If you bought a DVD or Blu-ray at any point throughout the 2010s, you likely remember the little slip of paper on the inside — and the prominent banner on the outside — of the case advertising UltraViolet.
Whether you threw that digital code away or entered it into the UltraViolet site, the prominence of these so-called digital copies was hard to ignore for the duration of the decade. Yet, while digital copies undeniably still exist today, UltraViolet never made it to 10 years old. What happened to make this brand go from everywhere to nowhere? What’s the real reason UltraViolet failed spectacularly?
As with any public demise, there’s more than just a short answer here. There’s no single factor that put UltraViolet to rest. Nor is there a grand conspiracy surrounding the ultimate demise of the digital code company.
In truth, it’s a tale as old as time — but one that is nevertheless worth telling again. Let’s take a look at the external and internal factors that played a part in UltraViolet’s 2019 shutdown, in addition to the chain of events that led to its initial success in the first place. In the end, we’ll have a much better idea about the real reason UltraViolet failed spectacularly.
|Company Name||UltraViolet (UV)|
|Date Launched||October 11th, 2011|
|Launched By||Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE)|
|Industry||Cloud-based digital rights locker|
|First Title||Horrible Bosses (2011)|
|Number of Users||30 million|
|Major Studios Supported||Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox Entertainment Group|
|Last Title||Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)|
|Operations Ceased||August 1st, 2019|
Why UltraViolet Mattered
At the time of its creation in 2011, there was really nothing like UltraViolet out there. Sure, you could purchase digital copies of movies and television shows through iTunes and the like. But including a code in your physical media purchase that automatically gave you that digital copy for free?
It was unheard of, and it was immensely appealing for those who had begun to build a digital media collection alongside their physical one. In a time when owning digital copies of a title could often cost the same as a physical copy, it was a no-brainer why UltraViolet was appealing.
What’s more, UltraViolet had the support of the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (i.e. the DECE). The DECE was an enormous alliance of more than 85 different companies in the digital media sphere. This included everyone from box retailers, film studios, consumer electronics brands, and internet service providers to cable networks and countless other relevant industries in between.
The support didn’t stop there, either. UltraViolet had the backing of five of the Big Six studios and several of the most notable mini-majors too. (Pretty much everyone but Disney, Apple, and Amazon, really.)
Another big draw to UltraViolet? The ability to not only download digital copies for offline viewing but also to share your digital collection with up to five different people. Physical media is meant to be loaned out and, with UltraViolet, digital media collectors could do the same.
It all made for a very cool, very exciting service at the turn of the 2010s. Free digital copies that you can download, share, and watch as many times as you want? What a concept. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turned out, a lot.
How Did People Feel About UltraViolet?
UltraViolet was met with either excitement or indifference, depending on the person. If you were someone who loved digital copies and wanted to amass a wide collection of titles? You wanted as many digital codes as you could get, and you entered them online just as soon as you possibly could.
If you were a person who didn’t really care about digital copies (or simply didn’t know what they were for), you couldn’t have cared less about the inclusion of a digital copy with your purchase. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see how people really felt about UltraViolet on the whole.
By January 2019, mere weeks before UltraViolet announced its imminent shutdown, the service had more than 30 million active users. For context, that’s on par with the numbers for streaming services such as Peacock and Apple TV Plus.
What’s more, UltraViolet users collectively stored more than 300 million titles across their digital libraries. That’s hardly insignificant. Clearly, those digital codes were being used for more than just the recycle bin.
You could especially sense this small but mighty fanbase’s dismay when UltraViolet announced its shutdown in January of 2019. UltraViolet users were given until July 31st to link their account to another rival retailer, such as Movies Anywhere or Vudu. Otherwise, the digital copy collection they’d just spent nearly eight years establishing would be gone forever.
This was frustrating for many, as UltraViolet was perfectly fine in their eyes. After all, why would they want to flock to a rival service when they’d chosen UltraViolet over them for all those years? Ultimately, they had no choice.
How UltraViolet Failed: A Complete History
UltraViolet was first announced in September 2010, about a year before its official launch in October of the following year. Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) President Mitch Singer teased the cloud-based digital rights locker service in an interview for Home Media Magazine, immediately sparking interest with home media connoisseurs (and raising eyebrows of those in entertainment outside of the DECE).
By January 2011, every major film studio but Disney announced they’d be supplying UltraViolet with access to their digital content libraries. UltraViolet officially launched that October. At the same time, Flixster — a popular film-focused social media site — was rebranded as a supported platform for UltraViolet digital codes.
Vudu and FandangoNow were two other popular sites supporting UltraViolet codes, though they came later. At first, users had to verify their digital code with a disc to digital service (D2D).
To do this, you had to insert the DVD or Blu-ray you’d purchased into a computer’s disc drive and scan it to corroborate your purchase. This was a burden and was eventually dropped to increase positive user experience.
In the coming years, more and more studios began flocking to UltraViolet. Amazon embraced the service in 2012, along with the first official releases from Paramount, DreamWorks Animation, Lionsgate, and 20th Century Fox.
In these early days, it seemed like UltraViolet was going to be the wave of the future. Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and other box retailers made it a priority to support UltraViolet D2D verification, each establishing its own sites to help ease the process. And yet, in spite of this early success, UltraViolet failed to see the storm clouds forming on the horizon.
Early Signs of Imminent Failure
Thanks to this overwhelmingly positive reception in their first few years, UltraViolet took it upon themselves to revamp their site in January 2014. Complete with new features including the ability to edit your library, remove titles, and more, UltraViolet 2.0 was poised to continue to carry the company through the remainder of the 2010s.
And then, in February of 2014, Disney came out of nowhere and released a direct UltraViolet competitor. Dubbed Disney Movies Anywhere (and later rebranded to simply Movies Anywhere), UltraViolet failed to see this massive blow coming.
DECE President Mitch Singer tried to remain optimistic, reassuring the public that Disney Movies Anywhere did not spell the end of UltraViolet. He told users that he saw a path forward that included Disney and UltraViolet working hand in hand. (Little did he know how close he would be to the eventual fate of UltraViolet. More on that later, though.)
Alas, Disney seemed less open to these sorts of talks. They kept their Disney movies on their service, while UltraViolet kept everyone else’s on theirs. Meanwhile, more and more studios and production companies continued to add UltraViolet support.
MGM, Verizon FIOS, and expansion to the United Kingdom and abroad meant that 2014 saw UltraViolet securing its foundation in spite of the looming threat of Disney’s dominance. Mitch Singer was unbothered, at least outwardly.
UltraViolet had risen to 21 million users in January of 2015, then 22 million by May of that same year. Growth was steady, and all seemed fine and good. That is, until Target changed allegiances. Then, everything changed.
The Eventual Demise of UltraViolet
In the spring of 2015, Target switched its preferred digital copy provider from UltraViolet to Movies Anywhere. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, it seemed. While January’s annual status report boasted 25 million UltraViolet users, more and more retailers and sites were changing sides or shuttering completely.
Barnes and Noble abandoned ship in 2016, along with several other minor retailers. On a micro-scale, these little changes didn’t mean much. But, in the big picture, it looked like the crumbles of grit falling from the ceiling before the whole thing collapses in on itself.
In April 2017, UltraViolet failed to retain the rights to 20th Century Fox films with rumors of an upcoming Disney acquisition of the studio. One month later, Universal Studios stopped using the UltraViolet name on their physical media releases.
Mere weeks after UltraViolet hit 30 million users, it lost Flixster as a supported site. This was the biggest blow to UltraViolet so far. Then, the fatal shot. In October of 2017, Disney Movies Anywhere became Movies Anywhere; a place for Warner Bros, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Sony, Paramount, and Lionsgate films.
Suffice it to say, it was now only a matter of time before UltraViolet failed for good. One by one, 2018 saw studio after studio drop UltraViolet for Movies Anywhere. The final UltraViolet title, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, was released in December 2018.
After long-gestating rumors, UltraViolet made it official in January 2019; they’d officially be ceasing operations at the end of July. Movies Anywhere users could import their UltraViolet libraries to Movies Anywhere, making Singer’s initial prediction true in a way he could never have imagined.
Why UltraViolet Failed
The failure of UltraViolet could certainly be blamed on the ultimate success of Disney’s Movies Anywhere cloud-based digital rights locker, but that wouldn’t be 100% accurate. You see, concurrent with the burgeoning success of Movies Anywhere was the rapidly growing success of streaming services.
When UltraViolet started, the so-called Netflix Instant had only just begun. By the time 2019 rolled around, there were countless other major streamers thrown into the mix alongside the massive, widespread success of Netflix.
DECE didn’t realize the threat of streaming until UltraViolet practically had one foot in the grave. They were candid about this in their official statement announcing UltraViolet’s shuttering, stating that movie and TV lovers had a very obvious lack of interest in actually owning titles.
The success of streaming proved that people would rather have access to thousands of titles included in a monthly subscription fee rather than continue to buy each and every title and add it to their digital library manually.
This continued diminishing of the physical media market in favor of streaming was ultimately the real reason why UltraViolet failed. According to the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG), sales in the physical media industry dropped from over $25 billion in 2014 to barely more than $13 billion in 2018.
That’s almost a 50% decrease in just four years. How could UltraViolet possibly survive in this environment? Meanwhile, Netflix currently sits at 220 million subscribers and $29.7 billion in revenue for 2021 alone.
Why Movies Anywhere Succeeded
Despite the continued growth of streaming and the ever-diminishing physical media industry, Movies Anywhere endured. Why is it that UltraViolet failed while Movies Anywhere can continue to succeed, even in such a troubled market?
In the end, it seems like it’s all about that Disney magic. From the very beginning, UltraViolet did not have the support of the Walt Disney Company. This was a very obvious thing to lack, even before the current state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars universe, the 20th Century Fox acquisition, and everything else that keeps Disney on top today.
Of course, these acquisitions over the course of the 2010s decidedly did not do UltraViolet any favors. As Disney continued to grow its library of films, UltraViolet users felt its absence more and more. Disney is very keen and knows how to pick up on the up-and-coming media and distribution trends, so it obviously knew that the path to victory here was to establish a cloud-based digital rights locker of its own.
After all, if you build it, they will come. Every other studio seemingly knew that the digital copy service with Disney was the one to beat. As such, every studio and company that previously backed UltraViolet left the company in the dust en masse.
Couple this with support from Apple, Amazon, Google, and just about every other digital copy platform out there, and it’s obvious that Movies Anywhere had the recipe for success.
Sure, UltraViolet had plenty to love about it, but the fact that Movies Anywhere had just the slightest leg up seems to have made all the difference in the end. With the dominance of streaming looming high above, Movies Anywhere continues to hold a modest six million active users.