The service seems designed to help Walmart sell more DVDs, as well as to get home video viewers accustomed to using the studios' own cloud storage service as a place to buy, store, and stream movies. Walmart is describing the service to customers as a way of "preserving the investment" you've made in your DVD collection by enhancing it and making it portable. Of course, you may also think of it as yet another way to get you to pay once again for a new format of a movie you already own.
Walmart announced the service, which it will begin offering to customers on April 16, earlier this week. Participants will take their discs to a Walmart store, where, for $2, a Walmart staffer will generate a digital copy for you and an online storage locker to keep it in. It'll be standard definition if you're converting a DVD, or HD if you're converting a Blu-ray. (DVD owners who want HD copies can get them for $5.) To store and stream your movie, you'll need an account with Vudu, Walmart's streaming service; accounts are free, and if you don't have one, the Walmart staffer will create one for you in the store. Your disc will be stamped (so that you can't buy more than one digital copy), and then you'll be able to watch your movie whenever you like on any one of more than 200 compatible Web-connected devices, including tablets, phones, laptops, video game consoles, and set-top boxes.
Mind you, you can't convert just any DVD or Blu-ray; it has to be a title that already exists on UltraViolet, the cloud storage service launched last fall by five of the six major Hollywood studios. But there are supposed to be "thousands and thousands" of movie titles available by the time the conversion service launches next month, said Chris Nagelson, Walmart's vice president of entertainment merchandising, in a statement.
If you wanted to, then (and if you had the money, and if all the titles you wanted were available on UltraViolet), you could convert your whole DVD library -- a prospect that Walmart and the studios would love.
"Walmart Entertainment's new disc-to-digital service will allow our customers to reconnect with the movies they already own on a variety of new devices, while preserving the investments they've made in disc purchases over the years," said John Aden, Walmart's executive vice president for general merchandising, in a statement. "We believe this revolutionary in-store service will unlock new value for already-owned DVDs and will encourage consumers to continue building physical and digital movie libraries in the future."
Still, there are a lot of caveats and catches, which will determine whether or not the service is a good value. There's the fact, for instance, that Disney is the lone holdout from UltraViolet, which means the movies that might be the most useful if they were portable -- kiddie classics from Disney and Pixar that could keep your children occupied on long trips -- are unavailable. Also unavailable: TV series, of the sort you can easily stream from Netflix in unlimited quantities for a flat monthly fee. If you're an iPad or iPhone owner who wants a permanent copy downloaded to your mobile device, that's not on the table, only streaming copies stored online. (PC and Mac owners, however, can download and store copies on their hard drives.) If you have an Android device, Vudu isn't supported (yet) on your phone or tablet. Most of the Vudu-compatible devices are game consoles and set-top boxes -- that is, items attached to a living room TV that likely already has a DVD or Blu-ray player hooked up, rendering a digital copy superfluous. If you don't live near a Walmart, you're out of luck, since the service is available only in-store. And then there's the fact that it's not too hard to rip your own DVDs yourself if you have the right software, although, weirdly, it's not actually legal to do so, even for your own personal use.
The bigger question may be whether or not a venture like this can change the viewing habits of enough moviegoers to make it worthwhile for both retailers (so far, just Walmart, but later on, who knows?) and movie studios. After all, many home viewers have grown accustomed to renting movies and watching them just once or twice. But they've also grown accustomed to content on demand, whenever and wherever they may be. The backers of disc-to-digital are betting that the convenience and portability of cloud storage will outweigh the hassles and costs of the conversion process, as well as that antipathy toward purchasing movies instead of renting them. As the nation's top DVD retailer, Walmart is certainly well placed to take advantage of a service that could get movie fans to buy DVDs again, especially if they know they can get digital copies made in the next aisle while they wait.
So far, the service's apparent limitations suggest a rocky transition ahead for retailers, studios, and consumers. Nonetheless, as with digital conversion in theaters, the transition away from physical media to digital cloud copies is what the industry wants. (For one thing, according to StreamingMediaBlog.com, cloud storage costs the studios only about two cents per movie, plus another four cents each time you stream it, so there's none of the costs associated with the manufacture, warehousing, and shipping of DVDs, and plenty of profit, unless you stream a movie more than 50 times.) Maybe you don't want to be a pioneer now and try this experiment in building a cloud-based library of streaming movies, but eventually, you'll probably be watching movies this way whether you want to or not.