High-Def DVD Battle Heats Up

LOS ANGELES Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment worldwide president and Blu-ray Disc proponent Bob Chapek on Tuesday blasted the rival HD DVD camp for prolonging the format war when it is clear that Blu-ray is the odds-on favorite.

“Blu-ray’s competition’s attempts to sell less than the best will inevitably be trumped by what we stated from the very beginning: That the Blu-ray technology is not a half-step format that will sell consumers short, but rather it is a revolutionary technology that will change the way we view movies for the long term,” Chapek said near the conclusion of a two-day Blu-ray Festival in Hollywood, Calif. “And we firmly believe that revolutionary technology, my friends, is indisputably, undeniably and inevitably Blu-ray.”

Chapek’s fierce rhetoric, coming during a gala Disney launch party for Blu-ray editions of Cars and Ratatouille, underscores the enmity in Hollywood between the studios supporting Blu-ray and those behind next-generation rival HD DVD. Disney, along with Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate, are exclusively in the Blu-ray camp. Universal Studios and Paramount/DreamWorks only support HD DVD, while Warner Home Video, at least for now, releases titles in both formats.

While studies finger consumer indifference as the chief obstacle the studios face in getting movie lovers to transition from standard DVD to high-definition disc, the format war has tapped resources and confused consumers, prompting many to hold off buying either a Blu-ray or an HD DVD player until a uniform standard emerges.

Studio executives in both camps concede the stakes are high: the very future of the packaged-media business, for years Hollywood’s biggest cash cow. Executives fear that if the format war is not resolved, allowing them to pool their resources behind one standard high-definition disc format, the decline in DVD sales will continue, and consumers uncertain about which new format to buy will go online for their entertainment needs.

Chapek isn’t alone in his harsh statements. At a presentation Monday on the Fox lot, home entertainment president Mike Dunn chastised Paramount Home Entertainment, which a month ago dropped its support for Blu-ray and went exclusively with HD DVD. He accused the studio of “taking the bait,” referring to a reported $50 million payout, to align itself solely with the HD DVD camp, which is led by Microsoft and Toshiba.

Dunn also intimated that Microsoft is perpetuating the format war in the hopes of confusing consumers so much that they don’t support either format and ultimately buy their entertainment online. He didn’t name the computer giant by name but blasted “the orchestrated campaigns of confusion and anti-consumerism fueled by an 800-pound gorilla that would prefer to force us all into the practice of paying tolls for the right to exchange information and enjoy entertainment.”

Despite the sharp tongues of the studio presidents, the biggest buzz at the Blu-ray Festival was generated by the likelihood that Warner may soon align itself exclusively with one camp.

In an interview, Dan Silverberg, vp, high-definition media at Warner, admitted “one thing that may be changing is our strategy,” and that a change could come as early as the end of the fourth quarter.

“When both formats launched and hardware prices were high, we made a decision to support both formats and let the consumer decide,” he said. “But now that hardware pricing is affordable for both Blu-ray and HD DVD, it appears consumers no longer want to decide—so the notion of staying in two formats for the duration is something we are reevaluating now that we are in the fourth quarter.”

Silverberg noted that Warner has the top-selling Blu-ray title of all time with 300 and is consistently No. 1 or No. 2 in both Blu-ray sales market share and in number of Blu-ray titles in the market.