Digital Movie Libraries in the UK

Buying a digital movie or TV series in the UK is an utter mess.

You can buy movies or TV series from a number of sites including: iTunes, Google Play Movies, Amazon, Sky Store and Rakuten.

But if you buy something in one of those places, you can only watch it via that company’s app and/or products. You run the risk of your hardware not being supported (e.g. no app for your new TV), or needing to buy new boxes or dongles to play a particular operator’s fare.

All taken together this means that it’s quite easy to have digital copies of films and TV series across a number of services.

And of course, if you are able to download offline copies of the films, they’re encrypted with DRM, and won’t play on other companies’ services or hardware.

Then there is the mess that is those codes that come with physical media. If you have bought a DVD or a BluRay over the last few years, it may well have come with a code on a slip of paper in the tray. You go to a website, enter that code, and get a digital copy. That’s the theory.

But this too is a complete mess.

Different studios have different options – some limit you to iTunes. Others, work only with Google Play Movies. Most commonly, you have to use Ultraviolet, which theoretically lets you then choose a service to view your films. In the UK, the reality is that this “choice” is Flixster. But this is insanely limited, in large part because they’ve shut down in the US. In the UK and elsewhere they continue to exist, but there are only very limited ways to watch films. You can use a mobile app, or via the web-browser. There’s no Android TV version available, and newer TVs don’t have a built in Flixster app any more. (And that’s before we get to the fact that you’ve probably created multiple accounts for the studio, Ultraviolet and Flixster, just to get to that point).

Further problems include unavailability of previously available films. For example, I bought a disc of the Frank Capra classic Lost Horizon which included a digital copy from Sony Pictures (owners of Columbia). This shows up in my Flixster library marked as unplayable. Clicking on it takes me to a broken insecure Sony Pictures website page. The digital copy seems to have disappeared. [Update: It turns out that I can view this film via Sony’s site. But not via Flixster for some reason, even though other Sony movies and TV are available on Flixster.]

Some studios just never played ball in the UK, with UltraViolet or anything. Notably Disney has never included digital codes in its DVDs or BluRays in the UK. The same is true for other smaller studios. It has not become the norm to include a digital copy of a film with physical media.

Anyone would think that the studios loved the idea that users had films scattered across the four winds of film services, with those services sometimes closing down or changing, and purchasers losing access to their films.

Now, in the US, UltraViolet is shutting down. There, they have Movies Anywhere, which is supposed to take all this pain away. You connect up all those disparate accounts across a number of services, and everything is available anywhere. So if I prefer to watch films via Google’s app, I can watch everything including purchases from my iTunes library.

It’s not clear that UltraViolet will be shutting down in the UK, although it’s certainly not encouraging [Update: Ultraviolet absolutely is closing down in the UK on the 31 July 2019 as with the US version of the service. See further update below]. Users instead are left with disparate collections of films across different services, playable via different devices, and generally confusing and a mess.

I find it interesting that last week, various studios got together to promote “Mega Movie Week”, a week of promotional pricing for a number of recent films. Recent titles like Crazy Rich Asians were being sold for £2.99 for a digital download. The pricing seemed consistent across the various different platforms, and it seemed like most major studios were participating. So they can play nicely together if they want to.

They just don’t seem to be able to settle on something sensible like Movies Anywhere outside the US. This may come back to haunt them in the fullness of time if a service ever shuts down and users lose access to their film and TV collections.

[Later Update] Shortly after publishing this, I got an email from UltraViolet confirming that the UK service is indeed shutting down on 31 July 2019.

The website suggests that you verify through their Retailers Services page that your library is connected to one of their services. In reality, this is a choice between Flixster, Sony Pictures and a company called
Kaleidescape who I was not previously familiar. The Sony site seems to just have the Sony owned films, while Flixster, in the UK at least, has everything else, with the exception of that one film, Lost Horizons. Interestingly, the site claims to be copyright of Warner Bros.

There’s certainly no ability to move your library to somewhere like iTunes, Google or Amazon. And there’s no sign of Movies Anywhere launching, which might take a lot of the pain out of UltraViolet closing down.

UltraViolet says that until 31 July, you can carry on redeeming movies the usual way, but that after that date, “You can continue to make online purchases and redeem codes, but these may only be available through that retailer, and will not be added to your UltraViolet Library.”

In other words, your library will become even more disaggregated.

More worrying it also says, “Your UltraViolet Library will automatically close and, in the majority of cases, your movies and TV shows will remain accessible at previously-linked retailers.” [My emphasis]

That’s not entirely reassuring is it?