Back in the day I used to have a shelf full of VHS tapes. This shelf contained two copies of the original Star Wars Trilogy because… Star Wars. When widescreen VHS became a thing, I switched to it. When DVD came around, I had to buy Star Wars again. I ended up with a small room lined with VHS tapes on one side and DVDs on the other. Digital video came about at about the same time as Blu-ray. I skipped Blu-ray. I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally bought a Blu-ray disc even though I had a Blu-ray player. At the time it was a pretty easy decision because I did not have a TV that could tell the difference.
For me, digital video held the promise that I would not have to buy Star Wars again. Well, maybe just one more time. In the movie “Men in Black” we see Tommy Lee Jones holding up a tiny silver disc that will “replace CDs” in a couple years. His character resigns “I guess I’ll have to but The White Album again”. That’s the way I feel about Star Wars. But I was drawing a line in the sand, this far.. no further. Fortunately for me, I delayed that purchase just a little bit.
There are competing marketplaces for digital movies. You have Ultraviolet, Amazon, and iTunes. I avoided Ultraviolet instinctually. Some DVDs bought early on came with a code for the same movie on Ultraviolet that I gave away sometimes to strangers on Twitter just to avoid making my digital library more complex. It was a bit harder to avoid Amazon as they have some content that is not available elsewhere. I put my stock in iTunes. This means that I am using an Apple TV instead of a ChromeCast or Roku. And I’m betting that the company, Apple, is not going out of business any time soon. So far that bet has paid off.
Disney puts an interesting wrinkle in this. They have a notion that if I buy one of their movies on one platform, I can play it on their streaming platform. They also let me collect worthless Disney points but that is another story. This is an interesting twist because it switches the platform loyalty to a studio loyalty with no change in behavior from the customer. Now that Disney owns The Force, it should mean that my movies would even out live Apple.
When the first digital movies came out they were available in glorious 480 lines of resolution, also known as SD. This meant that a 2 hour movie would take up about 500MB of hard disk space. At the time I had AT&T DSL so the prospect of downloading a movie was not a realtime process. Typically I would buy or rent the movie the day before I wanted to watch it to let it download overnight.
When HD came available, the video improved to DVD quality which means 720 lines of resolution — not quite double. Some other definitions redefined that to 1080 lines of resolution. This is when you would buy a TV that would be labeled 1080p or 1080i to tell you if the the TV was fast enough to redraw every line everytime it redrew the screen or if it skipped to redraw every other line. Later we would see the refresh rate be advertised. When you watch a movie you are typically seeing 24 frames per second. TV is typically 30 frames per second. When you increase that rate like Peter Jackson did with his Hobbit movies you fall into a hyper real uncanny valley. All this is to say that the studios are throwing more and more data on the screen with every frame and they expect to be able to cash in on these differences. Apple started selling SD and HD versions of movies. For a buck or two difference you could get the HD version. If you are interested in future proofing your collection, it’s worth the difference for any movie that is visually compelling. So you can go cheap on that documentary or if the source was not created with enough resolution like King Kong (1933).
So now Apple is going to be selling 4K versions of movies. They have managed to strong arm the studios except, surprisingly, Disney into not charging more for 4K version (win!). Even better, they are going to automatically upgrade any historical HD purchases to 4K if the version exists (win!). So I don’t have to buy Star Wars again — wait, scratch that. What about Disney? We’ll need to keep an eye on that. So far movies like Wonder Woman have already been advertised as being available in 4K.
Let’s get to the advice part for Apple. I know they are not reading this but what the hay. Having all these versions is way too complicated. When you add in bundles into the mix it get’s really screwed up. Let’s say for example you bought Mission Impossible in SD. Then Apple comes out with an incredibly priced bundle that includes all 5 MI movies in HD. Now you own MI-1 in both SD and HD formats. They have the same cover artwork and hopefully appear next to each other on your list of movies. Embarrassing. Even though both purchase decisions made sense at the time. Apple needs to implement what they have already done on the music side with “complete my album” that allows you to get a discounted price based on the current value of what you already own. So if the bundle for 5 movies is $40 we can say that each movie in the bundle is worth $8 even though you paid $20 back when it was new. So the complete my bundle price should be $32. Even better deal.
Secondly, Apple needs to offer an upgrade price to let me go from SD to HD. For some movies, I would have preferred the HD movie if it were available at the time. Now I’m willing to pay the delta to upgrade to the better video experience.
Thirdly, there needs to be some unification of titles in the store. Currently a movie that I have already bought shows up as something that can be bought again. For example, Thor. I think at some point the move was re-published. The version that I bought is no longer available. This means that I can no longer re-download the movie via iTunes thought it is still available in the TV app and Apple TV. Nicht gut. If IMDB can do it, so can Apple. This will probably mean that they have to go to bat again for the consumer. This gets a bit more complicated when you get to various cuts of a movie. If I buy Lord of the Ring and then the extended version comes out, oops. Back to the incremental pricing idea. How about offering an upgrade price that let’s you upgrade to the Peter Jackson extended cut? And come on, the latest Godzilla movie is in the store twice: dubbed and subtitled. Those should not be two different titles, come on.
Fourthly, there should be a bidding system to let customers price a move. Today when a movie first comes out we see it at the $19.99 level. Over time we see that price float down. Just like I can pre-order a movie, how about letting me pre-order at a specific price? So If I know the movie is going to be $7.99 in December, I will bid for that now. Of course it is in Apple best interest to get me to buy now.
Or buy into a bundle when the third movie is not out yet. Yes, I’m talking about John Wick 3, OK? This is kind of a back door complete-my-bundle option. I’m sure the licensing for that would be near impossible. It’s not like a TV show where there’s a guarantee that the episodes will be made.
For now, I’m looking forward to seeing some 4K content. I’m taking a wait and see approach to Disney. Thanks to Apple for not gouging on the 4K upgrade.