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Disney has been teasing an internet-based movie service since 2009 when they announced Keychest, a digital streaming locker of Disney films. Not long after the announcement, a website appeared called Disney Movies Online that was closely integrated with their rewards program, Disney Movie Rewards. By redeeming the code to a Blu-Ray or DVD that came with an iTunes digital copy, users unlocked the rights to stream that film through Disney Movies Online.

That site spent three years “under construction,” but that didn’t stop Disney from allowing users to purchase streaming rights to the films offered there. The site opened up the Disney catalog, including obscure live-action titles from Walt’s era, some of which were not available anywhere else. By the end of 2012, the site had failed to pickup much traction and Disney announced that the site would close on December 31st of that year. Anyone who purchased movies from the service appeared to have lost those purchases forever.

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In 2011, while Disney Movies Online was still alive, Disney started to advertise a new service called Disney Studio All Access. Commercials for the service were front and center on nearly every Blu-Ray and DVD release from the studio starting that Fall and Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment had a display at the D23 Expo that year to kick-start the campaign. While pestering the employees at the booth, I learned that the scope of the site included different levels of ownership in films. Conceptually, you could buy into an upcoming Disney film early for a hefty fee and receive every version of the film possible from your purchase (movie tickets, DVDs, Blu-Rays, digital copies, etc…) to future-proof your investment. Once a film was released on home entertainment, you could buy your movies through the site and unlock a streaming copy (similar to Disney Movies Online). They also teased different levels of ownership in terms of the amount of bonus content you could access (paying more if bonus features are your forte).

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As we all know, Disney Studio All Access never happened. While the same add continued to appear on home video releases, the name was changed to Disney Movies Anywhere in August of 2012. When Disney Movies Online was shut down, the ads for Disney Movies Anywhere seemed to stop. Disney’s most recent home video releases don’t promote any awareness for the service. However, last month Disney invited a few random users to beta test the site and just as quickly closed the doors to all. But with little advance notice, Disney revealed the site on Tuesday, February 25th, the same day that ‘Frozen’ was released to digital media retailers.

After five years of development, I was expecting a lot from the service. What actually emerged feels like merely Disney’s answer to UltraViolet, the streaming service that most of the other studios have been partnering with for years. Blu-Rays from Warner Bros., Paramount and Universal all come with an UltraViolet digital copy, where you can stream or download your movie from their service in HD and SD. UltraViolet is operated by the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, a consortium of major Hollywood Studios, technology companies, and retailers (neither Disney nor Apple are members).

Disney Movies Anywhere (DMA) is linked to both your Disney Movie Rewards (DMR) account and your iTunes account. Any movies you redeemed codes for that contained digital copies should magically appear in your DMA collection. In addition, any Disney movies that you have purchased directly through iTunes should also link up. After linking my accounts, I spot-checked to see if they all ported over. The only Disney titles that I couldn’t find in my DMA account were TV movies, which DMA doesn’t include.

One of the claims of DMA is that you can buy movies on iTunes and be rewarded through DMR. I used their links to purchase Frozen through iTunes. After purchasing, my DMA copy was automatically added to my collection. However, I have yet to see 150 points for the purchase appear in my DMR account. There is even a “double points” promotion if you purchase Frozen during the first week.

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I was initially confused by the ads for Frozen and Thor: The Dark World on the main page. Both ads say “Exclusive Videos in Discover.” This lead me to believe that buying Frozen would unlock exclusive content that can’t be found anywhere else. While the DMA version of Frozen does include a few bonus features, none are exclusive. What this really means is that if you navigate to the ‘Discover’ section of the site, there are some bonus videos that relate to Frozen and Thor that you won’t find anywhere else. Anybody can watch them, regardless of content purchased.

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The user interface feels very similar to Disney Movies Online. The catalog of films can be viewed in alphabetical or chronological order. The list includes films that are both available and unavailable, which is sure to confuse many. For example, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is in the vault and therefore unavailable. In fact, it was never made available on iTunes, the only provider Disney currently partners with for DMA, which makes its inclusion all the more confusing. However, it was available though Disney Movies Online for a short period of time, so perhaps the folks who bought movies through that service will be able to access their copy through DMA. Since I never purchased through the old service, I can’t confirm that Disney is operating the site that way.

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DisneyMoviesAnywhere.com makes no mention of an app. I actually assumed that there wasn’t one and visited the site from my iPhone to see what the mobile version was like (I wouldn’t have done so if I hadn’t been writing this blog). However, when viewing the site on a mobile iOS device a pop-up appears advertising the app. I was quickly able to download the free application and sign in to my account. The app’s interface is somewhat better than the website. The app is definitely my preferred method for using DMA. You  can also download your movies to store on your device within the app (you can not download them to your computer).

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The biggest limitation of DMA is Disney’s decision to only partner with iTunes. While it is my digital content provider of choice, they could attract more users by offering partnerships from other services. Within the past year Disney changed their digital copy program, offering users the option to choose Amazon, Google Play, or Vudu in addition to iTunes. In fact, some of Disney’s recent low-profile digital copy releases excluded iTunes as an option all together.

DMA content can be shared with an Apple TV via Air Play, but the other limitation of DMA is that their content is only available in standard definition. Since Apple TV’s are hooked up exclusively with an HDMI cable, you need an HD TV to use one. And since your iTunes copies are probably also HD, I’m not sure why anybody would want to use this feature. It’s incredibly easy to stream your purchased movies form the iTunes store (in HD) on Apple TV. For grins, I tested playing Frozen from DMA on my Apple TV and the quality was a few steps below DVD. It didn’t look awful, but why use it when I can just watch the iTunes version I had to buy to redeem the DMA copy to begin with?

There are a few benefits to using Disney Movies Anywhere. DMR members who want to go disc-less can finally do so without sacrificing their ability to redeem points. And with Disney releasing films like Frozen a month earlier through digital providers, it only makes sense that they figure out a way to integrate the two. It also creates a digital storefront just for Disney content that is easier to navigate than browsing for them in the iTunes Store. There is the added convenience of being able to stream your copy while on the go, a feature I would probably use more if I had kids. For now, the only time I may need to use DMA would be on a wi-fi enabled flight if I had the urge to watch a movie that I didn’t pre-load onto my iPad.

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I don’t feel like Disney has done enough with the service to make it a success. After five years of development, I feel like there should be a lot more than just a new version of Disney Movies Online with the ability to earn points for iTunes purchases (a feature I’ve yet to see actually work).  The app is nice and the site is user friendly, but rival streaming service UltraViolet is basically the same thing (and is superior because it offers content in HD). There are many ways Disney could easily add value to the site without spending a ton of money. Adding TV content would get many on board, since storing entire seasons of shows takes up a lot of hard drive space and makes streaming the content more appealing. Worthwhile exclusive bonus features could ensure that users keep coming back to the site and keep talking about it. However if their intentions are to ever allow DMA to compete alongside other digital content providers, they will need to make high definition content a priority.