Company Tries to Make Airport Movie Rentals Fly

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Courtesy of Digiboo

Digiboo might sound like an online dating site for hip-hop enthusiasts, but it’s actually one of the latest players getting into the video market. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company produces kiosks where people can rent or buy movies via flash drive, and the first went live at the Minneapolis airport this week.

Here’s how it works: Customers have to go online one time to register their PCs, which can be done via a custom wireless connection at the kiosk. You can then sift through the 700-odd titles currently in Digiboo’s database via touchscreen, choose rentals for $3.99 (or purchases for $14.99), plop in a credit card and download. For USB 3.0 flash drives, downloading one film takes about 30 seconds; USB 2.0 customers are looking at two to five minutes. Once a film starts, the renter has 48 hours to finish it; otherwise the movie is good for 30 days. Rented movies can be played on one device, purchased ones on up to five.

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The careful reader will have already noticed some weaknesses in the plan. Digiboo is not yet compatible with Apple products; the company promises they will be, but without specifying a time frame. Android compatibility should be in place later this year. Taking on PCs first, says chief marketing officer Blake Thomas, is focusing “on the low-hanging fruit.” The service also requires that customers have a flash drive on their person, as well as a USB port on their product. And the whole shebang may quickly seem gratuitous in any place with a robust, free Wi-Fi connection. DVD rentals are declining, after all, while online movie-viewing revenues are up 50% according to some analysts. But, Thomas says, they believe their rentals can easily coexist with streaming. “It’s not an either-or, zero-sum game,” he says, explaining that people who are really into movies will watch them in new ways without abandoning old ones.

The careful reader will have also noticed that the company has chosen a unique place to set up shop, a space full of bored people carrying laptops and yearning to escape reality until Zone 3 is called. Many airports charge a $10-ish fee for connecting to the Internet, and many airplanes don’t have Internet connections (and those that do don’t typically give it out for free). Thomas calls airports and airplanes environments where their “need-state” and “hardware requirements” have a very high chance of being met. And given the speed of the downloads, he notes, travelers can decide a minute before boarding that they feel like watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes on their way to Milwaukee. Four bucks. Boom. Caesar is home.

It’s easy to think of Digiboo as a sort of digital Red Box, though Thomas is quick to draw contrasts: Digiboo has a bigger selection, there is nothing to return and no movie can ever be out of stock. Travel hubs, he says, are the first stage of the four-year-old company’s plan. Portland and Seattle airports — some likely to service early-adopter types — are next on the list, and Digiboo expects to have hundreds of kiosks in action before 2012 is out.

Similarly captive audiences are likely to be found at bus stations and on buses, at train hubs and on trains. After that, Digiboo may look to spots like malls and grocery stores, if the kiosks are doing well. “Timing is everything,” says Thomas, noting that the company, started by former MGM executives, was trying to raise capital during a recession. (Fun fact: Morgan Freeman is among their investors.) The greatest challenge for them, he says, “is the uncertainty about whether we’re right, and only your customers can tell you.”

Certainly for now, the airport plan seems to have potential — perhaps those locales will be enduring markets for movie rentals, as doctors’ offices are for magazine subscriptions. But what does the company do in the future, when decent Internet service is potentially everywhere or every citizen is armed with their own hot spot?  Thomas has a simple answer: “We’ll evolve.”

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