Plex starts offering video rentals

Streaming video platform Plex has launched a video rental store within its app on phones, tablets and smart TVs as part of a broader mission to become a "one-stop shop" for film and TV fans, the company announced on Wednesday.

The rental marketplace includes blockbuster titles and classic films from a number of major motion picture studios, including Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), Lionsgate, Paramount Global and A24. More than 1,000 titles are available at launch, with prices starting around $4, comparable to what movies cost through other digital rental platforms like iTunes and Google Play.

"With today’s availability of amazing titles like Barbie and The Color Purple, we are now offering consumers even more choices and movie selections all in one place," Keith Valory, the CEO of Plex, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Our goal has always been to bring consumers a less chaotic and more fun experience when they sit down together to watch a movie or show."

The launch of the video rental store comes about three years after Plex first hinted it might offer on-demand movie rentals as part of a broadening of its business. Launched in 2009, Plex began as a software package that allowed TV and movie fans to stream their personal media collection from their computers to TVs, phones and tablets at a time when few direct-to-consumer streaming services were on the market.

At that time, Plex's primary way of generating revenue from its media server product was through the Plex Pass, a subscription-based offering that unlocked a slew of additional features. Over time, Plex has sought to generate revenue from its users in other ways, to include offering over 300 linear channels of content and an on-demand section with thousands of titles, all of which are available to stream for free with advertisements.

Plex Rental Store
The Plex video rental store.  (Plex)

Those efforts have brought a mixed bag of success for Plex: Offering free, ad-supported streaming content helped the company grow to over 22 million monthly active users — a figure confirmed on Wednesday by a Plex spokesperson — but also made Plex susceptible to the same soft advertising market that has impacted other traditional and digital media companies over the past few years.

Last June, Plex issued pink slips to nearly 40 workers, reducing its employee headcount by 20%. At the time, Valory said the move was necessary to help Plex work through ongoing volatility in the digital ad market at a time when the company was trying to become profitable.

"The only way to reach profitability under these constraints is to significantly reduce our personnel expenses," Valory said in a memo cited by The Verge, which reported Plex would further address its issues by reworking its product roadmap.

That reorganization doesn't stop at launching a video rental store: Plex is also in the process of completely redesigning its apps and will integrate social sharing features at some point in the near future, according to tech journalist Janko Roettgers, who first confirmed Plex's plan to offer video rentals after speaking with executives at the Consumer Electronics Show last month.

Those social features include allowing people to offer public versions of their Plex profiles with movie and TV reviews, according to Plex's Chief Product Officer Scott Olechowski as quoted in Roettger's Lowpass newsletter.

The redesign has been in the works for more than a year and a half, Olechowski told Roettgers. "It's all designed, and tested, and ready to go," he said.

Last month, TechCrunch reported Plex secured a new round of funding that brought $40 million in much-needed capital to the company as it works to develop those new features with an eye towards profitability.

As executives put it, the features aren't just intended to help lay a permanent foundation for Plex's future business, but also assist movie and TV lovers in accessing the shows and films they want from a centralized location at a time when the entertainment landscape is becoming increasingly fractured.

"Let’s face it: people don’t know what to watch and, worse yet, where to watch it," Valory said on Wednesday. "We started last year by creating a single window into all streaming services, so people can easily find what to watch, no matter where it is. With the addition of rentals, we are staying focused on our goal to be the first place people go to find any streaming movie and show, watch them, rate them, talk about them, and recommend them to friends and family."