If I were a movie studio, I’d make streaming a priority — based on a recent experience with Assholes Finish First

I recently interviewed professional writer and asshole Tucker Max about his second book, Assholes Finish First. He also wrote I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, which was made into the eponymous movie. Like any diligent journalist, I wanted to get as much background on his work as I could—including the movie, which I put on my Netflix queue without enough time to get it. My queue looked something like this the day before the interview:

Notice the little buttons that say “Play” (EDIT: Oops: the movies at the top of my queue don’t have that button. Take my word for it: some do, and they play immediately). If I want to watch those movies, they automagically play via Microsoft Silverlight, which is probably just a nefarious and tardy attempt to compete with Flash but which I installed because it was there and easy. Notice that there isn’t a button that says “Play” next to I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. But I was interviewing Tucker and couldn’t wait.

So I searched for I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell using a BitTorrent search engine that will remain unidentified here but is easily found using conventional search engine tools. Sure enough, it had a copy of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. A few clicks later and it began downloading. Two or three hours later and it was done. The quality wasn’t especially high—it was compressed all the way down to 700 MB—and the process wasn’t as smooth as clicking “play” and starting the stream. But it worked reasonably well. If I were the kind of person I was in high school, when I didn’t have a credit card but did have Internet access, I might have done a lot more of this. And if I were a less, uh, scrupulous person, I’d been tempted to just go the BitTorrent route all the time.

Apparently others have noticed this general trend—in “Why Is Netflix Disclosing Less About Its Business?” for The Atlantic, Jonathan Berr writes:

According to Netflix, 66 percent of subscribers instantly watched more than 15 minutes of a movie or a TV episode in the third quarter compared with 31 percent in the year-ago period and 61 percent in the second quarter. This underscores the company’s transition from DVD rentals to streaming video.

If I were a movie studio, I’d be trying to make sure that what happens to me is different from what happened to the music business. I’d be doing everything I can to make sure that my movies were available on Netflix, the iTunes store, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bob’s crab shack, whatever. Available and easy. In “The Other Road Ahead,” Paul Graham says, “Near my house there is a car with a bumper sticker that reads “death before inconvenience.’ ” That’s basically how I feel much of the time.

And I’m not the only one (who feels like streaming is handy):

[. . .] Netflix accounts for 20 percent of downstream Internet traffic during peak home Internet usage hours in North America. That’s an amazing share—it beats that of YouTube, iTunes, Hulu, and, perhaps most tellingly, the peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol BitTorrent, which accounts for a mere 8 percent of bandwidth during peak hours. It wasn’t long ago that pundits wondered if the movie industry would be sunk by the same problems that submarined the music industry a decade ago—would we all turn away from legal content in favor of downloading pirated movies and TV shows? Three or four years ago, as BitTorrent traffic surged, that seemed likely. Today, though, Netflix is far bigger than BitTorrent, and it seems sure to keep growing.

If Netflix wants to stay bigger than BitTorrent, however, the movie studios need to climb aboard. If they’re smart, they will. If not, they have predecessors who have been massacred by the Internet, and they no doubt will have successors who are too.

Oh, and the movie? It’s not very good. Skip it and read the book.

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