Monday, April 16, 2012

Converting physical DVDs and Blu-ray discs at Walmart to my Vudu (and UltraViolet) account

A few weeks ago when the story first broke about Walmart planning to launch an Ultraviolet-compatible disc-to-digital conversion service thru their own Vudu video service, I raised some points about cost vs. hassle, availability of titles, and potentially what could be done to use this (and hopefully other similar services) to drive growth in digital sell-thru for the studios. I also raised some points later about what would help drive digital sell thru.

So yesterday morning, on the day Walmart launched their service, I called Walmart and asked to speak to the photo processing departing. A very kind woman answered and said she wasn't sure if the service had launched, but had heard about it and asked if I could call back in 15 minutes so she could ask. 15 minutes later, she told me the service was ready, but that no one in her department including herself had been trained in how to do this, but if I was patient, I was more than welcome to come down to be their first customer.

I went thru my collection to choose a representative sample for this test: 1 from each major studio plus 1 from Lionsgate, a few Blu-rays and even a few titles from a different region (I previously lived in London for 5 years and have a number of DVDs purchased from there).

15 minutes later, I was trying to find the photography department in Walmart. I did see the sign above at the counter and found the kind woman from the phone call. She handed me a form to fill out, listing each of the titles, how I owned the title (SD or HD) and what version I would like to purchase (SD or HD). The form also asked for my name, email address and phone number to create or sign into my Vudu account. When I showed her the 30 DVDs I brought, she became a little anxious. I asked if I could fill out the forms and come back later--she said I was not allowed to leave the DVDs with them. So I scaled back my expectations and instead settled on 8 titles (shown in the form below) which still represented every major studio plus LionsGate, some Blu-rays and DVDs, and my UK-based DVD.
After a few minutes of muttering to herself, the woman kindly asked me to tell her where the "@" was at on the keyboard (she was trying to type in my email address). I knew then we were in for a learning experience. She tried to look up my account but it said I did not exist. She then tried to create my account, but it said my account already existed. I asked to come around the counter to help (she accepted), and asked her to try my home phone number instead of the mobile I had put on the sheet (the sheet did not specify). It then found my account (it turns out you only need the email or the phone number that is listed in your Vudu account, not both).

We then started the process of looking for the titles. The search function on the web terminal she was using was actually very robust. For Cowboys and Aliens from Universal Studios, it offered 10 different source versions of physical product. We found the one I had in my hand (Extended Edition Blu-ray) and she selected it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that converting a Blu-ray disc to the HD format for Vudu was only $2 (it is $5 to upgrade from normal DVD to HD). While a limited test, the next 7 titles offer an interesting current view into the library (stated in HomeMedia magazine yesterday as 4000 titles).

My copy of Batman Begins, a Warner Brothers title, was an SD DVD (plain old DVD) but from the UK. I successfully upgraded to HD for $5.
My daughter's Justin Bieber, Never Say Never was a Blu-ray from Paramount and I converted to HD for $2.
I was surprised that Sony's 50 First Dates was only available in an SD version.
Not surprising, Disney's Pirates of Caribbean was not available.
I was surprised that the Fox title The A-Team was not available for conversion--especially since my Blu-ray came with a digital copy option with the disc.
National Lampoon's Van Wilder from Lionsgate sadly was not available.
And even sadder, Eurotrip from Dreamworks was not available (despite an announcement that day that all their titles would be available).

When I got home, Vudu forced me (in a good way) to finish the UltraViolet portion of the registration. Trying to play the movies before that did not work. Once I completed it, they all worked fine. A good surprise: I was given the HDX version of each title I requested in HD (the highest quality available in Vudu).

So, after 50 minutes in the store and 30 minutes total driving time, I had converted 4 titles successfully for a cost of $11. Had I successfully converted 8 titles (same time period), it would have been roughly 10 minutes per title vs. the 20 minutes it became.

How does this compare to the college kid's (non-legal) option?
- Pro. No tech savvy required. Just bring in your titles.
- Con. Costs $2-5 per title vs. the cost of free for the college kid ripping his DVD, though there is the cost of storage which is not required with Vudu.
- Con. Can't currently watch these titles while disconnected on your iPad (ie on a plane) where as you can do so on the illegal option.
- Con. Took 10-20 minutes per title at Walmart while the time touching the computer to rip an MP4 copy is only 3 minutes (including entering metadata), but you end up waiting an hour or 2 for the actual encoding to occur. Sort of a 1 day of pain vs. 3-5 minutes each day approach.
- Pro. The title is now UV enabled, meaning I will soon have access to it on Amazon, Flixster and other non-Apple video services and it can be streamed to me on the go (no storage required).
- Pro. Presumably, my library of owned titles will soon be "available" so that other services can catalog it and use the list for recommendations.

How can this be improved to drive adoption?
- Create an incentive to do it. Give me a discount for doing 50 or 100 titles or more at once (after all, they are trying to encourage me to build a digital library for ownership, right)? The mathematical issue is simple: I am being asked to pay an average of $3.50 per title (perhaps higher since the majority of my titles are SD DVDs) to convert something I MIGHT watch in the future. If I don't do the conversion, the cost to me to just rent the title on demandis only $3.99 or $4.99. I just doesn't make sense for me to pay this amount to own a title I might realistically only watch once in a long while that has a high probability of being available on Netflix for free.
- Allow me to check title availability before I go to the store--saves all of us time.
- Get a bar code scanner in the store to speed up the process.
- Let me drop off my average of 85 owned titles and pick them up the next day.
- Give me access to the titles in a download fashion (at least to my tablet) so I can watch them on the go.

I think this is a great concept and I do think we need to find a way to stimulate digital ownership. We just have a long ways to go to get it right--and very little time. Apple already has all of this in their ecosystem--and once you buy an iPad, buying the Apple TV is short decision process when you realize the ecosystem that is made available to you for $99.

My recommendation: give the service 2 weeks to get the teams trained up and perhaps the process improved, then try the conversion yourself.


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