With pricing for premium 48 hour movie rentals still set between £13 and £16, we ask whether consumers are getting a good deal.

Over the weekend, I was one of the many who rented Lionsgate’s fun new comedy, Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar. Created by and starring Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, it’s – as those able to review it in advance noted – a really rather bonkers film, one that had originally been intended for the big screen. This isn’t another article explaining why it’s not getting a cinema release, instead observing that it brought a slight change in Lionsgate’s premium video on demand pricing.

Premium video on demand – PVOD, as we shall call it going forward, because it’s a sod to write longhand – is the term being used by studios to sell us an early rental of a film. That we pay an above-normal price to get the film a lot earlier than usual. In exchange, we get the usual video on demand rental system of 48 hours to actually watch it within a 30-day period. Once you press play for the first time, the clock’s ticking.

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Universal was first to go down this road for new releases in early 2020, offering The Invisible Man, Emma. and The Hunt for £15.99 apiece, pretty much as soon as cinemas were forced to close down in the UK. In a sign of just how rushed that decision was, you didn’t even get a 4K option for that price, and some of the early resolutions left a little be desired.

Things have improved there, thankfully.

In the case of Lionsgate, it had just released Military Wives in cinemas the week before the first UK lockdown, and it tested the water with a PVOD release shortly after, with a £15.99 price tag. When I came to watch Barb And Star, a film that hadn’t enjoyed a cinema outing at all, I noted the cost had dropped to £13.99. A welcome reduction.

But still, I can’t shake the feeling that all concerned haven’t yet sorted out the optimal costing model.

Warner Bros is the one having to face this the most as things stand, following its decision to send its entire 2021 cinema slate simultaneously to its HBO Max streaming service in the US. Given HBO Max doesn’t exist in the UK (and thanks to pre-existing agreements with the likes of Sky, it won’t be heading here anytime soon), that means it’s going to be heavily reliant on the PVOD model in the first instance. When it unleashed Wonder Woman 1984 in January though, the £15.99 price tag was attached again. That suggests – although it’s not been confirmed – that it’ll be the case for its upcoming movies too.

Appreciating it’s an impossible job to find a price everybody will be happy with, and also appreciating that I don’t see the Excel spreadsheet of movie studios, it instinctively feels a little too much to me. As a one-off suggested charge at the start of all of this, I accepted it and initially could see the reasoning.

I still can to a degree, but also, if this is going to become the norm then surely the most loyal of customers – the ones willing to stump up – deserve just a little more?

There’s little point pretending we’re in a world where people don’t find other routes to get hold of films that are less supportive of the industry – and we don’t condone that for a second – and I do wonder if rewarding those who support the model seems a sensible way forward.

I’ve got more questions than answers, though.

What I’m increasingly certain of is the argument that ‘if there’s lots of you watching, it’s cheaper than the cinema’ is far from like for like. On the one hand, £16 is a premium and a half for a digital version of film if it’s just for one person. But also, whilst I’m happy to pay for and support film – especially now – I’d appreciate some recognition that I provide the actual infrastructure for watching a movie with a PVOD release. When I pay £16 for two cinema tickets, I don’t have to drag in my own armchair, my telly, some speakers and a glass of wine into my local multiplex (well, three out of four, but let’s not talk about that).

In the case of Disney+ in particular, I can’t help feeling the deal is on the raw side. To get Premier Access to a film – Disney’s parlance for ‘charging you more’ – you have to pay £19.99 on top your monthly Disney+ subscription. It’s done this with Mulan, skipped the idea with Soul, and doing it again with Raya & The Last Dragon. In fairness, Disney then scoots these films to standard Disney+ quickly, and you do get permanent access to the films (no 48 hour restriction) but still: twenty notes to watch a digital download at home?

Might I suggest a tenner? Or perhaps some kind of system where I get a discount on buying the film when it comes to regular on demand pricing a little way down the line? I always liked the Sky Store model of charging you £13.99 and popping a DVD copy in the post. A small gesture, that’s been conspicuously absent in the PVOD era.

As always, it’s independent companies who have been leading the way. The ones oftentimes living a hand to mouth existence, but nonetheless looking for the fairest way forward.

Modern Films is one of those championing the idea of the virtual screening room. That you pay £9.99 for a digital screener of a film, and the revenue is split with the indie cinema of your choice (from those offered). It’s a lovely idea, and the pricing model feels a little more on the mark to my untrained eyes.

But what do I know? I’m just a customer at the end of it all. I got my £13.99 of entertainment from Barb And Star – it’s well worth a spin – but if I want to watch it again, I’ve got to pay the same charge. I know that’s the case with a cinema release but – bluntly – I watched it in my lounge. I’d be interested to see if £13.99 proves to be more of a sweet spot than £15.99 for Lionsgate, though.

Because the thing is, even if vaccines manage to lift us out of heavy restrictions reasonably quickly – and scientists, thank you – we’re stuck with some degree of PVOD model for the rest of the year. Likely longer, if you subscribe to the notion that the industry has been changed forever.

Perhaps then there’s something closer to everybody wins. That if the price has to remain as hefty, the deal is sweetened a little. Or that a level can be fixed that makes regularly supporting PVOD releases something that won’t require an extra balance enquiry.

It’s an impossible situation many in the industry have found themselves in, and I thoroughly appreciate their efforts: but please, help us help you…

Image: BigStock

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