Three top Hollywood studios bring films to web

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES Sun Aug 9, 2009 12:26am EDT

The water tower at Paramount Pictures Studios, a division of Viacom, Inc. is pictured in Los Angeles, California July 29, 2008, in this file photo. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/Files

The water tower at Paramount Pictures Studios, a division of Viacom, Inc. is pictured in Los Angeles, California July 29, 2008, in this file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser/Files

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It is a dash of Hulu and a sprinkle of YouTube, features a crystal clear picture, can rewind or fast-forward at lightning speed, and doesn't require a download of any special software.

But epixHD.com, the soon-to-launch video website, will have its success dictated more by the movies, concerts and original programs it offers than the technology behind it, said the executive charged with creating and running the site.

"The critical linchpin to what we've got is that we have one-third of the box office of Hollywood," Epix Chief Digital Officer Emil Rensing said in an interview.

That comes thanks to the three parent companies of Epix: Viacom Inc's Paramount film studio, Lions Gate Entertainment Corp and MGM. In putting together Epix, the companies hope to compete with Time Warner Inc's HBO and CBS Corp's Showtime in the premium movie channel business.

But they added a twist. In addition to the premium movie channel and a video-on-demand component, the venture is building epixHD.com, a website where the studios' vast collections of full-length movies and new original programing can be streamed by any subscriber.

Rensing, a former executive with Time Warner's AOL, was hired to run the site. His aim, he said in an interview, was to make it "all about being easy to use" yet not a "dumb player" that simply acts as a projection screen for video.

So epixHD.com comes with an array of features. When watching Paramount's "Iron Man," for instance, a person will have access to the trailer, lists of facts about the superhero film, a plot synopsis, and cast list.

Because of its relationship with the studios, Rensing said epixHD.com could eventually offer more unique features.

"Let's give something to the fans that gets them really excited," said Rensing. "We're asking (the studios) for some of the weird stuff. We'd like to go to sets on tear down days, talk to the teamsters about the crazy stuff that happened."

BUILDING ITS LIBRARY

EpixHD.com is due to launch before the cable channel does in October, and will build its library of films from its parent studios in the months that follow. At the moment, it is still being tested in front of a small audience.

As for its appearance, the site features as wall of movies from which a viewer with a click of the mouse. The movie then pops up, set against a traditional red movie theater curtain. Another mouse click plays the movie.

"My job is not to convince people to watch movies on the Internet. I already know they are doing that. What's my job? My job is to make it as easy and fun as possible to watch the stuff that I have access to," said Rensing.

"We're not a tech company, we're a media company," he said in response to a question about some similarities to Google Inc's YouTube or Hulu, owned by General Electric Co's NBC Universal, News Corp, and Walt Disney.

"I'm not going to reinvent the wheel. Hulu's got a great player? I'm going to take a couple things from Hulu. YouTube's got a couple cool features. I'm going to take them."

Rensing noted one feature he particularly liked: a sharing function. Under the current distribution agreement with Verizon Communications, Epix subscribers can invite up to four friends to watch a movie online -- from their own computers.

Those friends can also swap message about the movie through a chat function in the player. And so long as they are invited by an Epix subscriber, the friends watch for free.

"Hey, when you come to my house and we're going to sit down and watch the 'Sopranos' and you don't have HBO do I charge you a dollar and stick it in my cable bill?"

(Reporting by Paul Thomach in New York; Sue Zeidler in Los Angeles, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)