The idea of renting movies online seems a lot less silly than it did two years ago, when a site called Movielink debuted.
Most important, music services like Apple's iTunes and Roxio's Napster have shown that people will buy fairly priced downloads, even when the same stuff is available for free on file-sharing systems.
But the movie-rental sites themselves haven't improved nearly as much, to judge from a week of trying out each. CinemaNow and Movielink now offer better downloading options that reduce or eliminate the lengthy wait to transfer a movie to a computer.
But they still carry too few titles at too high a price. There's very little here to lure anybody from ordinary movie-rental stores, DVD-by-mail services like Netflix, or cable and satellite pay-per-view options.
Both CinemaNow and Movielink look and work alike in some respects. You must run Windows to watch anything at either site. Both require loading their own download-management software as well, but Movielink is more annoying to use -- the site can't even be viewed in any browser but Internet Explorer and was agonizingly slow.
Forget using either site without a broadband Internet account -- these movies weigh in at 500 or more megabytes apiece. Although you can start watching movies before they've finished downloading, that still involves a wait of at least a few minutes and as much as an hour, depending on your connection. (Over a 608-kbps digital subscriber line, "Finding Nemo" took 2 hours and 22 minutes to finish downloading.)
CinemaNow's streaming-media options permit almost immediate viewing, but to avoid sacrificing quality you'll need enough bandwidth to accommodate its full 700-kbps feed.
These sites' rental rates start at $2.99 for up to 48 hours of viewing -- the clock starts ticking when you first begin watching, not when the download completes -- but all the flicks I rented cost $3.99 or $4.99 and allowed 24 hours of use.
CinemaNow offers a few other pricing choices. You can sign up for $9.95 or $29.95 "Premium Pass" monthly subscriptions that include unlimited rentals; the more expensive plan adds access to an "After Dark" collection of adult movies. The site also sells 30 rather obscure titles as so-called permanent downloads -- "Manilow Live!" can be yours for $14.99 if you have a hankering for the syrupy singer's work.
You can't copy any of these downloads to a CD or DVD for viewing on a DVD player or move them to another computer. If you own a laptop with a TV-compatible connector, such as a composite-video or S-Video jack, you can plug it into your set for viewing on a bigger screen, but otherwise each rental stays welded to your hard drive.
Movielink offers its titles in RealVideo and Windows Media formats; CinemaNow only provides Windows Media downloads. Picture quality varies but never comes close to DVD; for instance, Movielink's wide-screen-formatted titles have a resolution of 512 by 288 pixels per frame, or less than half that of a wide-screen-enhanced DVD.
To my eyes, these services' downloads come closest to regular cable TV, aside from occasional outbreaks of pixilation or blurring in busy or cluttered scenes.
Both CinemaNow and Movielink suffer from a pathetically thin selection -- 854 and 747 titles as of Friday afternoon. Since many movies are made available to these sites only for limited periods before moving to cable and satellite TV (for example, "Finding Nemo" was no longer available after Saturday from either service) those numbers fluctuate over time.
Unless you're looking for a movie from the past few years, the odds weigh heavily against you finding it on either site. Half of the titles I considered renting -- for instance, "Heathers," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Office Space" -- weren't available.
The older the flick, the worse your chances: Of the top 10 titles on the American Film Institute's "greatest American movies" list, Movielink provides only one ("Lawrence of Arabia") and CinemaNow offers none.
Movielink's chief executive, Jim Ramo, explained that until the late '90s, studios didn't buy Internet distribution rights, which means the site must negotiate with individual copyright holders for each movie. Ramo noted that he can't provide "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," because the rights to the song "Twist and Shout," which plays in one scene, would cost too much to obtain.
Who would want to put up with services as dysfunctional as this? It's hard to imagine.
College students who have broadband Internet but lack TVs in their dorm rooms might appreciate not having to return a DVD to the store. Then again, most college students don't have money either and will probably stick to the free file-sharing services.
And I suppose that After Dark library at CinemaNow could also draw customers who are tired of hearing snarky comments from video-store clerks.
Otherwise, though, the only people these sites seem to have been designed for are movie-studio executives. (Movielink is owned by the five largest studios; a smaller studio, Lions Gate Entertainment, owns CinemaNow.)
Until they learn from the example of the music industry -- offer their content at a discount online, but at a quality comparable to what you'd get in the store -- this online video-rental business isn't going anywhere.