Oh no, is Apple's movie rental plan going to suck?

It would be pretty hard for any online service to beat Netflix's all-you-can-rent plan.

Published January 9, 2008 6:45PM (EST)

Bloomberg reports today -- like so many other outlets have been reporting recently -- that Apple has signed deals with a number of Hollywood studios that will let it rent movies through iTunes.

Like the films that Apple currently sells (for $9.99 each) through iTunes, the rental films will be playable on iPods, iPhones, computers and Apple TV devices -- but only for a limited time. Speculation is that you'll have 24 hours to watch a rented movie, which go for $3.99 each.

Apple will get films from Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, and Lions Gate, Bloomberg says. The company declined to comment, but sources who've seen the agreements say CEO Steve Jobs will unveil the plan at Macworld next week.

The move has been a long time coming. For years now, Apple's been trying to forge agreements to offer limited-time films to customers. It is finally doing so at the same time that a number of competitors are also arranging on-demand rental plans -- Netflix, for instance, is signing deals with consumer electronics firms to stream movies to people's TVs.

The other day I outlined my ideal online-rental plan: "I'll go with the first company that gives me a wide selection -- tens of thousands, at least -- with a cheap per-movie price (less than $3 each), and for a reasonable rental period and terms (don't force me to watch the whole film in 24 hours, for instance)."

If Bloomberg is right about Apple's terms, they don't satisfy me. The rental price is greater than $3 -- but I can live with that (seems you can't get a movie anywhere, these days, for less than $3). But 24 hours? I hope there's some sort of leeway there -- a rule, say, that you've got to start watching the movie within a day of renting it, but that after you start it, you can take all the time you want in watching the whole thing. How about a week?

Some movies take a long time to get through. (Don't believe me? Try the theatrical release of Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage," so terrifically unrelenting it's like spending a weekend with Debbie Downer.) And sometimes you'd like to watch a movie over and over again, which, for $4, you ought to be able to do, no?

If this is how they plan to price it, online rental services -- from Apple, Netflix or anyone else -- are going to have a tough time. What they offer is instant gratification. But that's pretty much all they offer. Compare that to Netflix's DVD service, which, if you can wait two days, lets you choose from a vast selection, lets you keep the movies as long as you like, and gives you the extras of a DVD. And, if you manage your service well, your per-movie price can be pretty cheap, too.

Hey, Apple, why not make an all-you-can-eat online rental service? Say for $15 a month, you let me keep three movies out at a time; as soon as I check one in, I'm allowed to download another one. Now that's a service that would make me think twice about Netflix.


Here's a video post I did for Current TV.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

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