First Look at EpixHD.com: Could Be Fun, If You Can Get It

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Does the world want another premium-movie service — especially these days, when consumers are cutting back?

Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate are betting there’s room for their Epix joint venture. The concept is essentially to launch a linear TV channel that has “TV Everywhere” capability right out of the gate, making a collection of current and catalog titles available via EpixHD.com to subscribers.

But so far three major pay-TV distributors have given Epix the thumbs-down, so even if the studios had put together the coolest Internet-video site ever it might not be available to you.

While the fledgling network recently announced its first deal — with Verizon — last week DirecTV interim CEO Larry Hunter said the satellite operator would most likely not pick it up. Comcast and Cablevision previously said they’ll take a pass as well (see DirecTV Will Pass On Epix and Epix Lands A Home On Verizon’s FiOS TV). Epix is scheduled to launch in October.

In any case, here’s a glimpse of what to expect from the broadband service. Last week Epix set me up with a beta-test account to get a feel for the site — and it seems there are still a few kinks that still need to be worked out. For example, clicking on “See All Movies” brought me to a page that said, “Oops! Looks like you’re in the wrong theater.”

I also found the welcome screen a little less-than-welcoming: movie posters fly up unbidden, hovering front and center to obscure most everything else on the screen. But, to be fair, the site is still pre-launch.

The one movie EpixHD.com teased that I really wanted to see was this year’s Star Trek — but when I clicked on the video player to watch it, nothing happened… the busy-icon just spun. I checked with Epix’s reps, who said the movie is not “in window” yet; they plan to add a “more elegant” way to indicate which titles are coming soon.

Other movies in the EpixHD.com beta currently include Iron Man, Chinatown, American Gigolo, Carrie, and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (How’s that for a quintuple feature?)

Epix chief digital officer Emil Rensing says the goal is for the Web site to have “parity” with the linear channel at launch. At the moment, he says, EpixHD.com has more than 300 movies encoded and ready to go. The three studios have a library 15,000 feature films to draw from; also last week Epix announced an output deal with Samuel Goldwyn Films, the first outside studio partner (see Epix Inks Samuel Goldwyn Output Deal).

For now, the most interesting feature of EpixHD.com is the “watch with friends” option.

That lets an Epix subscriber invite up to four people to watch a movie and — at least at first — the invitees don’t have to be Epix subs. Then, with your buddies shown as silhouettes at the bottom of the screen (à la Mystery Science Theater 3000), the group can chat about the movie with text bubbles that float into the frame. Epix’s collaborative-viewing feature is provided by ClipSync, a Los Angeles-based startup backed by KPG Ventures and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

For the beta-test period, though, you still need a user name and password to log in. So there I was, all alone in my theater, watching The Godfather (see screen shot, below).

A bit more technical background: The service is delivered using Adobe Flash Media Server 3.5 and Akamai’s HD streaming service. (HBO also has selected the Adobe Flash platform for its “TV Everywhere” play.) Each asset, according to Rensing, is encoded six times with bit rates ranging from 500 Kbps up to 720p HD at 3 Mbps. Every 10 second, the video player automatically detects the bandwidth available and adjusts the rate accordingly for smoother playback.

Rensing said the video assets will be colocated with affiliates for better performance on their own broadband networks (and to cut down on bandwidth needed on the open Internet). But, he added, EpixHD.com will be accessible from any Internet connection, such as a hotel or office network.

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