I’m praying that FOX and MGM’s recent postponement of scheduled Blu-Ray titles doesn’t go down as the Valentine’s Day Massacre of the high def disc business. On the eve before the romantic holiday, the studios pushed off 14 titles previously announced for March and April releases – including Fox’s mixed bag of “Ice Age,” “Dodgeball,” “Commando,” “Tristan & Isolde,” “Dude Where’s My Car,” “The Fly” and ”Turistas,” and MGM catalogue gems “Thomas Crown Affair,” ”Dances with Wolves,” “Hannibal,” “Silence of the Lambs” and “To Live and Die in LA.”
The studios gave no explanation for the “reshuffle,” except to declare “Life’s only certainties are death and taxes” and to hint “we hope to (have) their new release date for you shortly.”
But maybe an explanation, of sorts, came a week later in a stock analysts’ chat up with Sonic Solutions, a leading supplier of HD authoring software to the professional duplicating community, as well as HD processing technology for home players. These guys are definitely in the loop.
Sonic’s vice president for strategy Mark Ely shared that studios are currently “reluctant” to release Blu-ray and HD-DVD titles because of the “relatively slow” adoption of the formats. He cited a figure of two million HD players shipped to retailers, to date. But from counts I’ve heard, the actually sell-through (units purchased by consumers) for North American is probably more like 1.3 million. And whichever number you use, the bottom line is that most HD disc spinners sold have been Sony Blu-Ray Playstation 3 video game consoles (about a million) and those relatively low-cost, add-on HD-DVD drives (maybe 150,000) for Xbox 360.
Yes, the consoles’ game-centric buyers have dabbled in high def movies, too. “King Kong” comes free with the Microsoft drive, “Talladega Nights” with a PS3. But the actual “attach rate” of HD movie purchases taken home with these machines has only been, on average, one title per unit, claimed Ely. That’s a far cry from the cited two-dozen-titles-purchased-per player-per -year by early adopters of dedicated HD-DVD players, the first HD disc format available ( since last April.) Yeah, those bleeding edgers will always spend big – out of intellectual curiosity, library building frenzy and, um, just because they can.
To date, Hollywood studios have released around 145 titles on the Blu-ray format and 160 in HD-DVD, said Sonic Solutions chief executive officer David Habiger. By mid year, about 50-60 more Blu-Rays should appear, and another 20-30 HD-DVD movies. So here, we’re talking a title “boom “on a scale with SACD and DVD-Audio in their heydays, and and we know what’s happened to those high resolution music disc formats. (Say what?) As far as retailers are concerned, there’s definitely strength in numbers. A major music chain executive told me he “stopped believing in high res audio, because the catalogue stopped growing. “ Oh, and for comparison’s sale, the standard def DVD library currently stands at about 8,000 titles, and is likely to be bolstered by “several thousand” more by mid-year, added Habiger.
Clearly, it’s expensive to remaster a movie for HD – just as it was to remix music titles for surround sound music formats. So the more you put out, the more red ink you’re swimming in, at least initially. And you can’t blame the studios for holding back their really big titles until there’s a reasonably sized audience ready to buy them. Remember how long Disney Studios and George Lucas held out, before releasing their classics on VHS, and then again on DVD?
The Sonic Solutions guys now believe that movie studios won’t start churning out high def titles in large numbers until there’s a population of about two million stand-alone HD players (not game machines!) and owners to support the release cycle.
The rapid adoption of high definition TV sets will certainly help the cause, added the execs. Today, there are about 48 million households with digital TVs. But by 2008 the penetration should be more like 100 million households.
And this second wave of adopters could prove a lot more interested in buying HD discs than the first wave has been, I’m thinking. That’s because we’re evolving to “Full HD” displays. While most current sets cannot do so, a very large percentage of new and future sets will be capable of displaying a high def disc’s ultimate 1080p picture resolution. This will give viewers a more demonstrable improvement over standard definition DVDs and also a step- up from 720p and 1080i line cable, satellite, telco and over –the-air HD broadcasts.
But this “Waiting for Godot” (or Guffman) thing is a delicate dance. How long should the studios drag their feet on important HD releases, before the parade passes them by, before it starts looking like defeat for the last great prepackaged media? In the video game world, hitting a mark of one million unit sales for a new system has usually been enough to get most serious software developers off their duff, cranking out lots of titles. And to me, that seems like a better and certainly shorter range target to shoot for in HD player penetration, as well.
This window of opportunity might not stay open all night. Cable and satellite companies are already ramping up their deliveries of set- top boxes with built-in high definition recorders. HD movie downloads to game consoles are available from Xbox Live and in the works from the PlayStation 3 store.
Oh, and have you heard about the new Qflix DVD-on-Demand system, coming soon to big box electronics and drug stores, then to home PC burners, and also brought to you by (surprise!) Sonic Solutions? This custom burning DVD technology will start out by delivering just standard def movies, but there’s growth potential for HD downloads, too, as broadband “pipes” expand. So if the movie studios aren’t packaging up all their coolest titles in those slim line, blue or red HD boxes, we may look for other means to nab them.