While everyone in the media been debating the many juicy storylines in online streaming services–such as the Netflix price hike and their new content licensing deals, or Hulu’s possible sale to Google or other suitors and new ad formats like Ad Swap–and what these stories might mean for the future of premium online video content, Hollywood’s been busy with some experiments and plans of their own. And they range from the clever and unique to the downright stupid.  

Paramount Streams Transformers 3 Direct To Customers

Let’s start with the good. Paramount’s summer blockbuster, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray. And just for kicks, the studio decided to try an experiment. So the film is also streaming online directly on the Paramount website.

Customers can go there and pay $3.99 ($4.99 for HD quality) to stream Transformers: Dark of the Moon to their laptop or computer (other devices, like an iPhone, are not permitted). Once they pay, users will have 48 hours to watch the film. The HD version, which will be powered by Microsoft Silverlight, will only work on Windows machines.

I really, really like this idea. I’m not sure why more studios don’t try this. Paramount called it a “toe dip,” but I’d be interested in seeing a more committed jump into the fray.

It works for consumers, because you can get the film when you want, and the prices are very comparable to DVD rental services or online streaming services like Vudu. But it also works for Paramount, because it cuts out the middle man. Why let Netflix, Hulu, HBO, or any other distribution company eat into the profits when the studio can host the film on their own and keep every penny?

This is also probably the kind of thing Netflix doesn’t want to see. As we’ve said several times in recent weeks, Netflix’s future depends on their ability to consistently score great content agreements. But if the studios start keeping their own content for themselves, Netflix might find the cupboards bare.

I’ll be curious to see how this “toe dip” experiment works out, and if there’s enough consumer response to justify more similar tests.

Universal Charges Arm & Leg For Tower Heist

But at least one studio is still living in the dark ages, even as they try to appear like they’re on the cutting edge of streaming distribution.

It’s Universal, and for their upcoming action comedy, Tower Heist, starring Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller, they’ve partnered with Comcast to give subscribers a chance to stream the film to their home on the very day it’s released in theaters!!

OMG, right? Who wants to spend the gas money, popcorn and soda money, and deal with the noisy crowds at the movie theater when you could just stay home and stream the thing, right? This is just the greatest idea in the history of great ideas!

Except for the price, which is such a poor decision it renders the entire experiment completely moot. That’s because the price will be $60 (technically $59.99). That’s right, Universal believes that watching movies at home the same day they’re released in theaters is such a benefit to consumers that they’ll be willing to pay 6 times the price for the privilege. Give me a break.

Maybe I could see $15… or $20, sure. I’m willing to accept a premium for the perk of being in my own home. But not $60. Let’s not also forget that at home, I’m very likely to have an inferior experience in picture and sound (yes, I know home theaters have come a long way, but they still can’t accurately recreate the big-screen experience).

It’s also a poor choice, as others have already pointed out, because the movie seems destined to flop. I don’t have any specific data on it, but I’m pretty sure it’s been 15 years or so since a movie starring Eddie Murphy appealed to moviegoers. The big “pay a higher price to watch the film at home on opening night” experiment should, instead, be done on a sure-fire tent-pole film like Dark Knight Rises or something–where you know demand will be high. Not an obscure action comedy with two of action-comedy’s least dependable stars. Oh, what’s that, you say? Alan Alda’s in it, and it’s directed by Brett Ratner? Yeah, like I was saying…

So of course no one will pay for this. And of course… Universal will then probably claim turn around with their shoulders shrugged and say, “See, I told you direct-to-customer online movie streaming would never work.”

If you’re curious to know whether Tower Heist is for you, why not check out the trailer, where you can hear such hilarious lines as “That’s it, I’m not talking to you for the rest of the robbery!” Zing!

It’s a shortsighted shame, if you ask me.

The Future Of Online Streaming Movies?

I think we can expect to see more and more self-streaming from Hollywood. The price points will vary, as will the specifics. But at the end of the day, it’s a way to keep more revenue in their own pockets rather than sharing it will middle men. This is the same exact reason we’ve seen Netflix & Hulu start getting into the content-creation game–why pay out for content rights when you can create it yourself and own 100% of the revenue?

There’s also the question of whether consumers are really ready to leave the movie theater experience behind. Some obviously are, as evidenced by the rise in services like Netflix or Vudu. But others might take more convincing. Which is why these are experiments. No one in Hollywood is ready to shutter theater doors and go all streaming. But they just might be warming to the idea of giving consumers more options.