Hollywood's Latest Red Scare: Redbox

Here's a plan for corporate survival in the bad days of Great Depression II: Identify a wildly successful means by which your products get in front of consumers ... and kill it. Or try to, anyway.

That's what some of the big studios are attempting to do with Redbox, the wildly successful buck-a-day DVD-rental kiosks you see in some supermarkets, drugstores, 7-Elevens, and the like. Redbox is too good at getting people to watch movies, and the studios don't like the competition. Because apparently the studios are under the impression that if someone is denied the opportunity to rent a stinkbomb like Land of the Lost for a dollar a night (plus tax; some restrictions may apply; for rentals lasting longer than four hours, consult your doctor immediately), they will instantly go buy said DVD for $22.97 at Walmart.

The delusions some studio execs are under ... I bet the sky is a lovely shade of chartreuse in their world. And unicorns frolick under cotton candy rainbows. And Eddie Murphy is still a box office draw.

I personally don't get Redbox myself: it's like Netflix without the convenience of the movies being shipped right to your house or -- even more conveniently -- right to your TV via a settop box. With Redbox, you still do everything online -- create an account, give 'em your credit card info, reserve your movie -- but then you have to schlep out to Walgreens to pick up the thing. But lots of people do like it ... I guess, the ones who are hanging out at Walgreens on a regular basis. Cuz then you have to bring the DVDs back, too. Who can be bothered? I don't see how this is really any different than Blockbuster...

Oops, except it's way cheaper than Blockbuster ever was. And that's what's sticking in the craw of Warner Home Video and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, which are demanding that Redbox hold back on renting their DVDs for, respectively, 28 and 30 days after release. Because everyone who couldn't be bothered to go see 17 Again at the multiplex are totes clamoring for the DVD, and won't be willing to wait another month to see Zac Efron give sex advice to swooning teenaged girls. (Really, that's a scene in the movie. *shudder*) Redbox is suing, of course; that's the American way ... though you'd think that what with everyone being such big movie fans and all, gladiatorial combat to the death would be more appropriate. They could sell it on PPV and everything. But then Redbox users would have to wait a month after the DVD came out, if Redbox's gladiator lost.

This is even better: Universal wants Redbox to wait 45 days before it can rent a new DVD. A month and a half? What if the zombie apocalypse came and millions of consumers were denied their chance to see The Unborn get their brains eaten? Would anyone even notice?

Do the studios have the right to impose whatever restrictions they want on those companies that rent out their DVDs? It's a sticky question lately -- when we buy a DVD (or e-book, or CD, or any content in an electronic medium), is it ours to do with as we please, or are we only licensing a limited right to do with it what the corporations who sold us the disc or the download would like us to do with it? If Redbox can be denied the right to rent a DVD, could I be denied the right to lend a DVD to a friend? (Go ahead and laugh now, but when the digital apocalypse comes and Warner Bros. is hoarding all the good movies, you'll be sorry.)

Whether the studios have the legal right, the better question is: Why would they want to? They complained about VHS and then Blockbuster years ago, too. They said DVD rentals were gonna kill Hollywood. But cousin, bidness is a-boomin' today. Maybe because cheap and ready DVD rentals brought into the movie fold people who weren't particularly interested in movies before. And then they started going to the real movies.

It's probably a safe bet that there are people renting buck-a-day movies from Redbox who'd never bothered renting a DVD before in their lives: $4.99 a day was too much, but a dollar is just right. Sounds like a good way to me to grow Hollywood some more.

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MaryAnn Johanson is awaiting the day when she can download movies to her brain at FlickFilosopher.com. (email me)