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Studios join to offer DVD downloads

Paramount, Sony, Warners, Lionsgate join with Film Fresh

Starting today, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Warners and Lionsgate will begin offering the first movie downloads that can be burned to disc using virtually any DVD or Blu-ray disc burner for playback on a broad range of devices already in millions of consumer homes.

These studios will offer the downloads through under-the-radar online movie service Film Fresh, which inked the first U.S. movie delivery deal with Divx, maker of a popular video format supported by millions of DVD players, Blu-ray players, TVs, mobile phones, the PlayStation 3 and other devices from the biggest consumer electronics brands including LG, Samsung and Sony. Divx-format downloads can be burned to DVD or Blu-ray disc or transferred to USB drives from any Mac or PC with Divx software for playback in any Divx-certified device.

Film Fresh’s ability to offer the first downloads that can be legally burned to disc using standard disc burners could give it an edge over larger competitors in the movie download space. Film Fresh CEO Rick Bolton thinks the Divx ecosystem will allow it to take on Apple, the leader in the movie download arena thanks to the iPod.

Digital download sales are growing fast, but business has been held back some by consumers’ limited ability to burn films to disc or easily move them between devices for playback. Currently, Roxio CinemaNow is the only other digital movie company offering major studio movie downloads burnable to disc, but consumers are limited to using a Pioneer or Dell Qflix DVD drive to do so.

Film Fresh will offer all new release films, including tentpoles such as “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and a selection of catalog films from its studio partners and a number of independent and international companies, Bolton said. Film Fresh is selling only download-to-own movies and DVDs for now. It does not offer rental downloads.

Bolton said the company would price newer films between $10 and $13. The site is aggressively pricing recent-release films to be competitive with both iTunes and Amazon.com, the two low-price leaders on digital films. Divx and Film Fresh will each run promotional campaigns around the relaunch of the Film Fresh site today.

Bolton, a former exec at Razorfish and Disney Online, founded Film Fresh using his own money in 2005. The site has sold independent and foreign downloads and DVDs since then. Bolton more recently brought in former Sony exec Mike Arrieta as his business partner.

“We’re doing a fair amount of handholding on the site because a lot of people probably do have Divx-enabled devices and don’t know it,” Bolton said.

The studios have been slow to offer DVD burning of movie downloads because of copy protection concerns. Divx has its own built-in copy protection so that films can be played back only on certified Divx devices that a consumer registers for his downloads.

(Jennifer Netherby writes for Daily Variety sister publication Video Business.)

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