I am a Veronica Mars backer. It’s a confession that I make with some hesitation, since I have, well, complicated feelings about celebrities using Kickstarter as a piggy bank. But outright fandom can cloud feelings of righteous indignation, and when I found myself at the Veronica Mars Kickstarter page, I ultimately looked at my pledge this way: for $35, I would receive “a digital version of the movie within a few days of the movie’s theatrical debut.” In other words, I was pre-ordering the movie, and that was the logic I used to justify the contribution. So that’s why it was such a disappointment to receive news yesterday that the digital version for backers would come to us via Flixster/Ultraviolet, aka the worst fucking video delivery system on earth.
Quick background, if you’re not a streaming nerd: When video distributors initially offered “digital copies” of movies on DVD and Blu-ray, the go-to service was iTunes; you’d use the code included with your physical media to download a copy either from an included disc or directly from the iTunes store. But a few years back, that shifted; suddenly, there was this new thing called “Ultraviolet,” a studio-backed and supported entity geared towards streaming only (with downloads only available via a “download manager” that made file management far more problematic). Oh, and you had to register for an Ultraviolet account and then usually a separate account with the studio that put out the movie, so it was a giant pain in the ass to boot. And it usually didn’t work.
Even Mac can’t make heads or tails of Ultraviolet.
I can only speak for myself, but in spite of the fact that I have dozens of Blu-rays with Ultraviolet codes, I never use the service. I tried to set it up once, and couldn’t make it happen. But hey, maybe I’m wrong! Maybe my initial attempts a few years ago were during the service’s “awkward growing pains” period, and now it’s awesome! So, midway through this morning, my Flixster code arrived. As instructed, I followed the link, put in my code, and was instructed to log in to my long-dormant Ultraviolet account and connect it with Flixster. I did, and then I got an error message: “This UltraViolet user account is currently linked to another Flixster account. Please create a new UltraViolet user account.” Say what huh? So I backed up to the earlier screen and tried to do that, but it wouldn’t let me; I was redirected to a Flixster sign-up screen, where I got another error. After several more attempts and sign-ins, I finally got this:
After several reloads and more log-ins, I ended up at a “collection” page, which, haha, didn’t include Veronica Mars. Prompted to log in again, I got this:
After several more attempts, I finally managed to get a stream going, so there’s that. I then went to download it, and was pushed to a mandatory download of the Flixster Desktop. And how’d that go?
Now, hey, who knows, maybe my Veronica Mars download experience was unique and yours will be easy-breezy. Buy the more time you spend wading through this clusterfuck, the angrier you’re likely to get at the fact that there are far easier ways to download this movie — you can buy or rent it on Amazon, or buy it on iTunes, or use any of the other digital movie retailers. They’re way simpler to use, the quality is infinitely better, some (like iTunes) give you an actual file (which makes those of us who are nervous about digital media feel a little better), and others (particularly Amazon) are accessible on scores of Blu-ray players, Playstation 3s, or HD TVs, meaning you can watch it on your television instead of on your desktop (presuming you can get Ultraviolet to work) or on your mobile device (presuming you can get Flixster to work).
The reason the Mars folks are giving for only offering a Flixster/Ultraviolet version to backers, according to their email, is this: “In the end, Flixster was the only service able to provide download codes to all of our backers, in all countries, on the same date, without restricting where the movie could be screened or sold. (Which, if you ask us, is pretty awesome.) If it was possible to let you choose your preferred download service, we would.” Does that sound like spin to anyone else? As Tumblr user Adam Schoales notes, “we know from previous Kickstarter campaigns that it’s absolutely possible to release a DRM-free version of a film to all backers in all countries at the same time. In fact there’s services, like vhx.tv designed to do just that.”
So what’s really going on here? The whole thing reeks of muckety-mucks at Warner Brothers insisting that Flixster/Ultraviolet is what they use for free digital copies, and that’s the only option. So they end up sticking their most important viewers with a cumbersome and clunky service — a circle jerk of bad interfaces and multiple accounts standing between them and the movie that they literally made happen. But here’s the thing about Kickstarter backers: when they’re pissed, they’ll get on the Internet and let you know.
My necessary disclaimer is that I was lucky enough to see the movie (and like it!) at its SXSW premiere last weekend. But my wife wasn’t there, and she’s been looking forward all week to seeing the movie we supported. When the time comes, we’ll probably end up punting the Ultraviolet option and just buying the damn thing on iTunes. And not to sound all conspiracy theory-minded, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s a not-unattractive side effect to Ultraviolet being so goddamn terrible; it allows the studios to make giving something away as difficult as possible, and some people aren’t going to go to the trouble.
Of course, some will take another route to avoid that trouble. Welcome to the brave new world of Kickstarter funding, studios. Never underestimate its ability to bite you in the ass.