DVD Lucky 7: The Third Annual Video Store Magazine Home Entertainment Summit
For the past few years, Video Store Magazine has brought together the key players in the DVD market for one of the most interesting and influential home entertainment conferences. The first conference in 2002 celebrated the 5th anniversary of the DVD platform, in 2003 it celebrated DVD's move into the mainstream with 50 Million households in the US owning DVD Players, and now in 2004 it marks the 7th year of DVD with a strong eye to the future of home entertainment.
While a whole range of issues were discussed in the conference - everything from the kickoff session on 'Direct Response' (i.e. DVD informercials) to the myriad of sessions slicing and dicing the DVD numbers and sales trends - the real main event was a proverbial smackdown over the future of home entertainment between Warren Lieberfarb, often referred to as the 'Godfather of DVD', and Benjamin Feingold, president of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, the leading advocate of the Blu-Ray HD platform. In my 5 1/2 years covering DVD, I've never seen a more contentious and clear cut battle between companies or DVD professionals.
In case you've been living in a cave, DVD in its relatively short lifetime has become not only the fastest growing entertainment platform, but the most profitable. Studios that once looked to Home Video as a secondary market for their films are now making as much as 80% of the revenue for their films on DVD. Over 50% of people watching a movie on DVD are watching it for the first time, and DVD sell-through has become the biggest monolithic force in the entertainment industry, clearly eclipsing all other forms of home entertainment (including rental, VOD, Pay Per View and VHS).
With the stakes so high it's no surprise the level of contentiousness over what will be the next platform for home entertainment, and probably more importantly, who will be in the driver's seat, and who will be left behind. While the verbal fireworks between Lieberfarb and Feingold were extremely entertaining, the real story was that, probably for the first time, both sides of the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray war finally stopped dishing hype and started getting into real and specific details about their plan for the future of DVD and how it differs from the others.
Important Changes for The Future of DVD in The Last Year
Another important change is the move of the High Def DVD battle away from a red v. blue laser. At some point in the last year, and quite under the radar, the spec for AOD (now HD-DVD) changed from a red laser technology to a blue laser, shortening the gap between the two technologies even more. But when all is said and done, the two platforms distill down into two very clear and different approaches to bringing HD content into homes on a shiny disc format.
HD-DVD/Blue-Ray Smackdown Round 1: The Case for HD-DVD (AOD Style)
In addition to presenting the environment surrounding HD-DVD, Lieberfarb gave a very clear and concise rundown of exactly what the HD-DVD format is. HD-DVD is a dual layer 30 Gigabyte disc which can hold more than three times the current capacity of Standard DVDs. This expanded space give studios the ability to deliver better picture (1080p), better audio, and more associated content. In addition to better picture and sound, HD-DVD has a comprehensive spec for copy protection, far beyond anything we've ever seen on a home entertainment product, including an advanced copy management system (ACMS) with 128bit encrypted 'renewable and revokable' content licenses, a manufacturer's ID system, and a physical 'burst cutting area' (BCA) on the disc to block ripping. While no consumer is going to get excited about copy protection being a key feature, studio heads unanimously stated on the conference president's panel that copy protection and digital rights management were an essential if not the key element required for support of any future platform.
Lieberfarb closed his presentation like a prize fighter determined to deliver the knock-out blow to his competition, "...in fact the fifty gigabyte dual layer Blu-Ray disc may indeed be unmanufactureable, and I propose that it may simply be vaporware".
HD-DVD/Blu-Ray Smackdown Round 2: The Case For Blu-Ray
In addition to Mike Fiddler's presentation we also heard from representatives of both HP and Panasonic with their perspectives on the Blu-Ray format. As with HD-DVD, a lot of clear information was presented. Blu-Ray Disc will be available in both a 25 Gigabyte single layer version and a 50 Gigabyte version, both available in recordable (BD RAM) and nonrecordable (BD ROM) formats. At this point a 50GB recordable Blu-Ray disc is set for release in Japan on July 14th. As with HD-DVD Blu-Ray will have a significant and sophisticated copy protection system including some kind of 'physical hook' to enable secure playback on PC's. While new requirements needed for manufacturing Blu-Ray discs will initially cost significantly more to produce than standard DVDs, the expectation is that production costs will drop over time.
A great deal of emphasis was made on the capacity differences between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc and it was this point that provided Benjamin Feingold, President of Home Video at Columbia Tri-Star (Sony), with his jumping-off point when he repeatedly called HD-DVD "an interim solution" and Blu-Ray Disc the "format for the future". Feingold mentioned a number of features that could be part of Blu-Ray, including expanded interactivity and associated broadband services, but there was little detail on exactly what those meant or how they'd be connected to Blu-Ray (several of the Blu-Ray speakers mentioned that the actual specs would be published 'shortly'). Perhaps the most striking thing said by Feingold was, "I'm sure when our company launches Playstation 3 there will be support for playing Blu-Ray discs, don't know about AOD," he smirked and then exclaimed, "I don't think so!" This was followed by a demonstration of Blu-Ray from a Japanese player connected to a $50,000 projector showing a clip from Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-Ray at 1080p split screen with 'Standard Definition' (480p). The differences between the two images were quite noticeable in terms of clarity, but it wasn't the WOW demo I think the Blu-Ray group had wanted.
The DVD Presidents Weigh In
While HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc camps both talked about a mid to late 2005 as a launch window for HD, many of the presidents indicated they'd be happy to wait till late 2006 or even into 2007 before really making any transition over to HD. Several of the presidents were emphatic in stating their concerns over the competing formats; James Cardwell exclaimed, "We DO NOT want a format war!" while David Bishop stated, "We cannot go to market with two formats - it will be the death knell for our industry." It seemed everyone was concerned that HD-DVD could turn into the next 'laser disc' - which to most people in the industry is as dirty a word as you can come up with.
After they covered the issues and concerns surrounding the next generation of home entertainment, the president's panel discussion focused on the issues facing DVD right now. One of the most interesting points was made by David Bishop of MGM when discussing VOD vs. DVD, "Right now we're making a lot of revenue from non use of our products, people buy product but don't always watch them with VOD if there were 100% consumption there would be quite a cannibalism of our main revenue stream". James Cardwell echoed this when he said, "VOD does cost less, but it's not a huge business, our main concern is with sell through". The theme of Sell Through DVD as king reverberated throughout the panel discussion.
While the presidents spoke a great deal on the topic of piracy, the major concern seemed to be directedly at rampant DVD piracy in Russia, China and India, where pirated goods greatly outnumber legitimate goods. This discussion dovetailed into a reiteration of the need for the next generation of DVD to have a stronger foundation for copy protection and digital rights management.
Some discussion was given to the shrinking window between a theatrical release of a movie and the DVD release. With multiplexes, theatrical runs for movies are getting shorter and so the need to wait a long time for a movie to exit theaters has greatly been reduced. But the issue now seems to be much less about how long between a theatrical release and the DVD release and what day is the best day to release a particular title. Mike Dunn of Fox gave an example: "Runaway Jury came out theatrically the same week as Mystic River, and they clobbered us, so we wanted to get the DVD right out so that it didn't happen again on DVD." Craig Kornblau of Universal reinforced this by saying, "DVD has become much more competitive, picking the release date is now one of the most important elements when we bring our product to market."
Bob Chapek's Keynote - Two Speed Trains Playing Chicken
DVD Innovation Awards While there were other panels throughout the day, the final highlight of the day was the presenting of the first annual Video Store Magazine DVD Innovations award, recognizing achievement and innovation in DVD's first 7 years. The winners were picked by a panel of leading DVD reporters and critics from USA Today, The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, Digital Bits, DVDTalk and Video Store Magazine.
The seven winners were:
One of the real gotchas for HD-DVD might not be the issue of technology. While DVD Extras have helped fuel the amazing boom for the sell-through market, studios seem convinced that the creative community is poised to come up with even more great interactive and immersive experiences for HD. The problem, however, when I spoke to many of the winners of the Innovation awards (the very people who the studios would turn to for HD innovations) about exactly what that would be, many of them shrugged their shoulders and were much more excited about the ability to present even better picture and sound than anything else.
A number of times the word 'Interactivity' was thrown around to help define the benefits of the next generation of home entertainment, but almost no time or attention was given to the dismal failure of interactive DVD-ROM extras on even the biggest and best selling DVDs. So even though studios might be able to navigate their way through this format war, the real challenge might be what's on the other side - finding a way to make a format of the future that isn't just a bigger version of what we've got now.
- Geoffrey Kleinman
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