, I could not get Greenberg or any of the other Epix execs I interviewed to cough up a likely consumer monthly subscription fee. They are hoping that telecom and cable companies will bundle the service with their other digital offerings. So far, Epix has finalized one carriage agreement with Verizon’s FiOS TV service, which reaches some 2.5 million potential subscribers. Greenberg says they are in complex negotiations with a number of other cable and satellite companies.
[Photo: Epix CEO Mark Greenberg]