A deal between two little-known California technology companies is the first step, some experts say, in what could be the next big thing on the Web: search engines that let you find movies and TV episodes -- and then buy or rent them.
The tie-up between Santa Monica-based Movielink and Blinkx, a start-up based here, is a key development in bringing together television and movies with the world of Internet search, some analysts said.
The two companies plan to announce today that Movielink, a downloading service owned by five major studios, will make its pictures available through the Blinkx search engine.
No money is changing hands in the deal, executives with the companies said. Movielink will get additional exposure, and Blinkx will get access to movies that other search engines lack.
Blinkx uses speech-recognition and other technologies to make a searchable index of trailers for the movie service’s nearly 1,000 titles. The company hopes to expand the index to include dialogue from the movies themselves -- so that, one day, users who type “I’ll be back” will find “The Terminator” and be able to download it for a $3.99 rental.
Silicon Valley and Hollywood still have many obstacles to overcome before legal downloading of films and TV shows becomes mainstream. There are concerns about piracy, technical challenges involved in transferring the video to the viewer’s television and questions about how these ventures will make money.
But Movielink’s willingness to work with Blinkx may open the door for such Web giants as Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., America Online Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN to help users scour the vast Web to find movies and television shows they can legally download for a fee, industry experts say.
“It is the next frontier,” said Allen Weiner, an analyst with research firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. “What we’ve been working with until now is one-dimensional content on the Web that is advertiser supported. The next level, which will really change the economics of the Web, is searching and indexing premium content that does not live on the Web.”
Blinkx and its 25 employees are trying to outmaneuver the Internet giants, which all are trying to tackle the problem of how to index videos so Web surfers can find them more easily. That will become crucial as movie studios and TV networks start to distribute more of their productions on the Web.
“It’s kind of a small deal, but I think it will be a forerunner to the types of deals that you’ll see,” said Yair Landau, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, a unit of Sony Corp. and one of Movielink’s owners. “We’ve kind of been waiting for Yahoo, MSN and Google to get serious about video distribution.”
The big Internet companies -- along with such efforts as start-up GoFish -- are still working to find videos already housed on the Web and figure out what they are about.
For example, Yahoo’s Video Search program, launched in December, crawls the Internet looking for video files. Google has been recording thousands of hours of programming and indexing the closed-captioning text.
But the next stage is to get producers of movies and TV programs to put more of their catalogs online and develop technology that lets users search more thoroughly within those videos.
Some analysts say Blinkx is leading the pack in the race to reach this new stage. The company gets video clips from Fox News through a partnership and crawls the Web to find video files. But many programs on the Web have poor closed-captioning or none at all, so Blinkx fills in the gaps by using speech-recognition technology to create a searchable index of what has been said.
So far, Blinkx has permission from Movielink to index only film trailers, not the films themselves. And even if Movielink expands its service to include TV shows, some hit programs may not be on the Web at any price for years because Internet distribution just doesn’t fit into TV producers’ existing plans.
But if producers do start making more programs available through similar services, analysts said, a fan of “Seinfeld” could one day use a search engine such as Blinkx to find a joke he remembered, then pay to watch the episode it appeared in.
“What Blinkx brings to the table is the first generation of really good video search technology,” said Tim Bajarin, principal analyst with Creative Strategies of Campbell, Calif. “The Blinkx search model, especially applied to something like Movielink, is a great way to introduce this to a mass market.”
When it comes to watching movies and TV shows on the Web, a mass market is something that doesn’t yet exist. Movielink -- owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment, Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. Studios, General Electric Co.'s Universal Pictures, Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.'s studio unit -- has been in business for two years.
Movielink Chief Executive Jim Ramo says customers download about 100,000 movie rentals a month. But he acknowledges that the service won’t really take off until the studios feel comfortable enough with anti-piracy protections to let users transfer films to their televisions and portable devices.
“We’ve found a market for those people who do want to watch on a PC, but it’s not yet a mass market,” he said.
Movielink’s growth also has been stunted by restrictions it places on users. Customers can download films for $1.99 to $4.99 and keep them on their computers for 30 days. But once they start to watch the film, it disappears from their PC after 24 hours, whether they have finished it or not.
The company and its chief competitor, CinemaNow Inc. of Marina del Rey, also have had trouble attracting consumer attention. That’s where search engines come in, experts say. Internet companies and other supporters of online distribution see next-generation search engines as a way to help users find whatever videos they have in mind, much as Google helped surfers cull Web pages from among the billions on the Internet.
But that promise can’t be fulfilled if the only subjects that video search engines can find are home movies posted on personal websites, said Lori McCreary, chief executive of Revelations Entertainment, the production company she started with actor Morgan Freeman in 1996. The two are trying to jump-start the industry by releasing a film starring Freeman on the Internet, for a fee, at the same time it appears in theaters late this year.
McCreary wouldn’t reveal many details, including the film’s name or how they plan to distribute it. But she predicted that downloadable movies -- and the advanced search engines that help people find them -- would one day fatten the industry’s wallet more than home videos and DVDs have done.
“Our mantra is to make our films easier to buy than pirate,” she said.
Weiner, the Gartner analyst, said the partnership between Blinkx and Movielink would set the industry down that path.
“I guarantee you that this is going to tear down some of the gates,” he said.