First-run movies go home

Studios get a waiver granting limited use of technology to control piracy. Some films could be viewed in the living room at the same time they're showing in theaters.

May 07, 2010|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times

The way has been cleared for movie lovers to enjoy watching a blockbuster film on opening weekend without budging from the couch.

Federal regulators have granted a controversial waiver to the Hollywood studios that will allow them to show first-run movies in the home shortly after — or even at the same time as — their release in theaters.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday granted a petition from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the chief lobbying group for the major studios, that would permit for a limited-period use of "selectable output control" technology for watching movies in the home. The technology disables video and audio outputs on set-top boxes that prevent illicit recording.

Hollywood studios are preparing for the day when they can debut "event" movies directly into the home, charging a hefty premium for a special showing. Studios are eager to experiment with shorter release "windows" to keep up with the changing habits of consumers, who want to see movies on big-screen TVs or portable devices without waiting months for the DVD or video-on-demand release.

Currently, movies are available for people to watch in the home via video-on-demand three to four months after they appear in theaters and when, or soon after, they are released on DVD. However, fear of piracy has been an impediment to delivering first-run movies directly to consumers in the home: A pirated copy of a newly released movie could wreak instant financial havoc on the picture.

Calling the FCC's ruling an "important victory," MPAA interim Chief Executive Bob Pisano said "it is a major step forward in the development of new business models by the motion picture industry to respond to growing consumer demand."

But movie theater operators view warily any move by the studios to push up the showing of major Hollywood movies before they come out on DVD, fearing that it would undercut ticket sales.

Walt Disney Pictures confronted a revolt among theater owners in Europe earlier this year over its decision to accelerate the release of its upcoming 3-D film "Alice in Wonderland" on DVD, with major chains threatening to boycott the movie until they received assurances from Disney executives that such decisions would not become standard.

"The FCC's decision is not surprising," the National Assn. of Theater Owners said in a statement. "Movie theft is a serious problem. The issue of the theatrical release window, however, will be decided in the marketplace."

Also unhappy with the FCC's decision are consumer groups, which say that disabling the video and audio outputs on the set-top box will limit the ability of people to record programming and require consumers to buy new equipment to watch movies on TV.

"We are disappointed that the [FCC] has succumbed to the special-interest pleadings of the big media companies and ignored the thousands of letters from consumers," said Public Knowledge, a Washington-based public interest group. "The order allowing the use of 'selectable output control' will allow the big firms for the first time to take control of a consumer's TV set or set-top box, blocking viewing of a TV program or motion picture."

The Consumer Electronics Assn., which represents device and TV manufacturers, also was unhappy with the ruling. "The fact that the motion picture studios want to create a new business model does not mean that functioning products should be disabled by them,'' the group said. "The decision is not in the public interest and harms the very consumers that the commission is in place to protect."

Under the ruling, studios could use the technology for a window of 90 days, or until the movie is released on DVD, whichever comes first. After the 90-day window, the studio would no longer have the security protocol. The limited granting of the waiver was a concession to consumer groups that opposed it.

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