Social Movie Rentals Premiere at Lycos; Chat Room Has Everything But the Popcorn

It turns out that old dogs can learn new tricks.

For several years in the late 1990s, search company Lycos, known for its Labrador Retriever mascot, was one of the world’s most trafficked and most profitable Web portals. It scooped up other hot brands such as Wired Digital, Tripod, and Angelfire, and in 2000, Spain’s Telefonica paid the now-unimaginable sum of $5.4 billion for the high-flying company. Then the Internet bubble ended, and Lycos’s revenues evaporated along with it. In 2004, Telefonica sold the company to South Korea’s Daum Communications for a paltry $95.4 million.

These days, some people are surprised to hear that Lycos still exists. But it’s very much alive, and headquartered, as it has been since 1995, in Waltham, MA. The company has pared back to three main businesses, according to Chuck Ball, Lycos’s vice president of sales and marketing: Web publishing, search, and social media. In that third area, Lycos’s offerings include Gamesville, a casual gaming site where players can also socialize in chat rooms, and a variety of video-centered sites, including a video sharing community called Lycos Mix and an on-demand TV and movie archive called Lycos Cinema.

In the past, Lycos Cinema featured only free, ad-supported TV series and movies. The site’s claim to fame was that it was the Internet’s only “social video” site, where several viewers could watch the same show at once and communicate about it in a text-chat box under the viewing area. But the images were small, and many of the featured shows and films, such as I Spy and Little Shop of Horrors (the original, black-and-white 1960 version, not the 1986 musical remake) were on the obscure side.

Today, however, Lycos is relaunching the site with slick new screen-filling player software, a new library of premium video-on-demand rentals, and a new platform that allows renters to schedule viewings for groups of up to 10 people. The expanded rental selection includes many movies recently released on DVD. While many of these are still from second-tier studios and distributors such as National Lampoon, Vanguard Cinema, Polychrome Pictures, and Lightyear Entertainment, Ball says the company is negotiating with all of the big Hollywood studios and TV networks for access to their content.

The cost to rent a movie or show at Lycos and watch it on your own—$3.99—is comparable to rental prices at other sites such as Apple’s iTunes Store. But if you invite a group of friends, the price gets more economical: $5.99 for a room of two to five viewers, and $7.99 for a room of six to 10. And the social viewing experience, powered by a new Flash chat interface, is what’s still unique about Lycos Cinema. “While we’ve been hearing all about social networking, the video content on Bebo and MySpace is still just click-and-watch,” says Ball. “We are giving you the benefits of ‘appointment TV,’ if you will.”

In many ways, Lycos is trying to engineer the online equivalent of meeting your friends at a bricks-and-mortar theatre, then talking and joking through the whole movie. There’s even a front lobby chat area where Lycos hopes people will “check out what’s going on on the site and talk about new releases and favorite film topics,” says Scott Money, lead product manager in the engineering department at Lycos.

From the lobby, users will also be able to search for movie showings where the renters have purchased more seats than they need and have chosen to open any extra seats to the public. “We have this idea of ‘sneaking in’ where you may be able to catch a movie for free,” says Money. “The incentive for the user is that they’ve already paid, it doesn’t cost them anything extra, and they might meet someone new who can add to the conversation.” Of course, there’s always the possibility that a guest who sneaks in will turn out to be rowdy or uncouth. For that eventuality, Lycos provides “ignore” and “eject” buttons.

To celebrate the launch of the new platform, the company is cooperating with New York startup to use Lycos Cinema as the setting for an online film competition. Starting today, 400 independent films are available for individual or group viewing. The makers of the top 21 films as of June 30, based on ratings from Lycos users themselves, will be invited to a film festival to be held at New York’s Tribeca Cinemas July25-27.

“From the early indications we think the response is going to be overwhelming,” says Ball. “It’s almost as if we built our product for them, giving cinemaphiles worldwide the opportunity to come in an see this new and emerging filmmaking, in solitude or with other people who are interested in watching new movies together and commenting. We’ll make the comments available to the filmmakers and we’re certain that the filmmakers are going to want to pop into some of the viewing rooms.”

Money says all of the new Lycos content is encoded in the relatively new H.264/MPEG-4 format, which allows higher video quality at lower bit rates than older video formats. Movies will play at a resolution of 720 x 480 pixels—which is far below the 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution of today’s high-definition TV screens, but looks quite good on most computer screens.

Ball says that the new server and software infrastructure Lycos has put in place for the Cinema relaunch, along with its agreements with content distribution networks such as Limelight, mean that it could scale up the movie rental service to full high-definition as soon as movies studios start making such content available. (At that point, devices that let you watch PC content on an HDTV screen, like the ZeeVee ZvBox covered here last week, would become a valuable complement to Lycos Cinema and other online movie rental services.)

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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