Why Veronica Mars embraced UltraViolet and angered fans


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The campaign to revive Veronica Mars delivered a number of cool things—an enormous number of new Kickstarter users and, lest we forget, a full-length motion picture of a deeply loved TV series that arrived Friday. But the movie’s arrival introduced something else to Veronica Mars fans: their first interaction with the UltraViolet video locker service, the method the movie’s distributors are using to fulfill the downloads promised to people who backed the movie on Kickstarter. It’s been ugly, to say the least.

UltraViolet is a studio-backed system that came about as a response to the massive success of Apple’s iTunes as a digital media storefront. Understandably, the movie and TV studios did not want to be beholden to Apple as they felt the music industry had become. The problem is that the catch-all solution the studios came up with is neither intuitive nor convenient—and as consequence, not widely adopted. And that’s a problem for a few reasons. First, device compatibility is problematic, especially if you're an iOS user who wants to watch the movie on your TV. And second, signing up for the UltraViolet service is complicated and messy.

A journalist’s blow-by-blow account of signing up for the two accounts necessary to redeem a single code is indicative of the average (awful) user experience that has plagued the service since UltraViolet’s inception.

The experience of signing up for UltraViolet is completely unlike signing up for an AppleID or Amazon account.

First, you have to sign up for an UltraViolet account at UVVU.com, a logical, easy-to-remember (not really) acronym for a service that legally can’t live on an individual studio or recognized brand’s website.

Second, you need to sign up for an UltraViolet-backed service like Flixster, formerly owned by Fox and now owned by Veronica Mars distributor Warner Bros. When forced to use UltraViolet, I prefer Vudu, even though it’s owned by Walmart. Other options include CinemaNow (Best Buy) and Target Ticket (Target).

kickstarter veronica mars

Pictured: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) wonders just how she’s going to stream a movie using UltraViolet.

And possibly third, you may find that the service that you chose is “already linked to an UltraViolet account.” You may have signed up in the past and forgot about it, back when the service in question was owned by a different company or went by another name or identity. (Flixster, for example, snagged its first big wave of users as a Facebook app.) Or you might have tried to redeem a digital copy of a disc from a studio that doesn’t give you the option of redeeming via iTunes or Amazon.

And if you want to watch the movie on your TV via an Apple TV? Forget it. The iOS apps don’t support AirPlay or external monitors, and there’s no Vudu or Flixster app for Apple TV. If you’re a fan of both Apple and Veronica Mars who wants to watch your Kickstarter reward on the TV, using the Flixster or Vudu apps for the PlayStation or Xbox might be your best bet.

iTunes redemption is smooth and easy, and has a storefront that millions of people already use regularly. So then why did Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas decide to force his poor, loyal fans to use something as broken and gross as UltraViolet/Flixster?

It turns out that he didn’t. That was never Rob Thomas’s call.

Backers of Veronica Mars were, of course, pointed to Flixster and UltraViolet because Veronica Mars and Flixster are both Warner-owned properties. The impression many have of Kickstarter is that it’s a service that allows regular people to back projects on the creators’ terms, fueling fiercely independent creativity. But when it comes to a property owned by a multinational conglomerate, certain things will always be outside of the purview of people like Rob Thomas and series star Kristen Bell.

The rationale given by Warner Bros. is that UltraViolet and Flixster were the only option that allowed them to distribute the movie globally and simultaneously. That is patently false. It is, however, true inside the reality-distortion field of studio ownership and strategic synergy.

VHX is capable of worldwide distribution without being bound to a DRM-laden, user-unfriendly service. It’s done this for dozens upon dozens of Kickstarter-based film projects. It’s been so successful that it opened its service up to the public during South by Southwest.

But VHX doesn’t use DRM copy protection, and for Warner Bros. and all the major studios, if it doesn’t have DRM, it’s not an option. Their reasoning: without DRM, piracy will run rampant. Of course, piracy is already running rampant. Veronica Mars is already available, in high definition, on BitTorrent, just hours after it was released.

I don’t advocate piracy, but even services like Netflix and HBO are admitting that coexisting with piracy is a way of life (an asset, even) in creating popular content. Executives are publicly commenting on how providers are foolish to not shift their perspective to piracy as competition, rather than something to eradicate with a bigger, stronger, “greater” digital wall.

The studio had to put money into Veronica Mars beyond the Kickstarter for publicity and promotion alone. My speculation is that studio execs saw the value of the Kickstarter being, in part, an opportunity to draw in new UltraViolet users. The people who would contribute to a Kickstarter are just the sort of streaming-savvy fanbase Warner Bros. wants using UltraViolet. The problem is, the studio squandered a brief glimmer of opportunity to re-engineer UltraViolet and redefine it while introducing it to brand-new users.

Kickstarter can be a great way to demonstrate audience demand in the content industry, regardless of how famous or rich the person using it is. Money can be an evil thing that results in awful things, and so can Kickstarter. It’s all in how you use the power of the audience you’re blessed with when using Kickstarter as a tool.

Kickstarter’s founders defended the Veronica Mars campaign (and Zach Braff’s similar movie-funding campaign) chiefly by pointing to the 63 percent of new Kickstarter users who funded the two campaigns. So far as I can tell, more than 60,000 Veronica Mars Kickstarter backers are now dealing with UltraViolet redemption as their means to get their first look at the movie that they made happen with their wallets. This is occurring simultaneous to Kickstarter advertising the movie as being “now available on iTunes” on its website. Hmm, I wonder why they don’t promote availability on UltraViolet/Flixster/Vudu/etc.?

Then there’s this so-called “global” UltraViolet distribution. Backers were promised the movie in HD, but UK users apparently only have that option via the Flixster iOS app. Unlike U.S. users, they don’t have the option of redeeming through another more user-friendly, U.S.-based UltraViolet service like Vudu. None of the UltraViolet apps are available for Xbox in the UK, either.

I have a great deal of admiration for Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara, especially with respect to his spearheading programs like the Warner Archive Collection (and its outstanding streaming service). Warner Bros. is truly changing the way that it does some of its business. The implementation of UltraViolet as an answer to iTunes, however, has shown itself to be a colossal failure over the last two years. It has been in need of a page-one rewrite for as long as the service has existed, and this is its highest-profile flop yet.

(Update: Word is filtering out that Veronica Mars customer service is offering a refund to users who complain that they wanted an iTunes or Amazon code for the movie. More specifically, they're telling some people to buy the movie on those services and send them the receipt—and that the cost of the purchase will be refunded. That's some good customer service to make Veronica Mars fans feel a little better about their participation in the crowdfunding process. In addition, Veronica Mars made $2 million at the box office opening weekend, despite fans having access to a version to watch in their own homes.)

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