Fox testing out movie downloads ahead of DVD/Blu-ray release

Prometheus (Photo: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

Twentieth Century Fox is making a strong pitch to movie fans in an effort to boost digital downloads of its latest films. Beginning with the Alien prequel Prometheus on Sept. 18, Fox will offer high-definition new releases for $15 a pop three weeks before the DVDs and Blu-rays go on sale. (Fox didn't specify where it would make the downloads available, but Prometheus is up for pre-order on the iTunes Store now.)

The standard-definition download (for only $2 less) won’t be available until the DVD is released on Oct. 11. Fox is planning to roll out all of its new releases going forward this way, at least in the near future, according to a story from the New York Times.

The current industry standard is about $20 for a high-def digital download. Lionsgate is currently selling a standard definition of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which will be released on DVD next Tuesday, in the iTunes Store for $15.

Movie executives have been experimenting with ways to increase consumer home video and DVD sales, which dropped to $18.4 billion in 2011 from a 2004 high of $21.8 billion, according to data from the industry-funded Digital Entertainment Group. Fox chairman James Gianopulos told the New York Times that he thinks Fox is the first studio to offer digital downloads three weeks ahead of home video sales. The company, along with a few other studios, last year offered on-demand new release rentals just two months after their theater runs for $30, but theater owners fussed and the idea fizzled.

And who wants to pay $30 to rent a movie when two tickets at the local multiplex cost about the same?

Consumers are growing accustomed to owning their content and viewing it on a range of devices—TVs, tablets, and smartphones. That’s where UltraViolet, a content storage system used by movie studios like Universal Pictures, comes in. Digital downloaders can use UltraViolet to watch their purchases on basically all devices. Fox on Friday said it will also sign on with UltraViolet.

The Times reported that digital sales of movies and TV shows are up about 22 percent in the first half of this year over the first half of last year ($329.4 million versus $270.3 million). That figure doesn’t include rentals or on-demand revenues.

Radius-TWC released its new indie comedy Bachelorette, out in theaters on Friday, first on iTunes in August, where it quickly topped the list of movie rentals. The company, a division of The Weinstein Company, also plans to offer the film on-demand for cable and satellite subscribers.

The strategy is a useful one for indie films, which often don’t have recognizable stars. Bachelorette had a leg up with well-known actresses including Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher, which may have contributed to its strong iTunes showing.

It may take content producers and consumers a while longer to reach some sort of equilibrium, but, hey, at least the studios are trying.

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