Studio partners with Apple to boost movie downloads

Warner Bros. is looking to use Apple’s app store to boost legit movie downloads.

The studio announced plans Wednesday to roll out “App editions” of “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. The free app gives fans of the film an extended preview of the films and film extras in an effort to persuade them to buy the electronic version, which can be downloaded or streamed via an in-app purchase.

It’s a doubling down, of sorts, by Warner. Through the app, customers can buy the full version of either film as well as exclusive bonus features directly from Warner, rather than via the iTunes store (which will continue to sell the films as well). The app will also give the company a digital footprint in 23 markets where the iTunes store is not up and running.

“We’re trying to complement and expand what we’re already doing with Apple,” said Thomas Gewecke, prexy of Warner Bros. Digital Distribution. “We were very intrigued by the opportunity to use the flexibility of the app store to deliver an enhanced movie experience, allowing us to integrate everything from social aspects to additional content.”

Free versions of the app editions give viewers an opportunity to watch the first five minutes of a feature film, as well as some bonus content including behind the scenes extras, games, trivia, soundtracks and soundboards.

People who buy the film — at $11.99 for “Inception” or $9.99 for “The Dark Knight” — unlock all of the app’s features in addition to getting the feature. These include hours of special features, songs from the film’s soundtrack, the ability to watch the film in 34 languages, social integration (importing feeds from Facebook and Twitter that are discussing the film) and the ability to clip sound bites and customize ringtones.

Unlike purchases made via iTunes, though, buyers of the app edition won’t be able to transfer the film or extras to other platforms. Everything remains locked within the app, which is a step away from the universal media philosophy many content providers are embracing today.

Warner intends to roll out a variety of new releases and catalog content through the app editions. The studio is still in the process of deciding which titles it will offer and exactly how many will come out this year, but Gewecke said it will be a substantial number.Also, in order to boost the app’s draw, Warner plans to continually update it, adding features, even to app editions that have been previously purchased.

“We can retroactively go back and update these apps and make them better over time,” he said. “We view this as an early example of an effort to innovate the connected movie experience.”

The expanded reach into countries not served by iTunes could boost the bottom line at Warner slightly, but an alternate appeal of the product is it gives the studio a chance to release a legitimate digital version of its films in several countries where it has not been able to do so before,­ including China and Russia.

Many of the countries it will reach, in fact, were named in the International Intellectual Property Alliance’s recent Special 301 Report on Copyright Protection as among the nations that provide inadequate copyright protection and are “major safe haven(s) for digital pirates.”

Because of the nuances of how the app store works, Warner is not permitted to charge different prices for the app in different countries. So the $10 a U.S. user might casually drop for “The Dark Knight” would represent a significant investment for someone in China, where the average annual salary totals just $6,500 in U.S. currency.

That’s not likely to curb piracy by any stretch, but it’s a beginnin, Gewecke said.

“We’re certainly going to look at whether we would have multiple SKUs to match different countries,” he said. “I think the first step is to make it available. Making a digital sell-through product available on a great, reliable platform is an important first step. From there, we’ll move on to the next one.”

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