Superclear Discs Are Coming, But Few of the Classics; Waiting for 'Godfather'
By JOHN LIPPMAN Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For home-theater fans, the big news lately is the imminent arrival of a new kind of DVD player -- one that promises images so good that movie lovers with the right equipment will be able to see the gun of a distant Mafioso in "The Godfather" or the faces of far-off Confederate soldiers in "Gone With the Wind."
Just one problem: Those movies probably won't be available.
Instead of many of the classics, the lists of titles many studios are preparing are top-heavy with movies such as "Catwoman," "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and "Wild, Wild West." Interested in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy or "Chinatown"? You're out of luck -- indefinitely.
By this Christmas, Toshiba, Sanyo and other companies will be rolling out new DVD players that promise to bring viewers closer to the movie-theater experience. The technology, high-definition digital videodiscs, lets them carry far more information, and therefore more pictorial detail and extra features, than do current DVDs. The machines will show the extra pictorial detail only on high-definition TV sets, and by year end that also is expected to be a big market, with 15 million U.S. homes having HDTVs. That's up from 6.3 million in 2004, according to Tom Adams of Adams Media Research in Carmel, Calif.
But thanks to Hollywood studios' strategies for rolling out movies to go with the new machines, the initial crop of HD DVDS is likely to include lots of forgettable films, rather than eye-catching classics. To be sure, the studios may fine-tune their lists, and some haven't announced any titles yet. Most releases announced are aimed at teens and young adult males, including "The Matrix" and the Harry Potter series. A few appeal largely to a young female audience: "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Save the Last Dance." Only two of the 100 first releases could be considered time-tested classics, "The Music Man" and "North by Northwest."
Why are the studios pursuing this strategy? Blame your action-movie-loving, videogame-obsessed, testosterone-fueled teenage son. Some of the movies being offered may have floundered with general audiences but they did nicely with "early adopters" of new technology, who "tend to be young and male," according to Ben Feingold, president of home entertainment at Sony Pictures. Thus, "the eye-candy movies are the ones that sell." (Sony itself hasn't come up with a list of titles yet, but Mr. Feingold says, "The catalog titles that we initially select will be chosen to demonstrate the quality of the format.")
"You pick some for box-office reasons, some for technological reasons, some for genre and some for cinematography," says Tom Lesinski, president of Paramount Home Video, explaining why such Paramount movies as "Sky Captain" (technological) and "Sleepy Hollow" (cinematography) made it onto the studio's first list of 20 HD DVD movies.
For the delay in classic titles you also can blame some superstar producers and directors, who like to hold out before releasing their movies in a new format, to make their debut as much of an event as possible. Steven Spielberg waited until last year to release his 1993 Oscar-winner "Schindler's List" on DVD: "You can only come out once and say 'first time on DVD,' " says his longtime associate Marvin Levy. He says Mr. Spielberg wanted the maximum number of DVD players in the market before making his move.
Similarly, Walt Disney is analyzing which titles are appropriate for the expected early adopters, which it also sees as young and male, a Disney spokesman says. "We're not going to roll out the 'Lion King' when you can reach only 10% of the market," he adds.
The emphasis on younger buyers comes despite the fact that HDTV ownership overall is skewed toward the older and wealthier part of the population, with 26% of households with income of more than $100,000 reporting ownership of an HDTV, compared with only 10% of households under $25,000, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
Other problems with the new formats may dog early buyers. Remember the VHS-vs.-Betamax videocassette format war of the 1980s? By early next year, there will be two incompatible types of DVDs and players warring for market share. One is HD-DVD, which is supported by various studios and consumer-electronics companies, and comes out in time for the holidays. (Warner, Paramount and Universal will provide titles for HD-DVD players.) The other is Sony's Blu-ray, which will come out late this year or early in 2006. Sony Pictures and Disney will provide discs for that format. (Some studios, however, might initially provide titles for both formats.)
In addition, video retailers, which had to make room for both DVD and VHS, now will have to squeeze two more formats into the space. "You cannot bring two different systems into the marketplace," says Gary Arnold, senior vice president of entertainment at retail giant Best Buy. But the showdown is coming.
For many people, laying out at least $2,000 for an HDTV and a new player still is too much. That is how Cathie Sandstrom feels, but when the machines become more affordable, she'd like to see some very different films from the ones that will be first offered in the clearer formats. Walking out of a Blockbuster video store in Hastings Ranch, Calif., Ms. Sandstrom, a seller of promotional products, picks the 1971 Italian film "Death in Venice," a slow-paced study of a composer's obsessions, as her dream high-definition DVD movie. It's "like watching a series of paintings," she says. What would she not want to see? "Anything with blood and gore."