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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

RIP Vongo and ClickStar: Two Pioneers of Digital Movie Delivery


I wrote a piece for Variety today that breaks the news that two pioneering Internet download services, Vongo and ClickStar, have called it quits.

To my knowledge, these are the first two major Internet download services to wave the white flag.

ClickStar had attracted far more publicity than Vongo, given the involvement of celebs like Morgan Freeman and Danny DeVito. (The pic is from the launch of ClickStar at CES 2006. To my knowledge, Tom Hanks was never involved with the site.)

Both sites were worthy experiments... Vongo was the only major site to try to offer consumers all-you-can-eat movies for a monthly price (a pretty reasonable $9.99.) Vongo's parent, Starz Entertainment, is now providing the same service through Verizon for $5.99 a month -- such a deal!

And ClickStar tried to put movies online while they were still in theaters. That never happened, but they did release two movies on the Internet only two weeks after their theatrical runs began. Theater owners hated it. (I write about this experiment in Chapter 10 of my new book "Inventing the Movies." You can read that chapter here as a PDF.)

About the demise of ClickStar, John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theater Owners, told me yesterday:

    "We don’t have an opinion on when people do or don’t stay in business. All I can maintain is our traditional belief that the movie business as a whole and movie patrons as a whole benefit from a theatrical release window, where movies come to cinemas for a reasonable amount of time before they go to the home in any format –- be it DVD or download."

That quote didn't fit, unfortunately, into the Variety story.

And I reached producer Holly Wiersma after my deadline last night. She produced "Lonely Hearts," a 2006 movie that starred John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Salma Hayek, and Laura Dern. It was one of the higher-profile movies released excusively on ClickStar.

She told me, "It's a shame. I think ClickStar would've done better if it launched today," since independent producers would be more willing to work with it at a time when distribs like Warner Independent and Picturehouse have vanished. "We need more outlets, not fewer," she said.

In a letter to content providers, ClickStar tried to declare victory.

"Over the last twelve months, our vision for broadband distribution has been confirmed by the marketplace," chief technical officer Sam Edge wrote, citing download sites launched by Amazon, Blockbuster, and Wal-Mart. "With the entry of these well-funded players into our space...it has become increasingly clear that ClickStar needs to align itself with a key partner to operate within the larger ecosystem and serve our core audience...We have decided to partner or sell ClickStar..."

That letter went out on April 2nd. The Corum Group is handling the sale... but nothing has been announced yet.

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