Hollywood's Digital Dawdling

Many great old films are unavailable on DVD or online thanks to movie studios' 20th century thinking

On Feb. 3, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SNE) is going to make an honest man of me. Finally I will be able to buy a legal DVD of one of my favorite movies, Carol Reed's 1959 Our Man in Havana. But there's still no rhyme or reason to what films are available in any digital form. If, for example, you happen to have a videotape player around, you can watch an old VHS version of The African Queen. But you can't buy it on DVD or download it from any of the Hollywood-sanctioned online services.

The basic problem is that Hollywood is attempting to preserve an analog business model in a digital age. The result is a crazy quilt of availability in different media, in different geographies, and at different times. Our Man in Havana turns up now and then on cable channels, and the DVD has been available from Sony in Britain since 2005. But that disk is coded so it only works in European "Zone 2" players, not in North America. All of this makes little sense in a world where digital copies, legal or otherwise, are freely available.

If you doubt that, just try Googling (GOOG) "unlocked DVD players" and see how easy it is to get around the geographic zone restrictions. Or simply download a copy of the movie using BitTorrent, as I did. I don't want to condone piracy. Yet it's hard to condemn—or resist—when there's a commodity item out there on the market and the vendor, for no particular reason, neglects to make it available to buyers. In short, the effort studios are making to preserve a dying business model seems increasingly pointless.

I have some sympathy for Hollywood. The studios are caught in a web of relationships with theater operators, premium cable channels, on-demand services, and DVD and online distributors. In many cases their contracts with these parties dictate the time intervals between theatrical release and various other forms of distribution, as well as release dates in different countries. Unlike the desperate record companies, movie and TV studios are still making good money, which leaves them reluctant to mess with these tangled arrangements.

The complexities cause titles to pop up and disappear on download services such as iTunes (AAPL) or Netflix (NFLX) Instant as randomly as bargain signs in store windows. A movie may appear on download lists only to vanish when the studio sells the rights to HBO (TWX) or Showtime (CBS). I've learned that if you come across a title you really want to see, it's best to grab it right away because it may not be there the next time you look.

But the biggest mystery remains the backlist of titles not available on DVD. Cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TWX) maintains an ongoing poll of the top 200 unobtainable titles, an eclectic list of old favorites, cult classics, oddities, and the downright obscure. Since transferring a movie to DVD isn't expensive, these holes in the catalog are hard to explain. A Sony Pictures spokesperson was able to give me the good news about the DVD release of Our Man in Havana, but he couldn't say why it took so many years.

The battle is between an industry that wants to tightly control who gets to see what when and customers who want to watch what they want wherever and whenever. This clash is slowly being resolved in favor of consumers. Movies are becoming available for download and on DVD more quickly after theatrical release. Director Steven Soderbergh has a deal with Mark Cuban's Landmark Theatres and HDNet that allows some of his movies to be released on disk and online the same day they show up in theaters. I expect more movies to be launched this way.

The day you can choose to see a new movie in a theater, on your TV, on your laptop, or on your iPhone is still some time off, but it is coming. Right now I'd settle for being able to order The African Queen from Netflix.

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