Hollywood's New Web Play: Extremely Sad and Incredibly Dumb

The WSJ reports that the big movie studios are enlisting brick and mortar stores like Walmart to help salvage their floundering cloud service. How'd this tragedy unfold? 

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There can be something kind of endearing about watching Hollywood try and navigate this brave new world of digital media -- a bit like watching your aging grandparent futz with a computer.

Actually, that's not fair. My grandparents can work a computer just fine. I'm sure yours probably manage it too. Hollywood and technology? Not so much. 

Case in point: UltraViolet, the new cloud service that the major film studios -- minus Disney -- have created in their attempt to halt falling DVD sales as more and more customers choose to download movies digitally or stream them from services like Netflix. The idea behind UltraViolet is refreshingly sound: consumers should be able to buy one copy of a flick and watch it anywhere, any time, and on any device by accessing it in the cloud. All they have to do is buy a DVD, go online, and type in a digital code to add it to their online library. 

In turn, the studios hope that by making watching movies more convenient, it'll convince customers to go back to purchasing movies. Last year, physical DVD sales dropped by 20 percent. Digital sales, which includes streaming, were up by half. 

Unfortunately, like a bad director commandeering a perfectly good script, the major studios made a hash of it when they debuted UltraViolet late last year. Now, to try and revive it's fortunes, The Wall Street Journal reports that the studios are enlisting Walmart to promote the service at its brick and mortar stores by signing up customers and helping them upload their collections. 

Let's repeat that: To promote a web-based cloud service, Hollywood is turning to the customer service chops of Walmart. Something has gone awry.

Let's go through some of the missteps. When UltraViolet debuted, it only offered two movies -- "Horrible Bosses"* and "The Green Lantern." It also required customers sign up for multiple accounts, including a separate service owned by Time Warner. The process was so frustrating for some that the studios had to produce a two-minute instructional video. An instructional video. On how to sign up for an online service. 

Meanwhile, those who've managed to get signed up have complained about the difficulty of using the service on different devices -- which, of course, is its entire raison d'etre.

According to the WSJ, the studios are now working on a system that will work using a single account. And by the end of the year, all new films will be UltraViolet compatible (So far, fewer than 100 have been added). Meanwhile, they're hoping that Walmart's physical marketing muscle will encourage consumers to join the service, in part by having employees literally guide them through the signup process. 

To the studios' credit, one could interpret this deal as a sign that they're serious about creating a  comprehensive system of digital content delivery, serious enough that they're willing to enlist help. But no new media service should require a sherpa just to get you started. User experience counts, especially when you haven't offered up much great content. (A Ryan Reynolds movie certainly doesn't count).

Of course, the content will eventually be there. If a startup made these kinds of early unforced errors, it would be dead on arrival. But of course, the movie studios aren't startups. UltraViolet might work out in the end based on the power of the studios' catalogues. But that won't be a tribute to any sign that they've come around to understanding the web. That'll just be the power of brawn over brains. 

Photo: Wikipedia

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*An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the movie as "Terrible Bosses." While perhaps an apt adjective for the film, the word terrible was not in the title. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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