by Ted S, McGregor Jr.

I know a guy -- let's call him "Jer" -- who says he has never had a late fee tacked onto a movie he's rented. If the fine folks at the Guinness Book of World Records care to add a category, I think he'd have a case. The fact is, anybody (except, apparently, "Jer") who rents movies gets late fees, or "extended viewing fees," as the video rental industry puts it. The last time I found Porky's under the front seat of my car, two weeks overdue, I can tell you I was not "extending" my viewing of it. It's like a tax on being disorganized, and I'm sure on any video renting chain's annual report, there's a big fat line item filled with the proceeds from my tardy brethren and me. But whaddya gonna do? You have to see The Hot Chick when it hits the video stores; that's not even open to debate.

Don't sweat it; Mickey Mouse is coming to the rescue. That's right, the Disney Corporation is jumping into the hardware business in a big way, and they're starting right here in Spokane. Along with Jacksonville, Fla., and Salt Lake City, our fine city of lilacs is being freed from the tyranny of late fees before the rest of the nation.

"It's not a test market," says Salil Mehta, one of the Disney brains behind the project, "this is a launch."

Mehta was in Spokane recently to show off the new MovieBeam system. He says the product has been in production for three years, and over that time, his team has interviewed some 5,000 video rental consumers to figure out what they want.

"People love watching movies, but they don't like the process of renting movies," Mehta says. "So how can we improve the movie-renting process?"

MovieBeam, that's how. Here's what you do: You purchase the console at your favorite local electronics store (Huppin's, for example, carries them). "Whoa!" I can hear you saying. "How much is that gonna cost?" Relax; it's a $30 set-up fee. It costs an additional $7 per month, and the usual fee of $4 per rental for new releases and $2.50 for older films. So if you spend more than $7 a month in late fees, you're coming out ahead.

How does it work? It's a little like pay-per-view, except that the films start when you want them to, you can pause (or rewind) them and you get them for 24 hours. How does it really work? OK -- here's why your kid should pay attention during math. There's a firm that noodled around long enough until it figured out something remarkable. That firm, Dotcast, discovered a method for putting a digital signal into the regular, low-tech TV broadcast that goes out over the airwaves. And they also figured out how to capture that signal and reassemble it again into a digital file like a movie. If your eyes started glazing over at about "There's a firm..." suffice it to say that they're all really rich now.

Disney has licensed this little invention, and MovieBeam is the consumer version of it. The movies are sent out on the local public broadcasting signal -- and Disney pays them a fee to piggyback, so it's even good for Ken Burns and Big Bird -- and then captured by the stylish antenna on top of your console. Every week, 10 new movies (five new releases and five classics) are sent out, replacing 10 old ones. Overall, you have 100 movies to choose from.

"What we've tried to do is to replicate the back wall at the video store," says Mehta. But the list of movies is not all big-budget bluster; the current selection includes arthouse hits like Winged Migration and Bowling for Columbine. There are also a handful of films for kids (although they all seem to be Disney films) and the usual batch of new releases, like Chicago and The Two Towers. If you're really into the newest new releases, however, you should know that MovieBeam won't get them as quickly as the video stores. Reading between the lines, it sounds like there's quite a bit of haggling among the movie studios, video stores, purveyors of pay-per-view and MovieBeam. It's not hard to imagine how excited the likes of Blockbuster and Comcast might be about MovieBeam.

Mehta, however, says he thinks the pie -- which is already a $10 billion-a-year business -- can get bigger, making everybody happy. "When VCRs first came out," he says, "everybody thought that would be bad for the movie business, but it was great for the movie business."

While you purchase MovieBeam at the usual places, you don't take it home with you. My MovieBeam came via FedEx, just two days after I ordered it. Somebody at Disney has been paying attention to how Apple makes its products, because from the packaging to the product design, they are clearly trying to make this a new kind of experience. When you unfold the box, there are three compartments: the first has the antenna and cords; the second with the unit itself (manufactured by Samsung); and the third holds the tiny remote controller and a bag of microwave popcorn. Nice touch.

"It's plug-and-play," I remembered Mehta telling me as I sized up the cords in my living room. Being a guy, and trying to replicate the experience of others like me, I launched into the hookup without reading the instructions. The first problem I had is that the back of my entertainment center looks like a junk drawer at the phone company -- there are wires everywhere, some plugged in, others just a-dangling. Whenever I hook up something new, it takes a few minutes to remember how the whole thing works. (Note to young math students looking to solve the next big problem and get rich: wireless stereo hookups.) Then, to really get into the tangle, I needed to move my entertainment unit, which weighs a bit more than a Hyundai.

I'll say this: If you live in a clean, well-lighted space and if you read the instructions first, this thing is plug-and-play. For me, however, it was still only about a 30-minute job. For Uncle Bob, whose VCR still blinks "12:00" -- well, maybe Huppin's wouldn't charge too much to send somebody out to hook him up.

You have to live somewhere that gets the PBS signal, and you also have to plug in a phone line so they can figure out how many movies you're renting. Yes, it's easy to spend money, but the system allows you to set a weekly spending limit (just be sure to hide the passcode that allows you to override your limit). There are also parental controls that allow you to lock your kids out of R or PG-13 movies.

After a quick onscreen setup, you're in business. You can access the 100 movies alphabetically, or by genre, actor or director. And here's another selling point: You can watch the previews. When we first hooked it up, we probably watched 20 previews.

"We just kind of added the preview function," says Mehta, "but that has proven to be extremely popular."

I'll say -- by the time we watched all the previews, it was time for bed. But the next night, we finally settled on a movie, A Guy Thing with Jason Lee and Julia Stiles. (Don't laugh -- it was pretty good.) The picture and sound were great -- not quite DVD-quality on my TV, but much better than cable. We made some popcorn, too -- no problem, we just paused the movie.

Sounds great, you say, so what's the catch? Other than the fact that MovieBeam will provide Americans with an excuse for never leaving their homes, this seems to be a great service.

I have a couple of minor quibbles: The remote control, while cute, makes me nervous. I know what happens to remote controls in my house -- I mean, I don't know where they go, but I know they get lost. My advice would be to duct-tape a big piece of wood to this remote, kind of like they do at seedy gas stations with the bathroom key. On the plus side, it only operates the MovieBeam, so you can put it away when not in use.

Quibble No. 2: Although it's not a problem now, I can imagine that the selection of films might become an issue. One of the cool things about, say, NetFlix, the online DVD rental service, is that you can get so many different titles. Will people whose tastes run away from Hollywood's be satisfied? There are some good choices here, and with 10 new ones a week, it would be hard to keep up, but this service probably is designed more for people who are into the mainstream stuff. Still, a random classic into the mix every once in a while would be nice. How about a digital-quality Citizen Kane, or a cult classic like Harold and Maude, or a concert film? With 100 slots, hopefully the programmers will take a few chances from time to time.

Mehta says that in January, MovieBeam will slowly spread across the country, as Disney has plans to "light up" city after city. Once it's nationwide, and if it catches on reasonably well -- Mehta says the units are selling faster than expected here -- MovieBeam might bring big changes to the video rental business. Even if you don't end up trying the service, you might thank Mickey when the video stores' need to compete leads, once and for all, to a new paradigm: the cancellation of all late fees.

Publication date: 10/16/03

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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...