A New Movie Format, a New Controversy

DVD players have barely started arriving in the stores, but already a controversial pay-per-view scheme has some consumers up in arms.

The controversy has a familiar ring, one that harks back to the 1970s battle between Beta and VHS formats for videocassette players.

Beta - developed by Sony - offered what many experts considered a superior technology, but the VHS proponents flexed greater marketing muscle.

VHS won, and Beta machines went the way of eight-track stereo.

The friction between regular DVD (digital videodiscs) and DIVX, short for digital video express, has similar overtones.

Better or Beta?

DIVX hopes to tap into the movie rental market now dominated by videotapes.

Consumers pay for a special DIVX disc which they keep rather than return.

The first time they view the disc, it starts a 48-hour timer. After the time period is up, the disc becomes unusable unless you pay an additional fee.

Most major movie studios - including Disney, Fox, and MGM - have announced that they will make their titles available on DIVX.

But New Line Cinemas, producers of such films as "Austin Powers," says it will not support DIVX.

The format represents a collaboration of consumer electronics giant Circuit City and Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer, a Los Angeles law firm.

Never a late fee

On the surface, DIVX seems to offer more flexibility. You could, for example, rent several movies, take them on vacation, and watch them at your leisure, over a period of weeks or even months.

But the format has also produced loud complaints. The most common include:

* Hardware costs. DIVX-compatible players are expected to cost significantly more that plain DVD players, as much as $100 more according to some estimates. "The added benefits of DIVX are well worth the premium, and the price will come down in subsequent years," responds Josh Dare, a spokesman for the DIVX group.

* DIVX requires a telephone line to be attached to the player, so that additional billing charges can be registered. "It's an inconvenience to some extent, but 7 million direct-satellite users do it now," replies Mr. Dare.

* DIVX requires a credit card.

* Even if you have spent the additional money to purchase a DIVX disc outright, it will only play on your player. If you want to play it on your neighbor's DIVX player, you have to pony up an additional rental fee.

"We will be the first to say that for the collector, someone who likes the option of a wide-screen version, someone who likes to take videos to a friend's house, basic DVD is for you," says Dare. "We are really going after the traditional video-rental market."

Locking up Hollywood

If DIVX were simply an option made available to renters in addition to traditional DVD rentals and purchases, many of the complaints might seem less pertinent.

But as DIVX's backers forge relations with movie distributors, some worry that DIVX-only titles may emerge, leaving owners of traditional DVD players with a useless piece of hardware.

Sinking hopes for 'Titanic'

One persistent rumor is that Paramount's giant hit "Titanic" may only be available on DIVX. Paramount spokeswoman Ann Swartz says the studio has no concrete plans regarding DVD distribution yet.

DIVX's Dare adds: "I wish we could reassure people along those lines. There is currently only one major studio not supporting open-DVD [the non-DIVX standard], Twentieth Century Fox. Ultimately we think that all studios will support basic DVDs."

And what do you do with your DIVX disc once you're done with it?

"They can put it back on their shelf, in case they ever want to watch it again [for a fee]. They can give it to a friend, sell it at a yard sale for a quarter. And if they hate the movie so much the never want to see it again and are even embarrassed to give it to a friend, we will have recycling bins."

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