I read an article recently in Variety with the headline "Pressure mounts on U to turn Blu," which reported how Universal, the only major studio to offer HD DVD-exclusive titles, was being encouraged to put its films out on both HD DVD and Blu-ray. While Universal wouldn't be abandoning HD DVD, such a move would have a profound impact on the format war, and would probably spell doom for the HD DVD camp.
Knowing the stakes, format-war watchers have been monitoring the Universal situation closely, with the more conspiracy minded speculating on who's getting paid what to keep Universal from flipping. I have no idea, but I did run into Ken Graffeo, Executive VP of HD strategic marketing for Universal Studios Home Entertainment, at a Toshiba HD DVD event last month. I jokingly suggested that we weren't sure he was going to show up, what with all the rumors flying. He assured me that with the weather being so hot in New York, he wouldn't have been there if he didn't want to be--and that Universal's support for HD DVD remained unflagging. Graffeo also happens to be copresident of the HD DVD Promotional Group, so you can see how people might think that if Universal pulled out, the whole tent might come crashing down.
Toshiba's HD DVD players are now available for as little as $250
As the format war enters its next phase--the lead-up to the holiday buying season--Toshiba and its partners (read: Microsoft) have gone with a two-pronged attack: they're touting new, long-promised special features along with lower prices on the players. (The new features work even on the oldest HD DVD players, so long as they have the latest firmware.) It's a good strategy--if not their only strategy--though I think the whole special-features angle will only give HD DVD a short-term boost, and a very small one at that.
All marketing stories have a history, and this one is no exception. Before we got into this whole format war, the HD DVD camp went out and did some sort of study and came back with data that said that consumers were going to replace their existing DVDs with HD DVDs only if the new disc offered something beyond better video quality. And better sound quality--lossless DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD soundtracks that go beyond what you can hear on standard DVDs--wasn't going to cut it either. No, what people wanted was snazzy, new extras and more interactivity. Or so I've been told.
It seems Blu-ray backers did a similar study, because they also like to talk up their format's special features. Sadly, however, a lot of them haven't come to fruition yet or simply don't work with existing players. While I've been accused of being a Blu-ray fanboy (one reader recently suggested I was enjoying time on the Sony yacht this summer), I'm unbiased enough to point out that the HD DVD specification is better in a lot of ways. For example, all HD DVD players are required to support Ethernet connections, dual video streams (picture-in-picture), Dolby Digital Plus and TrueHD soundtrack decoding, and "persistent storage" (onboard flash memory). That makes for a much more uniform experience on HD DVD players (of course, it helps when only one company is making them). By comparison, none of those features are required on Blu-ray players. And while Blu-ray uses Java for its discs' special features, HD DVD uses a Microsoft alternative called HDi. It's great that Java is a widely used standard, but when it doesn't work, who cares?
For the moment anyway, the proprietary HDi is proving superior--one reason you'll find The Matrix Trilogy and Batman Begins, both with ample interactive features, on HD DVD, but not yet on Blu-ray. Don't think Sony will let the features gap remain wide for long: Blu-ray Profile 1.1 is already on deck, and it promises to bring more HD DVD-like certainty to future Blu-ray players (though Internet connectivity, apparently, remains optional). For now, however, HD DVD has the hardware advantage, and the HD DVD Promotional Group is right to play the "extras" card as it looks for any sort of edge or momentum in its underdog bid to outlast Blu-ray.
If all of this seems a little mind boggling, I'll try to put it in real terms. You can get a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about by looking at the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD versions of Blood Diamond, a Warner Bothers release. The usual director's commentary is available on both discs, but the HD DVD version offers something called In-Movie Experience (IME) video commentary. The key thing here is that, instead of getting a voiceover from the director (or actors) as you watch the movie in commentary mode, you get a little picture-in-picture video of the director talking over the movie. Currently, not all Blu-ray players support this sort of feature. On top of that, the HD DVD version of Blood Diamond allows you to access an additional set of Web-enabled extras via your HD DVD player's built-in Ethernet connection. These include an interactive online poll and map with factoids pertaining to war-torn areas in Africa.
Toshiba and Microsoft have also been showing off the special features of the upcoming HD DVD version of 300, another Warner title. As part of the IME mode, you'll be able to view in a small PIP-box how the scene was shot using a blue-screen background while the CGI-enhanced final screen version runs on your TV. There's also a minigame you can play. On the Web-enabled front, you can choose your favorite scenes from the film and share your bookmarks with other users. And with Universal pledging that all of its HD DVD releases in the fall and beyond be Web-enabled, you can bet that 300 isn't the last time you'll see this feature.
Will interactive features make you choose HD DVD over Blu-ray?
Just how neat-o this stuff seems depends partly on how much of a film nerd you are. Some of it is genuinely cool, but some of the extras fall into the overkill department, and I'm not sure the whole idea of going beyond what's already on the disc makes a whole lot of sense. Yes, some film buffs--buff and nerds aren't quite the same, but the differences probably aren't worth getting into--will relish all the extras, but the vast majority of consumers don't necessarily get all that jazzed about another layer of bonus features, especially if you have to pay a $5 to $10 premium for them. Personally, I barely have time to watch the movies themselves, and I just don't see the point in taking the time to highlight my favorite scenes. You want to get into special features--real special features--give me an hour or two of extra raw footage to work with, and I'll do some editing and pay extra to do it. I'd like to chop a good 45 minutes or more out of Peter Jackson's King Kong
, for instance.
Marketing hijinks aside, with DVD being as good as it is, it's hard to get users to kick the habit. Ultimately, what 90 percent of people are looking for is a DVD replacement that costs basically the same as what they have now. They want a sub-$100 HD DVD or Blu-ray player and movies that are priced the same as DVDs--or less. Yeah, some folks might go out and replace a few of their favorite DVDs with the new improved HD DVD versions, but the reality is someday--and sooner than Toshiba or Sony might like--an HD DVD or Blu-Ray player isn't going to be a premium purchase; it's going to cost $99, and all this extra money studios are talking about spending on snazzy extra features isn't going to make economic sense for the majority of titles produced.
In other words, Toshiba, the HD DVD Promotion Group, and Microsoft can talk all they want about interactivity and in-movie experiences, but the only way HD DVD is winning this war is on price. As it stands, this is a race to the bottom, and the more I look at it, the more I realize that I was wrong to think that a format war was bad. We need these guys to beat each other up. We need Toshiba and Microsoft to push Sony and its allies to make better and cheaper Blu-ray players. We need Universal to stay red. We need this war, folks. Give it a chance.
Do you think special features are a game-changer or is price the most important factor in the next-gen DVD format war? To get your two cents in, click the Talk Back button now.