April 4, 2013, 11:07 AM

Warner Brothers offers instant streaming of its film archives

Customers pay $9.99 per month to watch older movies and TV shows.

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After years of licensing content out to streaming video services like Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc.’s Instant Video and Redbox Instant, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. is trying its own hand at offering videos to consumers over the Internet. This week the entertainment production company launched Warner Archive Instant, a service that allows customers to stream hundreds of older movies and TV shows in its collection for $9.99 per month, it says.

That’s more than the about $8 per month both Netflix and Redbox charge consumers and the $79 per year (about $6.60 per month) Amazon charges customers to join its Prime membership program, which offers streaming movies and TV shows along with other perks like free two-day shipping on all items.

Amazon is No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide and Netflix is No. 9.

However, Warner’s goal is not to compete with other streaming video services, a spokesman says. “We’re appealing to an aficionado audience, not the Netflix consumer,” he says. “These are fans of classic movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s.” He says a few of the titles may be available on Netflix or other services, particularly more famous ones like “Casablanca” or the private detective TV show “77 Sunset Strip,” but for the most part Warner’s digital collection will be exclusives.

The streaming service is an extension of a program the studio began four years ago, offering on-demand reproduction of old and hard-to-find movies from the archives for roughly $20 per film, the spokesman says. That program came about in response to demand from a small number of film buffs who wanted their own copies of titles so out of the mainstream that Warner couldn’t cost-effectively mass produce them. As that program grew in popularity, many customers began expressing interest in gaining online access to the collection, he says, so the studio decided to digitize and stream those films.

Warner Archive Instant customers can still order custom-made DVDs of their favorite classic films, including the ones they see streaming. A small group of customers has been testing the site in the months prior to it going live, the company says. The first 100 titles available in Archive Instant are a direct result of their feedback.

Consumers can watch videos from the archive on their personal computers or on TVs connected to Roku Inc.’s streaming media players, Warner says. For now, only videos viewed through Roku are also offered in high-definition. To start out, the production house is offering about 100 movies in the streaming collection for one month, after which it will switch the titles, it says. The numbers are limited due to the company’s server capacity—it built the whole project in-house—and by design, in order to test the types of movies customers are most interested in watching, Warner says.

The archive includes titles that Warner owns from other film studios, including MGM, RKO, New Line, Monogram, Allied Artists and Lorimar, it says. When consumers clamor for an older movie that isn’t available online, Warner typically goes into its vault, which contains roughly 7,000 movie titles, to restore the original film and digitize it, the spokesman says. “Otherwise that stuff would just sit there collecting dust,” he says, noting that, at least a few times, Warner has gone into the vault on request and opened an old film canister only to find the contents entirely disintegrated.

While testing shows that most users of Warner Archive Instant are highly devoted to classic films, the low price of the service in comparison to the on-demand manufacturing may entice more customers with a general interest in historical films to sign up, the studio says. It does not yet have data to say how much that is happening so far, though.

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