Buying a movie online is nothing like buying a song. Movie downloads, unlike songs, come swaddled with “digital rights management (DRM)” software that restricts the software and hardware on which you can watch the flick.
That makes purchasing a movie a long-term wager. Are you sure you’ll stay an Apple (AAPL) fan long enough to buy a movie can’t watch on a Roku player? Or does your ongoing patronage of Amazon (AMZN) outweigh its unwillingness to put its movies app on the Android Play Store?
Disney’s new (DIS) site, called Movies Anywhere, has a workaround for that. And while it doesn’t dispel DRM, it does punch a hole through its walls by letting you watch movies bought on any of its partner stores via its own or the stores’ apps.
A strong supporting cast
Although a Disney venture, Movies Anywhere comes backed by five major Hollywood studios: Sony Pictures Entertainment (SNE), Twentieth Century Fox Film (FOX), Comcast’s (CMCSA) Universal Pictures and Time Warner’s (TWX) Warner Bros. Entertainment.
That leaves one major holdout — Viacom’s (VIA) Paramount — as well as independent movie studios. But Movies Anywhere, which launched after about a year of work, still represents an unusual degree of cooperation in the often fratricidal entertainment industry.
The choice of partner stores is even more remarkable. The Google (GOOG, GOOGL) Play Store and Walmart’s (WMT) Vudu could use a little help with publicity, but Amazon and Apple don’t and haven’t been too fond of cooperation. Amazon only consented to bring its video app to Apple TV this June, after years of squabbling that saw Amazon quash sales of that media player on its site.
Netflix (NFLX), however, is out — as you’d expect for a rental-only streaming service.
Merging movie purchases
Setting up a Movies Anywhere account was breathtakingly easy. I only had to provide an email account and create a password — no credit card needed.
Connecting that account with the four retailers, however, revealed some rough spots. Amazon and Google required a click-through permissions dialog, and I had to sign into iTunes multiple times before that app would link my accounts.
The Vudu site, meanwhile, suggested I’d connected the accounts when I hadn’t — a failure reported on the Movies Anywhere site with the memorable message, “Unknown error linking MA to retailer Vudu uZNADbiyoIfW7_lfVHj08lBwVdYBD26cRdOcSLXXrcOs.”
But after a second try, my purchases at Vudu — including such long-forgotten acquisitions as a copy of “The Matrix” I bought in 2012 to review its then-new “disc to digital” feature — showed up along with those at the other three sites in my Movies Anywhere account.
For now, the site rewards users who link at least two retailers with five free downloads: “Ice Age,” “Big Hero 6,” “The Lego Movie,” “Jason Bourne” and the the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters.”
You should take a moment after this setup to check its video data sharing settings. There, you can opt out of letting “Participating Studios, their affiliates, and service providers” use data about your use of the service to “deliver you more relevant and interesting content, marketing, advertisements, and promotions and improve their services and products.”
Test purchases at Apple and Amazon on Thursday morning appeared in Movies Anywhere within a minute or two, while one from Google took another few minutes. (By Thursday afternoon, the site was warning users that this process might take an hour.) But the copy of “Star Trek II” that I bought at Vudu never landed in Movies Anywhere — because it’s a Paramount title.
Even more magical, these old and new purchases also surfaced in my Amazon, Apple, Google and Vudu accounts. Seeing my iTunes purchases pop up in my Android phone’s Play Movies & TV app felt like a form of cinematic money laundering.
Movies Anywhere covers some 7,300 titles, which meant some older purchases didn’t get matched. For example, my copy of the 1999 journalistic drama “The Insider” remains confined to iTunes.
Movies Anywhere shows a refreshing open-mindedness in its device support. It offers apps for iOS (including Apple TV), Android, Roku and Amazon Kindle tablets and media players. You can also watch movies in all the major web browsers aside from Mozilla Firefox — with no Flash plug-in required.
The Android and iOS apps each allow you to download a movie for offline playback. But on an iPad Mini 4 in airplane mode, a cached copy of the Lego flick was hopelessly garbled — not what you want to discover at the start of a transcontinental flight with your kid.
It knocks down DRM’s incompatibility risks to about the lowest level possible and makes it far easier to price-shop between services without worrying about your download being useless on some of your devices.
You still don’t own a movie download, in the sense that you can give or sell it to somebody else. But in this service, it feels more like your property and you feel like less of a chump.
More from Rob:
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Email Rob at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.