Studios Launch WheretoWatch Service

I don’t know about you, but I have more channels and streaming options for filmed entertainment than I can possibly use.  I don’t do a lot of browsing anymore, which is probably best since in 2013 alone, American consumers legally accessed an estimated 5.7 billion motion picture views and 56 billion TV episode views.  Instead of browsing or channel surfing, I search for specific titles, either because I’m in a mood to see a particular work or because I’m doing some sort of research.  But no matter what I’m seeking, I have often found it cumbersome to check my various viewing options, wanting of course to prioritize subscription streaming services where I have accounts, then VOD options and prices, and finally disk purchase if need be.  For instance, I’m working on two screenplays right now, both of which require viewing some older TV and film material; and searching available, legal options even among the handful of services I currently use, takes a bit of time.  And of course a Google search of various titles often yields results of little or no use.

But as of today, the service I’ve personally been waiting for was launched, and it comes to us from those “stiflers of innovation” known as  the motion picture industry.  Still in its first iteration, WheretoWatch is a multi-platform, web service created by the Motion Picture Association of America where viewers can search by title, director, actors, or writers, and then see on a single screen several of the available options for viewing a particular title. So, if you want to check Netflix, for example, before renting from iTunes, this is a handy way to see your options in one place, including pricing information in case Flixster is cheaper, for instance, than Vudu.  And if a film is still in theaters, WheretoWatch aggregates those listings to the site as well, so you don’t have to do a separate search.

I looked up some fairly old and arcane titles, and the database seems to be pretty robust, especially for version 1.0 of the service.  Although WheretoWatch is backed by the six major studios represented by the MPAA, the titles in the database are not limited to those owned by the majors. Naturally, the industry hopes to promote legal viewing of all filmed entertainment and recognizes that having over 100 options for access is all well and good, but not very efficient without a search tool designed to do what this service does.  WheretoWatch is only available in the US at this time, but there are plans to grow into other markets as well as to continue adding titles and more services to the database.  The service is free, is not monetized by advertising, and users are not required to create profiles.

I’ve said before that Americans in particular have no excuse for piracy, but from a broader perspective, I do think the pundits out there who keep saying things like “piracy is just a reaction to the industry’s failure to innovate” should really stop saying that because it rings a more hollow every day.  In fact, the whole notion that creative artists and technologists are fundamentally at odds and that this overhyped schism should produce a conclusion that says “creators’ rights stifle innovation” sounds especially ridiculous to filmmakers.  At least it should to any filmmakers who know their history.

Cinema began as technological experimentation, which led to new forms of creative expression, which then demanded new technological innovation; and this cycle has been in constant motion ever since Muybridge.  There’s a reason, for instance, that both famous and not so famous cinematographers are also inventors of numerous pieces of equipment that have become standard hardware on shoots all over the world. From one end of the supply chain to the other, filmmakers have always worked hand-in-glove with technology innovators.  And as I have said in other posts, the ability to stream high-quality motion pictures seamlessly to a home theater is less than five years old. So, if all one did was watch every legally available title, one-by-one without a break, years would pass, and one would never actually finish because more would be produced. And that’s even with a service like WheretoWatch expediting the search process.  So, the film industry may not be moving “fast enough” according to the over-caffeinated, roulette-wheel economics that drive Silicon Valley, but it’s moving faster than any of us mortals can actually consume.  So, there’s that.

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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7 comments

  • David–
    “Still in its first iteration, WheretoWatch is a multi-platform, web service created by the Motion Picture Association of America where viewers can search by title, director, actors, or writers, and then see on a single screen several of the available options for viewing a particular title. … Naturally, the industry hopes to promote legal viewing of all filmed entertainment …. The service is free, is not monetized by advertising ….”

    This is indeed an interesting development. I hadn’t heard of this before, but I instantly thought of a couple of titles to test it on. And I confess, I was somewhat disappointed in the results, given that this is supposed to promote legal viewing presumably without otherwise monetizing its users.

    I searched for Charade, from 1963, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and Night of the Living Dead, from 1968, by George Romero.

    Both movies were on there — my complaint isn’t about the thoroughness of its database. But all the site listed were various options to rent them, to buy them, and to view them on paid subscription services.

    The astute film and copyright buff, however, will have instantly noticed the interesting thing about both films. They’re both in the public domain (due to screw ups with 1909 Act notice requirements). There are copies of both films on sites such as YouTube and Hulu, and certainly elsewhere. Since it’s legal for anyone in the US to make copies of them, to distribute them, to publicly perform them, all without permission or payment, I’d be surprised if they weren’t all over the place. And if they’re not, perhaps I should make a point of disseminating them a bit more. They are both really good movies, after all.

    Given that it’s legal to view them on YouTube, as uploaded by various random users, why not offer links? Well, probably because the site does leverage its users for money, just a bit less directly by always sending them to selected sites that ultimately charge a fee.

    Which brings me to the other thing:

    “I do think the pundits out there who keep saying things like “piracy is just a reaction to the industry’s failure to innovate” should really stop saying that because it rings a more hollow every day. In fact, the whole notion that creative artists and technologists are fundamentally at odds and that this overhyped schism should produce a conclusion that says “creators’ rights stifle innovation” sounds especially ridiculous to filmmakers. At least it should to any filmmakers who know their history. … There’s a reason, for instance, that both famous and not so famous cinematographers are also inventors of numerous pieces of equipment that have become standard hardware on shoots all over the world. From one end of the supply chain to the other, filmmakers have always worked hand-in-glove with technology innovators.”

    David, I think that you’re not quite understanding this criticism. I don’t think that anyone is complaining that filmmakers are stuck in the past with regard to the technologies that they use to make and perform movies. While some filmmakers tried to resist such changes (IIRC Chaplin stayed away from sound for some time) no one is really complaining that we got sound, and color, and faster film for night scenes, and widescreen, and 3d, and cgi, and the many innovations of William Castle, and surround sound, and so forth.

    The complaint is that whenever some new technology comes along that might make things better for the audience, the movie industry only adopts it if it won’t impair their revenues, and always tries to get control over it so that they can twist it to their purposes, weaken it, or destroy it entirely if it poses a threat, or even might potentially pose a threat.

    Jack Valenti wanted to destroy, or at least gain control over, the VCR. DVDs were slightly crippled from the get-go, and even then several studios avoided them, and instead worked on alternatives that were obviously not appealing to their customers, such as DIVX and Flexplay. Netflix was popular, and because it started out by relying on first sale, Warner, Universal, and Fox all went after it in order to remove the option of users to rent, in hopes that they’d buy when not given a choice of means to watch new releases.

    Even now, they lead the way in insisting that ISPs degrade their customer experiences, and shoulder the costs of doing so, in order to prop up the film industry.

    This is what people are complaining about. New, convenient distribution methods for movies, such as by sharing ripped video files via Bit Torrent, at no charge, are very popular with viewers. People used these means to get movies to watch because they were more attractive to them than alternatives. Did the movie industry create an even more attractive alternative to draw customers back, or have they just engaged in legal action to deprive people of what are, to them, superior options?

    Another example: A clear use case for augmented reality glasses (the one I’m eagerly waiting for) is filtering out visual advertising in real life. Just as I can point my phone’s camera at a book and Amazon can instantly recognize it and offer to sell it to me, in the near future, we’ll be able to look at a billboard, but see a nice landscape painting or something. Could I use this in a theater so that I don’t have to put up with a bunch of ads in a scene set in Times Square? No. Because people might possibly videotape movies, wearable devices with cameras in them are forbidden in theaters by MPAA and NATO. So what if you just want to use Google Glass to read text messages without a bright screen annoying other moviegoers? It’s banned, the feelings and wishes of the audience are irrelevant, all because just maybe someone will use a terrible camera on an unstable platform to make a terrible copy. Something which routinely happens anyway, making the wearable ban as futile as trying to hold back the tide.

    This is why people dislike MPAA et al. This is why people rightly regard the various copyright industries as being annoying and resistant to change. It has nothing to do with the technology used for making films. It has to do with their reaction to technologies that people actually want to use, and the ways that they actually want to use them.

    • Anonymous —

      I know we have different opinions, but do we live in different realities? Are you seriously wondering whether or not the major studios are going to provide links at this time to YouTube when Google profits from piracy and is entirely unhelpful in mitigating same? It seems that you do expect that since you suggest later in this response that the motion picture industry is resistant to unlicensed distribution as an “innovation” that appeals to customers. It’s just not worth expending a ton of words responding to that. Yeah, we all know people like free and convenient; there’s nothing innovative about that concept. But if you siphon off enough revenue streams, there won’t be any more content to watch. The majors presently invest in fewer titles than they did 20 years ago and that trend carries right down through the indies. The reasons for that are real, piracy is a major factor, and it isn’t because filmmakers are to thick-headed to see opportunities hidden in the technology.

      And no, I don’t misunderstand the complaint about resistance to technology. It’s a generalized and very dumb statement made by pro-piracy and Internet industry shills that basically labels everyone who doesn’t get it a “Luddite.” But given the fact that these attitudes are literally helping to hollow out the middle class, that people who complain about the annoyance of the copyright industries are blind to the fact that they’re shooting themselves in the foot, ceding economic might to the most powerful plutocrats in American history, I really don’t care about their petty gripes. They remind me of those Tea Party recipients of Medicare who “hate government programs.”

      On a side note, I predict Google Glass is going to flop because it’s a step too dorky for the American market, though maybe not the Japanese. Where the iPhone was cool, Google Glass just doesn’t have it.

    • You know, if one of those billboards in a movie scene -the ones that you are so vigorously asserting your right to avoid technologically- turns out to be an integral plot device then you are gonna feel awful silly.

      • Anonymous: “I don’t get it. Why was the guy so taken with that girl? She didn’t seem especially amazing.”

        Anon.’s Movie Buddy: “Because she was the same girl as on that billboard. You know, the first thing he saw when he woke up from that coma.”

        Anonymous: “What billboard?”

        Anaon.’s Movie Buddy: “Aw jeez. Dude, you were wearing you’re Google glass again, weren’t you?”

  • David–
    “Are you seriously wondering whether or not the major studios are going to provide links at this time to YouTube when Google profits from piracy and is entirely unhelpful in mitigating same?”

    They didn’t provide any links to free copies, no matter where they were hosted. Nor did they just provide them directly from the WTW website. And with respect to public domain movies, YouTube isn’t profiting or failing to mitigate piracy.

    And of course, whatever feud exists between the two companies, most people don’t know of it, or don’t care. It would be as exasperating as having tv channels drop off of cable due to fights over licensing, or the finally-over matter of Amazon v. Hachette.

    “Yeah, we all know people like free and convenient; there’s nothing innovative about that concept. But if you siphon off enough revenue streams, there won’t be any more content to watch.”

    And it’s also important to eat your vegetables and to limit one’s carbon emissions. But it’s hard to get people to care about that. Telling people not to pirate because it’s bad for the movie industry has never worked before, and seems unlikely to work now. Catering to the public’s desire for free and convenient movies as an essential part of an anti-piracy strategy may be deeply annoying, but it also is probably more likely to succeed. If they’d rather stick to their principles and fail to put a dent in piracy, as usual, it won’t surprise me, but it will disappoint me.

    “ceding economic might to the most powerful plutocrats in American history”

    That’s a very different battle than copyright. And let’s not forget how many powerful plutocrats have been right in the middle of the film industry, such as Howard Hughes, William Hearst, Joe Kennedy, Kirk Kerkorian, and Edgar Bronfman.

    “On a side note, I predict Google Glass is going to flop because it’s a step too dorky for the American market”

    I agree, but sooner or later something will do reasonably well in that area. Probably once it can fit entirely within a pair of ordinary-looking and reasonably fashionable glasses.

    sf46–
    I’ll take my chances.

    • Piracy is not just bad for the movie industry; it’s bad for every industry. So, no, copyright is not a different issue from the rise of these plutocrats. It’s just the leading edge of the story. I don’t defend powerful people based on what industry they’re in. Hughes, Hearst, & co. were of their time, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt of theirs. Today, it’s Theil, Zuckerberg, Page, & the billionaires of the Valley. And they may well be the scariest in history, allowed so far to operate unfettered and with a clear agenda that serves no one in any truly meaningful manner. They’re not job creators but instead job destroyers. They are anti-labor, anti-human endeavor except for what they need for the moment. They are the wealthiest individuals in the world and they do nothing even for the city on which they live — and yes, I mean “on.” No one who calls himself a progressive should be on their side, and all this bullshit about “what the people want” is just a momentary circus act to keep us all busy while they consume everything.

    • it would serve the “public good” if your personal toilet could be accessed by all who pass by your residence, anon. Why are you harming the public by not giving them what they want? I mean, you still have your toilet, right?

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