Aaron Taylor, Nanotech Entertainment’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, directs my attention to a “4K” Doors concert shown on Ultraflix, the company’s infant 4K movie-streaming service.
Blobs of color float on the screen. It looks absolutely terrible. Taylor explains that the footage is from the 1960s. “So this has some scenes that look great, but it’s from 1968,” he said. “It’s only going to look so good.”
It’s not what you’d expect from a 4K movie service. And fortunately, once he led me to another monitor showing a 4K-encoded version of the movie “Ip Man,” I was suitably impressed. But it also points out the problem that Ultraflix must overcome: there’s only so much 4K content out there, and not all of it is great. Most of the great content is encoded in 1080p, for your current HDTV.
Ultraflix hopes to capitalize on the conversion between 1080p HDTVs and the emerging wave of 4K TVs. “A year ago,” Taylor said, “studios were firmly on the fence” trying to decide whether 4K was worth the investment. Now the balance is tipping toward the higher-resolution format, he said.
But if you own a 4K smart TV, chances are you already have Ultraflix. According to Taylor, an Ultraflix app is on Sony, Samsung, Vizio, and Hisense TVs. Next up are TVs from the Smart TV Alliance: LG, Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba. And if ever the Microsoft Xbox One or Sony PlayStation 4 support 4K content, they’ll write an app for those platforms, too. Right now, Ultraflix has an app for Android phones and tablets, but not iOS.
Why this matters: With 4K displays just beginning to roll out and support 30 frames per second, consumers can begin to take a long look at upgrading to the new format. But it's a chicken-and-egg problem: without content, TV makers can't drive sales. And without sales, the format will founder. Ultraflix is the medium by which 4K TVs buyers can sell the technology to their friends.
On the cusp of 4K
Ultraflix claims it has all the 4K content that’s available—but that's not much, just 500 hours. (Also, there's a few films from Sony that it’s holding “close to the vest,” Taylor said.) Available Ultraflix 4K movies include the MGM movies Rocky, Robocop, Rain Man, Fargo, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Additionally it has licensed all 38 IMAX documentaries, 50 classic rock concerts from Eagle Rock, and expects to strike more major content deals in the next few weeks, Taylor said. They will be with the “likes of” Sony, NBC Universal, Paramount, Lionsgate, and Disney, he said.
The problem, according to Taylor, is that while movies are often shot in 4K, filmmakers must decide how to accommodate post-production special effects. A skilled studio can pull enough information from an older analog film print to actually accommodate next-gen 8K movies, he said. But while current movies are shot in 4K, a movie released as a 1080p digital movie may have post-production effects optimized for that level of detail. But a movie shot in 4K also tends to look the best when viewed in the 4K format.
So Ultraflix accommodates that. Movies are clearly labeled “Silver,” “Gold,” and “Platinum,” with upconverted 1080p movies assigned a Silver rating, older film transfers labeled as Gold movies, and native 4K movies given a Platinum designation. For now, every movie Ultraflix provides is a 48-hour rental, with prices ranging from $1.99 to $3.99 for “third-tier content,” $4.99 for a concert or IMAX documentary, and up to $9.99 for a studio film, Taylor said.
Subscription and purchase options coming
So far, everything Ultraflix provides is under the rental format, but the company plans vertical “channels” of content, like martial arts, that will probably be offered on a subscription basis within the next 30 days. And since Sony offers 200 titles—of which 50 are movies—only for electronic sale, Ultraflix plans to move in that direction as well.
Although it has a content fund to buy film licenses, Ultraflix also practices a barter method: It owns a 4K post-production transfer studio and will convert movies from studio vaults in exchange for a period of exclusivity, on the order of three months.
Besides a 4K smart TV, however, chances are you that you won’t have to worry about bandwidth. Ultraflix streams as low as 6 Mbits per second, on up to 25 Mbits/s for Platinum offerings. Taylor characterized 10-Mbit streaming as a sweet spot. Most broadband services, especially cable, can deliver that speed easily.
Ultraflix, of course, isn’t alone in the 4K space. In December, Amazon flipped the 4K-streaming switch, and Netflix turned on 4K in May to select TVs and devices. But Ultraflix is confident that it can compete with its larger rivals.
So there’s one remaining question: even assuming Ultraflix can compete with Netflix, how does it avoid a trademark suit? Taylor said that’s taken care of: “We’re clear,” he said. ‘We already checked.”