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Starz shutters movie download sites

Vongo, ClickStar struggle against iTunes

SAN FRANCISCO — Two pioneering Internet movie download sites have silently switched off their servers.

Vongo, launched in 2006 by Starz Entertainment, posted a notice Friday it was no longer welcoming new subscribers, and that existing subscribers would be able to download movies only through the end of September. Vongo, which replaced an earlier Starz Internet service called Starz Ticket, was one of the few sites offering consumers unlimited downloading of recent movie releases, for a $9.99 monthly fee.

And Morgan Freeman’s much-hyped ClickStar service, a joint venture between his production company Revelations Entertainment and chip-maker Intel Corp., went dark earlier this year.

An optimistic message on the website tells visitors the site is “currently unavailable” but advises them to “check back with us in the next few days for some exciting news.” ClickStar released several films online, including the Brad Silberling comedy “10 Items or Less,” just a few weeks after their theatrical debut. As a result, most exhibs refused to screen the movies.

An employee of Revelations confirmed the site is no longer operating and a filmmaker who’d sold content through ClickStar said he’d received a letter in April informing him that ClickStar had hired a banker, Corum Group, to try to sell the site.

Eric Becker, a spokesman for Starz, said the company was pursuing a strategy of supplying movies it has licensed and software it has developed to other companies, rather than continuing to run its own destination site.

The first customer is Verizon, which launched a site called Starz Play in May. Becker said the Verizon deal wasn’t exclusive, and that Starz was seeking other customers for similar “white-label” movie services. Verizon is offering an unlimited movie subscription for $5.99 a month, highlighting titles such as “Ratatouille” and “Dan in Real Life.”

“We felt like the upside for us from a business standpoint was to wholesale it to affiliates,” Becker said. “Vongo had fulfilled its mission by generating interest.” The first online movie service from Starz, Starz Ticket, launched in 2004.

At the same 2006 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show that saw the launch of Vongo, Morgan Freeman joined Intel CEO Paul Otellini to tout ClickStar, which officially launched in December of that year. ClickStar stocked titles from Sony, Universal and Warner Bros., along with a selection of docs curated by Danny DeVito. ClickStar also offered the John Travolta pic “Lonely Hearts” shortly after its 2007 theatrical run.

Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said both sites were hamstrung by content libraries that were too small, and an inability to match the simplicity of Apple’s iTunes Store, which integrates easily with iPods and iPhones. McQuivey added that “video-on-demand from your cable company, once they make it easy to use, will wipe out all of these download services, including iTunes.”

“The tide continues to shift toward the ad-supported model, which works well for Hulu and the network and cable sites, but not as well for films and other premium longform content,” said Will Richmond, analyst with Broadband Directions.

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