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Amazon casts flattering light on UltraViolet

UltraViolet, the digital-locker effort supported by most of the major film studios, chalks up a big day at CES by announcing deals with Amazon and Samsung. Questions still linger about why UV has appeared to struggle to attract movie distributors.

LAS VEGAS--Hollywood should offer Jeff Bezos the keys to the city.

screen shot by Greg Sandoval

The Amazon CEO and his troops rode to the aid of the five major film studios backing UltraViolet, the name of the effort to promote the studios' vision of digital lockers and create the next generation home-entertainment format.

In the fall, when the studios began releasing movies for UV, conspicuously missing was participation from any significant Web retailer. But today, Bill Carr, Amazon's executive vice president of digital, said during a panel discussion at CES, that the merchant had signed a deal with one of the major film studios to support UV rights.

Carr and the home-entertainment chiefs from Sony, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros., who were also members of the panel, declined to identify which studio. (I was the panel moderator and even backstage they wouldn't give up the name.)

By itself, a single studio inking a deal with a single retailer is a baby step. Sure, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), the consortium behind UV, advanced the ball, but we'll have to wait to see if the agreement is a sign that UV has begun to spur broader adoption among retailers.

In addition to the Amazon announcement, Samsung provided UV with a larger hardware profile by announcing that the company's 2012 Smart Blu-ray disc players would be UV compatible. DECE also announced that it has signed up more than 750,000 households in the three months since officially launching.

Taken all together, it was a good CES showing for UV and its studio supporters. Still, UV's apparent trouble to attract support from distributors is puzzling. I've heard from my studio sources that the deals are complex and some retailers are still studying what impacts selling UV films might have on their businesses.

UV is a set of standards and specifications that will enable film owners to play their movies on scores of different devices or store them in any digital-locker service. In a world where films play anywhere and on anything, devices and services become less important. Hardware manufacturers and service providers must compete on such things as price and selection. The content takes on more significance.

Is this giving some retailers pause?

One thing is for sure, UV didn't just pop out of box last fall. While the technology was rolled out three months ago, DECE was formed more than three years ago. Among its earliest members were retailers such as Wal-Mart and Netflix. Online film distributors have had a long time to ponder UV.

I wrote this week that Netflix--a subscription rental service and certainly not a great fit for a sales-focused service like UV--has opted out of DECE. In September, I wrote that Wal-Mart was close to signing. At the time, I was told Wal-Mart, parent company of the Web movie service Vudu, was "on the fence." Well, that's a long time to be up there.

For sure, UV can boast a partnership with a major retailer in Amazon and top device maker in Samsung and deserves some credit. But the next test is how fast UV can get Amazon to build out its UV offering and whether other retailers will sign up in coming weeks.

I'm betting that UV would become more attractive if DECE could bring Disney into the fold. Disney has its own locker service effort but Mitch Singer, a Sony exec and DECE president, said during the panel that his group has spoken in the past to Disney about joining and they would love to have Disney as a member.

Hey, Disney, in case you hadn't noticed, that's an olive branch.