Watching movies on the download

When I waited four hours to download a feature film from iTunes and then watched it while holding a speaker to my ear because the sound levels were so low, I started to question whether online movie delivery is the wave of the future.

Already the Internet has transformed the music industry, where a huge market of customers buys and owns songs digitally, seemingly content with removing tangible, store-bought "albums" from the equation. Filmmakers and movie studios are understandably concerned about digital bootlegs available to anyone with an Internet connection, and want to take advantage of the Net's enormous potential to connect to audiences. A few early examples of online exhibition suggest there are still some bugs in the system, artistically and commercially.

Currently the big studios are dipping their big toes into the water by using the Internet as a promotional platform. In addition to minidocumentaries and Internet-exclusive trailers, there's currently a fad of making a film's first five or so minutes freely available online. Everyone loves a free sample, but surely studios are starting to wonder at what point offering an online taste turns into giving away the farm.

For instance, the biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story opened in theaters Dec. 21, but at least 16 minutes could be legitimately found on the Internet, between various YouTube-style clips and the studio's posting the first 10 minutes. Representing 15 percent of a 96-minute comedy, Walk Hard offered such a sizeable appetizer that audiences may have decided to skip the rest of the meal. Given the film's disastrous box-office returns on opening weekend, the online samples didn't help much.

I saw Jackass 2.5 in its entirety online – Blockbuster Video offered the film for free for two weeks after its release Dec. 19, although it's reverting to pay-per-view in early January. Glitches plagued the viewing experience: To see Jackass 2.5, I had to register and my confirmation e-mail never arrived at my usual inbox (perhaps the spam filter blocked a message that used the word "Jackass" so proudly), so I had to go through other means. And once I connected, the sound and picture were so stuttery on my admittedly modest DSL connection that I ended up watching the whole thing on YouTube.

That wasn't necessarily a problem, as the sadistic pranks and masochistic stunts that define the Jackass franchise seem made for viral video. If anything, they seem more natural as short bits on a YouTube window than as a television series or at the cineplex. Jackass 2.5 doesn't quite stand on its own, however, consisting almost entirely of outtakes and material not used in 2006's Jackass Number Two. Chubby, squeaky-voiced Preston Lacy turns out to be the main fall guy, whether on the receiving end of a "Butt Bellows" or standing on a porta-potty in King Kong makeup while his cohorts fly remote-control airplanes at him.

Jackass 2.5 features some amusingly sick gags, with one involving a Super Soaker full of pee, but others prove simply unpleasant, such as the scene in which a volunteer shrieks in pain while lying atop a bed of nails. It's more interesting to listen to director Jeff Tremaine, frontman Johnny Knoxville and the rest talk about why the stunts failed than simply seeing them fall flat.

Edward Burns' romantic comedy Purple Violets qualifies as a kind of landmark film by being the first movie to be released digitally on iTunes, on Nov. 20. You can buy it outright for $14.99, although I'm skeptical about this particular business model. Purple Violets costs about the same as a commercial DVD, but three times as much as it costs to rent a movie. Compared with listening to music, watching movies is much more likely to be a one-time experience, and owning a tangible DVD with attendant bonus features seems a bigger draw than just a massive computer file.

Admittedly, I'm not the most computer-savvy guy on the Internet, which might explain Purple Violets' slow download time and low, speaker-to-the-ear sound levels, although the picture was perfectly adequate. Part of the point of viable online delivery is that low-tech movie-goers like me should be able to figure it out. If plugged-in Internet masters were a sizeable movie-going demographic, then blog traffic would have made Snakes on a Plane one of the biggest hits of 2006.

The eighth feature film directed by Edward Burns, who also scripts and stars, Purple Violets stays in the triple-threat's usual territory of lovelorn yuppie Manhattanites. The iTunes release has some of that "straight to video" stigma, but the film, while a bland rom-com, isn't the smarmy disaster one might expect based on Burns' seven other feature films. Reunited ex-lovers Patti and Brian (Selma Blair and Patrick Wilson) have real jobs and real problems, with Patti unhappily selling real estate while Brian strives for literary respectability after publishing a series of police-procedural novels.

Blair, Wilson and Burns (as a wealthy lawyer/recovering alcoholic) give charming performances, even though it's ultimately hard to care much about the characters' problems, and Donal Logue, as Patti's cockney husband, offers the worst fake accent of 2007. Nevertheless, independent films such as Purple Violets will be the ones that, theoretically, could most benefit from alternative forms of distribution online. With economies of scale supporting wide releases of Hollywood blockbusters, the personal little indies, documentaries and foreign films will need more help finding audiences. So far, though, it's more likely that the Internet will hurt the big movies before it starts helping the small ones.