This week saw the unveiling of the Movies Anywhere service. Put simply, it is a one-stop shop for digital film downloads that works on any screen or device.
If that sounds like a straightforward proposition, you may be underestimating the industrial politics and egos that have prevented such a thing from existing until now.
The project, led by Disney, has been several years in the making. Now, finally, most of the major Hollywood studios have jumped on board, though Paramount Pictures and Lionsgate remain holdouts. On the tech side, Apple, Google, Amazon and Roku are all supporting it.
Instead of replacing tech companies’ digital download stores, the Movies Anywhere app acts as a centralised search engine that links to each of them (the iPhone defaults to iTunes, while Android users can choose whether to use Google Play or Amazon).
Movies Anywhere marks the first time that entire catalogues from a wide range of studios can be purchased on one digital store and downloaded from another. You can buy or rent Wonder Woman on iTunes for $20 (older titles are cheaper) and download the same title from Google Play and Amazon Video, too, for no extra charge. The studios make money from selling movies in iTunes or Google Play as they always have done — the app just provides another storefront. Hollywood has set aside its usual rivalries to build bridges between the tech industry’s walled gardens.
While I applaud this unusual display of collaboration from Silicon Valley and Hollywood, I worry that it is solving yesterday’s problems.
Movies Anywhere is indeed valuable for people with large film collections trapped in iTunes who want to watch them on an Android phone, or on their TV via an Amazon Fire box or Google Chromecast dongle.
Achieving this requires signing up for a Movies Anywhere account and then authenticating it with Apple, Google and Amazon. The studios who jointly operate Movies Anywhere are eager to collect lots of data about your viewing habits (some of which can be opted out of, after registering) but other than that the service is free. (It only works in the US, for now.)
There have been a few teething troubles. When I tapped the “buy” button on the Movies Anywhere entry for Blade Runner: The Final Cut, the iTunes listing page for Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters appeared.
Other than that, it works well. My small iTunes collection of Quentin Tarantino movies and sci-fi classics instantly became available to download on the Google Play store on a Pixel smartphone.
Daffy Duck notwithstanding, my concerns about Movies Anywhere are less about its technical capabilities and more that it completely omits subscription streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube and Hulu. The way we discover and watch video has changed radically in the seven years since Disney first started touting Keychest, the digital rights-management technology that powers Movies Anywhere.
While Hollywood was fighting over whether to join Disney’s system or the rival Ultraviolet consortium, many consumers stopped buying downloads altogether, preferring the choice, price and convenience of streaming.
Yet the fragmented and constantly shifting catalogues on video streaming services means that there is a need for a service like Movies Anywhere, which provides not only a unified search engine but also recommendations, listings by film genre or franchise, and thematic collections.
TV streaming boxes such as Apple TV, Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV all offer search capabilities of varying kinds, but mainly for apps that you already have installed on the device. That means, for instance, that it is useless asking Siri to find content that is only available on the as-yet-unavailable Amazon Prime video app. (Amazon Prime video is expected to come to Apple TV later this year.)
Some cross-platform search websites exist to help solve this problem, including wheretowatch.com, justwatch.com, canistream.it and decider.com. But, as websites, they are hard or impossible to access on a TV streaming box, making for a less-than-ideal service.
Apple is taking a run at solving this problem with its “TV” app, which is available for iPhone, iPad and the Apple TV box. It is designed to be a dynamic and personalised guide to on-demand video as well as, soon, live sports and news. Instead of being ordered by time of broadcast, like a traditional linear TV guide, it organises by show or film, drawing on subscription service content from apps including HBO Go, Hulu and US cable providers, as well as individual items you have purchased from download stores.
Worth the wait
Sadly, many of the same competitive tensions that held up Movies Anywhere for years are playing out again here. Netflix has not yet integrated its catalogue into Apple’s TV guide, while big cable companies including Comcast are also holdouts. Companies such as these are eager to keep viewers in their own systems and do not want to cede control of the user experience to Apple, where they might become just another “dump pipe” of content.
The subscription streaming world desperately needs its Movies Anywhere moment. If Hollywood and Silicon Valley continue to squabble between themselves, it is us viewers who will suffer.