We are moving constantly closer to a world in which movies are not a physical object. Most people lived in that world for decades, of course, as movies were limited to reels of film projected in a movie theater, and the idea of "owning" your favorite film was as crazy as the idea of "owning" the movie stars who acted in it. But after decades of VHS and DVD and Blu-ray we grew used to shelves crammed with movies the way others collect books-- and now, with digital downloads and streaming taking over more and more of the market, we're getting used to owning these movies without purchasing anything physical at all.

Studios and DVD manufacturers hate this-- there are still a ton of profits to be made in selling physical DVDs and especially trumped-up Blu-ray sets, and a lot of studios seem frustrated with Apple's iTunes being the default method to buy digital copies of both music and movies. But just as there were years in which Blu-ray and HD DVD both competed for the high-def home video market, there are all kinds of ways to own your movies digitally right now, and it varies greatly based on how you're watching them. You need to do something different if you want to store your movie on your Xbox or on your computer, on iTunes or simply somewhere on your hard drive. There's still incentive to own movies, since streaming licenses can run out with little warning, but the ability to organize your movies as neatly as they would be on your shelf is virtually nonexistent.

The closest thing we have to a universal content source is iTunes, where many many movies are available for purchase or rental, and where you're probably already keeping your music anyway. But many studios have embraced Ultraviolet, which allows them to promise the same "digital copy" you would get with your DVD that would work with iTunes, but offers them a system over which they have more control (using a handful of third-party systems like Flixster and Vudu). The problem with it is simple: Ultraviolet is garbage. And as long as studios hang on to it, they'll only be killing their own physical media faster.

Today I attempted to use Ultraviolet to access two digital copies of movies I recently received-- the Magic Mike DVD, and the Lawrence of Arabia Blu-ray. The Magic Mike attempt was abject failure-- I went to the URL provided, entered my code, was told several times the code was invalid, finally got them to recognize the code, then watched the system freeze in two separate browsers. I gave up. I have Handbrake on my computer and can easily transfer the DVD file into my iTunes, easy to access and mine forever.


The Blu-ray is more complicated, since I don't have a computer drive that can read Blu-rays, and by God you want the best quality Lawrence of Arabia you can get. Accessing that digital copy required going to an entirely different URL, and using an entirely different program in tandem with Ultraviolet-- Magic Mike used Flixster, and Lawrence used a Sony Pictures program. The Sony program required a new login, which I set up, and then remembering my Ultraviolet login, which I had attempted to use years ago and forgot. Two new passwords later I finally had the Sony Downloader program on my desktop… and only had to spend two hours downloading the 2 GB file that would finally put Lawrence of Arabia on my computer.

It worked out, finally, but the quality of the movie on my retina display computer is still totally inferior to the Blu-ray on my TV, so in a way I'm back at square one. And the entire time I was entering new passwords and following URLs and trying to get the system to recognize my password, I wondered just how many people on earth are technologically savvy enough-- or patient enough-- to deal with. My parents are both computer literate, but I wouldn't dream of asking them to go through this. It's infinitely easier to teach someone to use Handbrake to rip their own DVDs, and so long as they paid for them, essentially legal.

More importantly, using Handbrake would cut off at the knees the dysfunctional program that is Ultraviolet, which is attempting to be a competitor to the dead-simple iTunes by being as infuriating as possible. I can buy Magic Mike in HD on iTunes right now for $13-- more than the physical DVD cost, but totally worth it for the lack of clutter and rage around trying to get Ultraviolet to work. I try to limit my purchases of physical media these days to only the Blu-rays that I know won't be equaled by streaming media any time soon, and I like that through Ultraviolet, studios are at least taking steps toward acknowledging this all-digital future. But the system they're forcing upon us right now is garbage, and actually creates less incentive to own the DVD than to just download the copy from iTunes. That can't be how they're hoping to save home video.

I want to support the studios that pay for the movies I love, and I want people who haven't transferred completely over to digital format to be able to access films (that's the main reason DVD and Blu-ray won't go away any time soon). But when the system we have is so broken, it's really hard to support it. Until major studios demand changes in Ultraviolet or move away from it, streaming and VOD will continue to hammer away at the DVDs and Blu-rays they're trying to save.

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