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Spiderman 3, The Simpsons Movie or Transformers for $2 to $3 a pop, downloadable in the format of your choice, without any DRM or OS-specific media players at all? The offerings of the new movie download store ZML.com sound too good to be true — or at least too good to be legit. And in fact, they aren’t. ZML.com isn’t licensed by any of the Hollywood studios. The site is selling hundreds of blockbusters anyway, referring to a collective licensing agreement with an obscure Russian rights holders agency.
Sound familiar? That’s right, this is essentially the model that made Allofmp3.com one of the biggest and most controversial music download stores — at least until the site was forced to shut down in early July. Could ZML.com become a similar success, them similarly blow up under legal pressure? And how good could a download site like this be in the age of Amazon Unbox and NBC Direct? We gave it a try to find out.
ZML.com, which stands for “The Movie Library,” really is a trip down memory lane for anyone who has ever taken a look at Allofmp3.com. The site makes references to the same obscure Russian copyright loopholes, states it’s licensed by the same agency (ROMS), and even uses the same payment provider to sell download credits to its users. Giving your credit card number to some company in Russia isn’t for the faint of heart, which is why I decided to go with a prepaid Visa gift card. Turns out that works just fine.
The grey and spartanic design of ZML.com makes it look more like a hobbyist torrent site than a tricked-out video download service. The site lists a total of a thousand or so movies, with 50 titles from this year and some 160 that were released in 2006. Each movie detail page features some basic information that has obviously been taken from IMDB, plus a gallery of movie stills and some technical information about the different download formats.
Each movie is offered in at least two different formats, with DivX and iPod being the most common options, followed by DVD and PDA. DVD downloads cost $5, DivX flicks are $3 and mobile formats, $2. This pricing structure is fairly consistent, something that can’t be said about the download formats themselves.
The so-called DVD formats aren’t actually burnable DVD ISO files, but DivX or XviD files with a screen resolution of 720 x 292 points. The encoding rate does, however, vary dramatically, and so does the file size, with complete “DVD” downloads totaling anywhere from 800 to 1400 megabytes. Oh, and did I mention that the bigger downloads are split up into two files, P2P style?
ZML.com does offer free preview clips for download, so you have an idea what you’re getting yourself into. The movie downloads are quick and easy. I was able to download a 700-megabyte DivX flick in about an hour over a standard residential DSL connection. The picture quality was comparable to some of the better downloads from torrent sites, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those sites were among the sources of ZML’s catalog.
Speaking of catalog: This is where ZML.com really disappoints. Sure, they have a few recent hits, but most of the time I was reminded of those dreadful visits to the local Blockbuster when all the good stuff has already been checked out. Lots of movies you’ve seen over the years on airplanes and cable TV, but that’s about it. No foreign releases, no art house, and only a handful of documentaries. Search for Stranger Than Fiction and you’ll get results including Pretty Woman and some flick with Lindsay Lohan, but no Will Ferrell.
OK, ZML.com doesn’t really have a catalog for movie buffs, but Allofmp3 wasn’t really known for its indie cred, either. The site was a big challenge to the music industry because it featured DRM-free downloads and unbeatable prices. Think less than $2 for an album that costs $15 or so in the store. ZML is cheap too, even though $5 movie downloads aren’t unheard of in the world of Amazon Unbox and other online rental platforms.
The one thing ZML.com has going for it is the complete absence of DRM. This could attract couch potatoes that don’t want to deal with the choice of either Windows Media Rights management or torrent sites — if Hollywood doesn’t shut the site down first, that is.