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Google, Weinstein Co. Strike Film Deal

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Given the pressure Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is under to land premium content deals for YouTube, you would think they would shout from the rooftops about securing its largest top-shelf film haul yet, from Weinstein Co. But a closer inspection reveals why neither side may feel like bragging.

Twenty Weinstein library titles including Scary Movie 4 and Death Proof are available for rent on YouTube at $2.99 per film. But judging from the view tallies posted on YouTube for the films, few have noticed them: All together they’ve collected a whopping 649 views as of Jan. 12, which at $3 a pop, gives Google and Weinstein about $1,947 to split between them.

The pathetic audience levels on these films beg a timely question about the future of YouTube’s rental strategy, which was launched almost exactly one year ago to much fanfare at the Sundance Film Festival. Google has said almost nothing about it since, and there may be good reason for that: The store is comprised of hundreds of movies that few will have ever heard of. Some of the indies titles that were made available for rent aren’t even on the site any longer, including Homewrecker and One Too Many Mornings.

It’s unclear when exactly this deal was struck. While the page where each film resides says they were uploaded on Nov. 18, 2009, that’s unlikely unless for some reason they were deliberately not promoted. What is clear is that by mid-November of 2010 at the earliest, but probably weeks later than that, Weinstein films like Bobby and Hannibal Rising began getting promotion on the YouTube Store page.

It would have been nice to pinpoint the timing, but a Weinstein Co. spokeswoman declined comment, as did Google, though they were kind enough to pass along this statement: “We’re always updating the YouTube Rental store with new movies and we encourage users to check in frequently to see the new titles that are available.”

Unlike electronic sell-through, digital rentals have actually grown at a healthy clip in 2010–just not on YouTube. And yet all eyes have been on Google in recent months as intensifying competition from the likes of Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) and Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) have yielded high expectations that the company was going to start paying up for content. The hiring of Netflix’s Robert Kyncl, the acquisition of Widevine and the need for programming to back up the launch of Google TV have all been hailed as signs of content dealmaking to come…and yet the Weinstein deal has been about as good as it’s gotten.

Just about every six months or so for the past three years, one news outlet or another has written a story declaring Google on the verge of striking a deal with a major studio, yet it’s become the journalistic equivalent of “the check is in the mail”: nothing ever happens. Most recently, Miramax, which was recently sold by Disney (NYSE: DIS), was rumored to be near a deal but nothing transpired.

Google has brought pitifully little full-length content in from any of the major studios, all of which have done little beyond sprinkle trailers and other marketing materials on the site. One notable exception is Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF), which tested a few of its biggest flops in 2010 to which it had digital distribution rights, including Killers and Kick-Ass, to release on YouTube day and date with DVD and Blu-Ray. The films are still on the site for $3.99, though the’ve been replaced atop the YouTube Rental store by the Weinstein films.

While the Weinstein brand might excite cineastes with the prospect of easy access to Oscar-contending titles, don’t salivate just yet. All the movies in the deal were released from 2004-2007, the awkward interregnum between Harvey Weinstein’s fall from Miramax, where he dominated the awards circuit with titles like Shakespeare In Love, to his inevitable comeback in 2008, when Vicky Cristina Barcelona began a new hot streak for the mogul. All of the titles are available at the same price point on Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) and iTunes as well.

About as close as critical acclaim as this cache of films comes is the 2007 Michael Moore documentary Sicko, which at 151 views is the most-rented Weinstein movie on YouTube. Ironically, Weinstein and Google got into a quite dust-up that year when Sicko first came out and the film company complained YouTube didn’t move fast enough to take down copies of the film that appeared on the site before it was even in theaters.