Blu crew parties as rival retreats


UPDATED 4:55 p.m. PT Jan. 7, 2008

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LAS VEGAS -- What was supposed to be a showdown between the rival high-definition disc formats at the Consumer Electronics Show here turned into something of a victory celebration by the Blu-ray Disc camp.

Stung by the announcement last week that Warner Home Video, the biggest home entertainment player in Hollywood, was dumping HD DVD, backers of the Toshiba-championed next-generation format abruptly canceled a Sunday night gala at which they were to trumpet upcoming HD DVD releases and preview the latest innovations in special features.

As a result, supporters of the Sony-developed Blu-ray Disc seized the moment to proclaim victory and all but pronounce the format war over.

At Sony Electronics' preshow CES presentation Sunday, Sony Corp. chairman and CEO Howard Stringer could barely contain his glee.

"As you can probably guess, all of us at Sony are feeling Blu today," Stringer said to laughter. "And that's a good feeling."

Stringer thanked Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes and chairman Barry Meyer for making what he called the best decision in the long-term for the consumer. He also gave kudos to longtime Blu-ray supporters Bob Iger of Disney and Rupert Murdoch and Peter Chernin of News Corp., along with Lionsgate and MGM.

"I don't know if that's the reason for the full house, and I'm sure you want me to say more," Stringer said. "But I won't."

David Bishop, worldwide president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, said Warner's decision would help change Sony's focus.

"Now our message to the consumer will be (about) converting from DVD to Blu-ray and not this message ... that has basically been that our format is better than their format," Bishop said.

He said Sony and other studios won't abandon current Blu-ray marketing tactics, which he said include educating consumers and retailers.

"The marketing message now will be more about how the consumer moved from VHS to DVD and that it is now time to move to Blu-ray," he said. "We can do that with a lot more confidence and the consumer can have a lot more confidence than they had a week ago."

Later that night, a Blu-ray Disc party that had been hastily assembled and slotted for the same time as the HD DVD gala drew a standing room-only crowd.

Ardent Blu-ray supporter Bob Chapek, president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, said the home entertainment industry now has a real chance of turning around its fortunes and resuming the growth trajectory that had stalled with the maturing of the DVD business.

"As the DVD business matures, it is incumbent to revitalize the category with the inevitable successor: Blu-ray Disc," Chapek said. "Blu-ray adoption will be key to category growth and revitalizing our business. If you look at history, the same thing happened with VHS: People stopped buying the old format and waited for the next. As there was uncertainty, consumers held off, which left us with a void. But now consumer indecisiveness is severely mitigated, and they can buy Blu-ray with confidence."

Left with just two of the six major studios, the battered HD DVD side remained defiant, with Toshiba vp marketing Jodi Sally saying at the company's CES press conference: "This is a tough day for me. [But] we firmly believe HD DVD is the best format for the consumer." She noted that while press reports have all but declared the format war over, "We have been declared dead before."

Citing third-party data from the NPD Group, Sally said HD DVD players represented more than 49% HD players sold up through Dec. 22. The NPD Group numbers apparently don't include sales of the Sony PlayStation 3 console, which features a Blu-ray drive.

Akio Ozaka, head of Toshiba America Consumer Products, said the company was surprised by Warner's announcement.

"We were particularly disappointed that the decision was made in spite of the significant momentum HD DVD has gained," Ozaka said.

He said HD DVD player sales had their best sales ever in the fourth quarter.

An analysis by Home Media Magazine's market research department, working with The Redhill Group, found that Blu-ray Disc software enjoyed a 64% sales majority in calendar 2007, selling through to consumers 5.7 million discs, to 3.2 million for HD DVD. Since inception, consumers have bought 6 million Blu-ray Discs and 3.7 million HD DVDs, while in the four-week period ending Dec. 30, 2007 consumers bought 1.7 million Blu-ray Discs and 979,000 HD DVDs.

Also at CES, Panasonic announced the upcoming release of the industry's first BD-Live (or Profile 2.0) player, which allows users to connect to the Internet to further enhance their viewing experience. Once BD-Live discs become commonplace, users will be able to connect to the Web to download images and subtitles, and to join in multiplayer interactive games that are linked to bonus movie content on the disc.

No release date has been set for the DMP-BD50. Just two months ago, Panasonic released the first Profile 1.1 player, with picture-in-picture capability

"Panasonic was the first to bring a Blu-ray player with Bonus View (Final Standard Profile 1.1) to market, and now with the DMP-BD50 we are again leading the industry with the inclusion of BD-Live," said Gene Kelsey, vp of Panasonic's entertainment group. "The beauty of the Blu-ray player is that we can now see movies the way the filmmaker intended, in glorious HD video and audio."

Sony also plans to release two new players with BD-Live and picture-in-picture capability this year.

Meanwhile, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment also announced major Blu-ray Disc product initiatives for 2008.

Disney in the fall will release a Platinum Edition Blu-ray Disc version of "Sleeping Beauty," which marks the first animated classic to be issued on the new format. The release will feature a virtual castle, utilizing the new BD-Live technology, as well as the interactive game "Maleficent's Challenge."

Also in the pipeline is "Finding Nemo," the first Disney Blu-ray Disc with full motion picture-in-picture. It will be used for an interactive visual commentary with director Andrew Stanton, co-writer Bob Peterson and co-director Lee Unkrich.

Disney also announced that new theatrical titles coming to Blu-ray Disc the same day as the standard DVD include "The Game Plan" (Jan. 22), "Gone Baby Gone" (Feb. 12) and "Dan in Real Life" (March 11).

Catalog titles bound for Blu-ray include "The Rock" and "Con Air," both due this week; "Crimson Tide," Feb. 5; and "The Rookie," March 4. "Hidalgo," "Coyote Ugly," "Unbreakable," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" and "National Treasure" are due later in the spring.

Disney also is extending its national Blu-ray Disc mall tour into the new year, adding eight additional cities to the original 18. The tour, sponsored by Panasonic, will resume Jan. 25 in Toronto and continue on to Nashville, Denver and other cities before concluding in July in Chicago.

20th Century Fox announced that six popular catalog titles will be issued on Blu-ray Disc in the first quarter of 2008: "Man on Fire" (Jan. 8), "Wall Street" and "Me, Myself & Irene" (Feb. 5), "Ice Age" (March 4) and "Independence Day" and "I, Robot" (March 11).

The "I, Robot" Blu-ray Disc will be the first release to offer direct access to in-movie features through one of the four colored buttons on the BD remote.