Warner Bros. is learning a hard lesson about launching an ill-conceived product in the age of social media.
When the studio introduced its first movies on the new "UltraViolet" format in October, consumers were led to believe they could buy a DVD or Blu-ray, register their ownership of the movie on the UltraViolet website and then receive -- at no extra cost -- a digital version that could play on their computer, tablet or mobile phone.
The studio's aim was to encourage people to purchase movies rather than rent them or subscribe to a streaming service. But UltraViolet didn't work as advertised.
Some users were confused because the process required them to register on the UltraViolet website as well as on another website called Flixster, a movie site owned by Warner Bros. Users had to install special software before they could view movies on their computers. To make matters worse, it didn't work as advertised for owners of Apple's iPhones and iPads.
Within days, befuddled consumers took to Twitter and the Internet to complain. Jarren Wood, an art student from Atlanta, tweeted that he felt "conned" and called UltraViolet "a horrible hoax." Blogger Bryan Darrow tweeted, "Flixster sucks. I want my digital copy."
Among thousands of posts about UltraViolet on social-media sites in the weeks following the Oct. 11 launch, only 3 per cent of comments were positive, according to Fizziology, a company that tracks buzz related to Hollywood movie releases. Some 17 percent were negative and the rest were neutral. That's on par with the worst product receptions the firm has ever seen.
The message from Warner Bros. "seems to be as complicated as the sign-up process. Both would benefit from simplification," says Beth Monaghan, co-founder of public relations firm InkHouse. "If we've learned anything from Apple, it's that a simple message wins almost every time."
Warner's UltraViolet fiasco showcases the stark differences between Hollywood and Silicon Valley when it comes to innovation. To lure consumers, technology companies strive to make their products and services easy to use. Hollywood tends to sacrifice user convenience to maintain existing cash cows.
One recent dud was an attempt to sell cards for $15 at Wal-Mart that gave consumers permanent access to the Sony Pictures movie "Battle: Los Angeles" at Wal-Mart's Vudu streaming site. With movies available for rental at $4 and up, few jumped at the offer. Another misfire: For most of a decade, the studios couldn't agree on a high-definition format before they finally settled on Blu-ray a few years ago.
As more people flock to digital movie streaming, online rentals and subscription services, Hollywood is trying to persuade consumers to buy and collect movies. The push comes as U.S. sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs have fallen by a third -- from $10.3 billion to roughly $7 billion -- in the past seven years. At the same time, Apple, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and others have lured customers by offering cheaper alternatives to movie ownership.
UltraViolet, the industry's latest scheme to promote movie ownership, attempts to make DVDs and Blu-rays more attractive by offering consumers the option of receiving a digital copy of a movie they buy on disc. Those digital versions, of course, are more versatile than discs, and -- in theory at least -- can be placed on mobile phones and tablet devices.
But it took two weeks for Heath Parks, a 43-year-old technology buff in Cincinnati, to get UltraViolet to work, even after exchanging emails with Flixster CEO Joe Greenstein.
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