[What You Should Know About Divx]

Editor's Note: The Digital Video Express home-video system (aka, Divx) officially stopped registering new accounts on the morning of June 16, 1999. While existing accounts will be serviced until June of 2001, the format's principal investor, Circuit City, admitted that it was not a viable business, primarily because of lack of support from film studios and distribution outlets. We have left our "What You Should Know About Divx" page here, unaltered, for those of you who would like to know what the fuss was about. Also, Divx was not the first closed home-video system, nor will it be the last. Our comments about Divx apply to all home-video systems that do not allow their product to "sell-through" to consumers. Caveat emptor!

You may have heard about Divx, the competitor to open DVD. Many independent publishers on the Web have spent a great deal of time disseminating information on Divx, so there's probably not much more to say. However, we at The DVD Journal would like to add a few comments of our own.

Free DVD! Fight Divx!Put briefly, Divx discs are $4.49 movies on digital video discs with an additional encryption scheme. Divx discs require a Divx player (a.k.a. "DVD player with Divx enhancement"), and can be viewed for one 48-hour period, beginning when the disc is first inserted into the player. Divx movies rarely come in widescreen versions, and they offer none of the "extras" that are commonly found on open DVDs. Because the consumer owns the Divx disc, he/she never has to return it, and he/she can watch the Divx movie again by paying $3.25 for another 48-hour viewing period.

People who own Divx players and want to watch Divx movies have to open an account with the company and provide a valid credit card. All charges are recorded by the Divx player and phoned in to the Divx billing office once or twice a month via a modem in the player. Divx players will also play "open" DVD movies, and people who own Divx players are more than able to buy and rent these conventional DVDs.

The Divx company was launched by retailer Circuit City, and is owned by Circuit City and Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer, a Los Angeles entertainment law firm. Few retailers besides Circuit City carry Divx players or Divx discs. Many Hollywood studios license their movies to the Divx format, but some -- including Warner Brothers and Columbia TriStar -- do not.

The DVD Journal does not endorse the Divx format, although it sounds odd to say that we are "opposed" to Divx, because, in one sense, it's sort of like being opposed to a particular film or music format, like saying we think vinyl LPs sound awful. We do think, for the most part, that vinyl is a poor way to deliver high-fidelity music, and similarly, the vast majority of Divx movies are not in widescreen and have no extras, so no thanks. However, when you consider that there aren't too many people out there (that we know of, at least) who have "Down with Turntables" Web pages, it becomes clear that Divx has struck a raw nerve with a lot of people for other reasons.

The delivery system of Divx is also sketchy, but again, to be opposed to this is sort of like being opposed to shopping on the Web. Many people don't like to shop on the Web and prefer to consume in the traditional analog fashion, and that's fine. But other people get great deals on the Web and choose to shop via the modem. If you find cheap DVDs on the Internet, we aren't going to tell you to spend more time and money at your local retailer.

But Divx isn't merely inferior media, nor is it just purchasing over a modem. Divx is a much more distinct product because it's actually a really dumb idea. The concepts behind Divx (watching movies in a digital format, purchasing media "by-the-slice") are very sound ideas that will continue to gain a foothold with the American public as we continue our journey into the digital age. But Divx, taken by itself, doesn't do much to enhance the consumer's movie-watching experience. The convenience of not having to return a rental movie (in itself, not a bad idea, and already being done with pay-per-view), is outweighed by many disadvantages, among them:

  • The price of renting a Divx movie may be cheaper than buying an open DVD outright, but at $4.49 it is largely more expensive than the cost of renting a DVD at a conventional video store. Thus, the "no late fees" selling point is rendered moot by the fact that a "late fee" is already built in to the Divx purchase.
  • As previously stated, most Divx movies only come in pan-and-scan formats and don't have any extras. When you stack the $4.49 initial cost of a Divx disc up against the lesser price of renting a "special edition" open DVD, you begin to see how poor value Divx actually is. Furthermore, many open DVDs offer the consumer the choice of watching pan-and-scan or letterbox versions of the movie.
  • As of now, Divx movies can only be purchased at Circuit City stores and a few other retailers, most of which don't stay open very late at night. If a Divx customer wants to rent anything after 8 p.m., he/she will likely wind up at their local video store anyway. And don't wait for local video stores to start selling Divx discs, because that will never happen.
  • Only about half of all major studios support Divx, whereas all of them release movies on open DVD. While there are a few titles on Divx that are not on open DVD (yet), if a Divx customer wants to watch a Warner or Columbia TriStar movie, he/she will yet again wind up at their local video store.
  • Divx is a proprietary technology, and as such the company is a de facto monopoly. If Divx becomes the dominant home-video format, consumers will find themselves renting movies from a corporation that will set prices without regard to competition. In truth, since Divx players also play open DVDs, any video store is potentially "competition," but this is a Faustian arrangement which was necessary for Divx to survive after the successful launch of open DVD. If Divx is successful, don't be surprised if their support of open DVD disappears.
  • Hollywood studios hate home video because they don't make any money from it after the initial sell-through of a tape or disc. If Divx is successful, they will have every incentive to stop selling movies in an open format and charge the consumer for each viewing. If Divx is even moderately successful, studios may reserve their most popular titles for Divx, pay-per-view cable/satellite, or a future pay-per-view scheme, and only release less-popular titles in an open format. Consumers who buy Divx players and discs encourage the studios to follow this distribution model, even though the model is demonstrably not in the consumer's interest -- particularly for parents who allow their children to watch Disney films ad infinitum, or for those of you who watch Scream 83 times a year.
  • Any Divx movie that the company (or the studio that owns the movie) wants to place on moratorium can be disabled immediately, and it is very possible that popular Disney titles could be placed on Divx for a period of time and then terminated, similar to how their animated features only show up on VHS for a limited time and then go away for several years. Do you value music or movies in your collection that are hard to find or out of print? With Divx, anything could go out-of-print after you have ostensibly "purchased" it. If the original Star Wars trilogy were only on Divx, the discs right now would be shiny beer coasters and you'd be stuck with the "Special Edition" discs -- at $3.25 per viewing, of course. Fans of the original films (many members of The DVD Journal staff included) would be more than a little pissed.

These are just a few issues that make us non-Divx consumers. But then again, we at The DVD Journal don't think that Divx is the big bad bogeyman of home video either. At one time the format may have had a chance to succeed, but it is doomed to limp along for a few years or die outright for several reasons, among them that it arrived long after open DVD had gained a following, exclusive studio support does not exist anymore, and it faces too much competition from open DVD, conventional VHS rentals, and cable/satellite pay-per-view.

In the end, movie collecting (or music collecting or book collecting) will probably never go away because the hobby is about collecting, and even when we have movies available to rent over the Internet many years from now on our super-cool fiber-optic cables, there will always be a market for selling movies on shiny discs in pretty boxes because the joy comes from the touching, the having, the ability to say "mine" like you are six years old. Face it -- there's a little Eric Cartman in all of us. And as long as there are collectors, there will be movie studios and music companies and disc manufacturers who will sell whatever they've got for what we are willing to pay. That's the free market, and it is in the free market that Divx will die.

-- Ed.

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