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Download start-up takes aim at DVDs

Don't want to have to sit at your PC to watch a movie? EZTakes lets you burn to disc from its offbeat selection.

Video download site EZTakes doesn't have the same selection of first-run films and TV shows that sites like Movielink or Apple Computer's iTunes do, but it offers something else: Consumers can burn movies to a disc.

The Easthampton, Mass.-based start-up, which is removing the beta label from its movie download service this week, hopes to carve a name for itself in the highly competitive digital entertainment realm by providing convenience.

With EZTakes' service, users order a movie or television show online, with prices ranging from free to $12 and above. The company's servers then send a digital copy to the consumer's hard drive, and they can burn two copies to blank DVD discs and watch what they downloaded on their TVs or other device.

"We've found people always don't write the name of the movie on the disc, so you can have a backup copy," said CEO Jim Flynn.

Currently, most movie download sites don't let consumers burn downloads to DVDs. Some sites, such as Amazon.com's Unbox, let consumers transfer a download from one PC to another, but not copy it to a disc. As a result, movies often have to be watched on a small PC screen.

EZTakes, though, will likely face strong competition from established players and several newcomers. In addition to the online movie service Amazon is expected to launch soon, the company has started to more actively promote its service. In CustomFlix, consumers order obscure content and CustomFlix sends them a custom-burned DVD.

AOL also announced recently that it will let consumers download TV shows and movies and play them back on plasma or LCD TVs. The service, however, initially will work only with Viiv PCs. Sites like Veoh Networks are also making it easier to find the sorts of cult classics EZTakes specializes in.

Apple, meanwhile, next year will let consumers who buy movies from its site watch them on TVs if they also own , a newly unveiled piece of hardware that lets consumers stream movies or music to televisions. Devices similar to iTV have failed to sell in the past, but they were released when video download services were just beginning to take off.

Bring me the head of Ed Begley Jr.
While Movielink sells first-run films, many of the offerings in EZTakes are relatively obscure: "The Mind Reader," a 1934 film starring Claude Rains as a phony mind reader; "Blood Sucking Freaks," regarded by some as one of the cult classics of our time; and "Tall Tales and Legends: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" starring Ed Begley Jr. and Beverly D'Angelo.

Still, the selection is improving all the time, Flynn said. Through a deal with Koch Entertainment, a large music and film distributor, EZTakes can sell customers "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," for $15.99. Amazon sells it for $21.99, although Amazon affiliates sell new copies for around $14.

The site also offers the critically acclaimed 2004 documentary "Supersize Me"; the Marlon Brando western "One-Eyed Jacks" (for $1.99); and a version of "The Old Man and the Sea" starring Anthony Quinn. Episodes of "Wild Kingdom"--the ones where Marlin Perkins ordered his cheery assistant Jim to wrestle with alligators and other dangerous animals--are also available.

Consumers also download a lot of yoga and exercise videos, Flynn added. The service, which went into beta last year, currently touts a few hundred movies and some 20,000 registered users. Roughly 80 percent of people who have bought one movie have come back as repeat customers, according to Flynn.

Generally speaking, the company sells its movies for less than what the DVDs sell for in stores because the movies are downloaded electronically. Films from Koch sell for around 25 percent to 30 percent less than the store-bought DVD versions of the same movies. Many of the classic movies, such as the Lon Chaney version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," sell for $1.99 because the movies have entered the public domain.

Soon, the selection will also resemble, and perhaps compete with, Wal-Mart's. Mill Creek Entertainment, which provides many of the TV shows and movies--including the Essential Ernest Collection and a lot of old John Wayne movies--sold in the end-cap displays at big-box retailers, has signed with EZTakes. The deal will approximately double the number of films offered on the site.

Flynn says he has also begun to speak more to major movie studios. "There are a couple of major studios where executives are saying 'My marching orders are to try everything,'" he said.

Piracy remains a problem, but it can be contained. The company inserts copyright protection into its downloads to prevent excessive copying. It also has a fingerprint function tracing copying back to the source. Besides, Flynn added, it's not like other protection systems are foolproof.

"I could teach a chimp to copy a DVD" protected by DRM schemes from other vendors, he joked. "Maybe there is some lower order of primate, like spider monkeys, that couldn't do it, but it's relatively easy."