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Producers hope self-destructing DVDs will stir consumer interest

AP , LOS ANGELES

The Christmas-themed movie Noel most likely won't be coming to a theater near you -- but if you miss it on cable, there's always the self-destructing DVD.

The movie's producers hope its "trimultaneous" roll-out this month, which started last weekend with a theater release in just five major cities in the US, will prove the public is willing to "rent" movies that must be tossed in the trash after just a viewing or two.

Disposable DVDs look and play like normal DVDs, except that their playable surface is dark red. Each disc contains a chemical time-bomb that begins ticking once it's exposed to air. Typically, after 48 hours, the disc turns darker, becoming so opaque that a DVD player's laser can no longer read it. Discs can live as little as one hour or as long as 60 hours.

The format has been around for a few years but hasn't generated much interest from movie studios, video rental companies or customers, despite experiments to deliver movies direct to consumers and eliminate late fees.

Enter Noel, an emotional Christmas story starring Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz and Robin Williams.

The independent film was shown at this year's Toronto Film Festival but didn't attract interest from mainstream distribution companies.

So the Atlanta-based Convex Group bought distribution rights and is releasing the film on a few dozen screens. Then, starting mid-month, the movie will be available in the disposable EZ-D format for US$4.99 on Amazon.com. On cable, it will air once, on TNT, during Thanksgiving weekend.

Convex owns more than 100 media patents and holds exclusive distribution rights to CD-ROMs that fit into the lids of soft drink cups. The company also owns Flexplay Technologies Inc, the company behind the disposable EZ-D.

The technology's backers see it as an alternative for video rental stores and Netflix-type mail-based subscription services. After the movie is watched, the consumer tosses it into the trash, eliminating late fees and the cost of return mail -- but creating a potentially large new source of trash.

The potential to add to landfills may be the least of reasons disposable DVDs have so far been a dud.

The discs can be illegally copied and pirated, just like regular DVDs. And while they are made of recyclable plastic, consumers would have to mail them to a special center for processing.

Blockbuster Inc hasn't embraced disposable DVDs because it says it does not want to confuse its customers. Instead, the company has adopted a Netflix-like subscription approach to video rentals.

"We really don't see the idea going anywhere, ultimately," Blockbuster spokesman Randy Hargrove said of disposable DVDs.

That's bad news for Convex, which bought Flexplay last month. Flexplay had provided discs to The Walt Disney Co, which has experimented with the format for the past year in eight test markets.

Disney has released a number of films on the discs, including Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Bridget Jones' Diary. The movies are sold in unconventional outlets, such as convenience stores, and are generally made available weeks after they first appear on DVD.

For films with less backing, disposable DVDs may be an option.

Noel director Chazz Palminteri hopes Convex's unique marketing approach will generate a buzz, calling it "really the only way you can compete with the Christmas movies that have US$30 million budgets."

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