Vongo's online movie buffet

Internet subscription service lets customers download unlimited number of films for monthly fee, but choices are not so unlimited

February 16, 2006|By DAVID COLKER | DAVID COLKER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Vongo.

A new dance craze? No, it's a new subscription service offering feature films via the Internet.

Launched last month by Starz Entertainment Group, which primarily runs cable-TV movie channels, the $9.99-a-month service is an all-you-can-eat arrangement that allows subscribers to view about 850 movies as many times as they want.

That is, until the subscription expires or the film rotates out of Vongo circulation.

The other major Internet video services - CinemaNow and Movielink are the most prominent - operate more on the traditional rental model. They generally charge $3 to $5 for each film downloaded, and their movies self-destruct, technologically, 24 hours after first being viewed. (Vongo offers a few pay-per-view films too, but for now they're a sidelight to its core business.)

Vongo also provides subscribers with a live stream of the Starz movie TV channel that can be viewed on their computers 24/7.

So, will lots of movie fans be doing the Vongo?

Probably not right away. The service has some problems holding it back at the start.

Primarily, there's a paucity of content. Movielink, which is owned by several Hollywood studios, offers 1,200 features. CinemaNow, which offers films from several small independent and foreign outlets as well as the majors, says it has about 2,500.

The other big problem is picture quality. Vongo's technology isn't on par with that of CinemaNow and Movielink.

Still, the buffet option is an attractive one. Over several days of testing Vongo, I found myself downloading and watching movies I'd normally not access if I had to pay for each film.

I lasted through only a few minutes of some of them and did not feel obligated to go further.

And I sometimes put the Starz cable channel in a small window on my screen while checking e-mail or awaiting an instant message from a friend. (Just what I needed: another easily accessed distraction. I don't multitask as much as find ways to stall.)

Subscribing to Vongo requires downloading a software package, which is labeled "beta," even though the company is charging for the service, from www.vongo.com. (Like CinemaNow and Movielink, Vongo is available only for Windows computers.)

Downloading a complete film from Vongo took 45 minutes to an hour via my cable modem. But I could start watching after about five minutes - by then, enough of a movie had made it into my computer memory to allow me to fire up the Vongo on-screen player.

The quality was acceptable only in that it was watchable. As distracted as I can become, I had no trouble getting engrossed in The Incredibles (incredibly, I hadn't seen it). But in animation as well as live action, the movies downloaded from Vongo looked a bit fuzzy, as if the screen needed cleaning.

On the other hand, when I watched some of the same films on CinemaNow or Movielink, the images were sharp in comparison. Using the downloaded Vongo software, you can peruse its current roster of films without subscribing. Absent are many of the recent big hits that are already available on CinemaNow or Movielink.

That's because the pay-per-view sites generally get access to a movie four to six months after its theatrical debut. So they can now offer as major draws, for example, hit films from mid-2005 such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Pay cable channels - and Vongo by extension - can't program a film until about 10 months after release. So Vongo had to rely on The Aviator, a December 2004 release, as its most recent high-profile offering.

There was also a matter of bad luck. Few of the first-time-on-cable films that Vongo was able to program at the outset were hits, even of the minor variety. That's because the studios with which the Starz channel has first-run cable deals - including Walt Disney Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Miramax Films - had no blockbusters in first-run cable release when Vongo debuted.

A Starz executive said the company was working on content and quality deficiencies. If they are remedied, Vongo's buffet service could catch on.

But only time will tell whether it's to be a waltz for the ages or just a taxi dance.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times

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