I love movies. Scratch that. I love good movies. That being said, I despise going to the theater. Years of having to deal with yahoos and idiots who talk through the film, kick seats, rustle their smuggled food wrappers and god knows what else, has left me indignant over having to pay ten dollars for the privilege of dealing with annoying crowds. Hell, every time I go to the theater, without exception, there’s someone there, usually sitting right next to me, or right behind me, that ruins the entire experience for me. One of the worst was when a couple brought their young son (i.e. too young to understand) to The Return of the King, only to loudly explain what was taking place on screen for his benefit. For these people, home video has destroyed them for the theater experience. They think because they are able to talk to each other while a movie plays at home, they can do it in the theater. Home video has been a godsend for me as I enjoy sitting at home and watching a well-scripted film without having to tolerate the hoi polloi. I could get into an entire essay and argument over the abolition of theaters (not really, I understand that some movies need to be seen on the big screen), but that isn’t what this column is all about. I’ll get to that soon.
As a movie fan, I want to make sure I am enjoying the most optimal viewing experience as possible while at home. I recently acquired a widescreen television (a gorgeous 46-inch hi-def job) and a new 5.1 surround sound system. (For those of you who aren’t into the tech jargon, 5.1 means five speakers and a subwoofer for bass response). Back in the mid ’90s I owned a laserdisc player, which I actually still own and use from time to time. (Hey, that’s nothing. An old landlord of mine still had a reel-to-reel player). The laserdisc format, a precursor to DVD, has a great picture, but the discs are a bit unwieldy and the machine gives off somewhat of a loud ambient noise. In 1998, I switched over to DVD and found my love of movies revived. DVD received even more of a boost when studios began releasing television series seasons in their entirety. I have a huge collection of DVD’s right now and, of course, as was inevitable, those are most likely soon going to be rendered obsolete thanks to the ongoing march of technology. We are currently at a crossroads, smack dab in the middle of a format war. Remember when Betamax and Sony were going head to head? Yeah, it’s just like that. Now that we are at this crossroads, it’s important to choose a direction rather than be run over by the oncoming semis of hype and marketing. That’s why I’m here. Yeah, I’m a giver.
Before I invested in any one of the two formats, I wanted to do some research. Let me first inject that I am not an expert. Most of the jargon that is thrown around regarding the two formats flies right over my head. But I can say this: most consumers, when it gets to the zero hour, are not going to care about the technical aspects of either format. They’re going to care about the following: price and product availability (meaning what films are released on the format, and how to play those films). I’ve decided to make it my mission to get the word out (read: my opinion) on the format war and which horse you should back based on the advice of someone who adores movies and everything to do with home entertainment. I’ll try to cover the salient points, and even make the jargon as simple as possible (at least what I’ve learned so far). Be warned, however, as I am most definitely biased, and could end up inadvertently (and maliciously) insulting those on the other side of this thing.
By February of 2009, all analog television broadcasting will cease according to law. Only digital broadcasts will be available, which means that television sales will follow suit. In other words, digital television will be important to everyone in the country very soon. A sociology professor once told me that there are more households with televisions in the United States than households with indoor plumbing. Television is king in the U.S., and soon, all will be digital. No one is immune. Now, if you’re like me, and you like watching movies and complete uninterrupted television seasons at home, especially with great picture and sound, you’re going to need to find out about the two new formats of home video. These formats are called Blu-Ray and HD-DVD.
Let’s get the technical mumbo-jumbo out of the way first, somewhat of a `high-def specs for dummies’ introduction. One aspect people should know about in regard to picture quality is resolution. Resolution essentially means how sharp, detailed and clear a picture can be based upon the amount of information being projected onto a screen. Standard television signals are usually presented with 704 pixels across (vertical columns making up the width of the picture) and 480 lines of image (horizontal lines from top to bottom, making up the height), with DVD upping that width to 720 pixels across. (These numbers are usually shown in this order with a multiplier sign between them in technical manuals: i.e. 704 x 480). The difference between the DVD image and the standard television image, as far as I can tell has to do with the difference between integrated lines and progressive scanning. Integrated lines present rows of images in odd then even order making for a grainier image while progressive scanning of DVD’s puts forth a clearer image by presenting these lines in order, top to bottom, progressively. See how easy that was? Now, high definition television presents either in 1920 x 1080 or 1280 x 720. Quel difference, no? That’s a whole mess o’ pixels to be dealing with. Both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD present films in 1920 x 1080 for the best possible resolution picture. And we wondered why actors were initially opposed to high definition! You can see every wrinkle, every pore, every vein that pops out in their aging heads, revealing them for the made-up everyday people with flaws like everyone else.
Resolution Round: Draw
Score: Blu-Ray 1 / HD-DVD 1
However, Blu-Ray, as the name suggests, works on blue / violet laser technology. Red lasers, commonly used in DVD and CD players, have a particular laser wavelength (or if it’s easier to comprehend, a particular width). Blue lasers are incredibly more concise, with a much shorter wavelength or width, allowing for far more capacity to be encoded on a disc. Regular DVD’s, which were light years ahead in digital storage, especially including the idea of a `dual layer,’ held up to 4.7 GB (or gigabytes to the uninformed). In comparison, Blu-Ray discs hold 25 GB on a single-layered disc and 50 GB on a dual-layered disc. HD-DVD holds 15 and 30 for each respectively. So, if you’re a fan of DVD extras, or just want your television shows on the least amount of discs possible, Blu-Ray is the clear winner here. Plus, even though the HD-DVD works on red laser technology, making it somewhat easier for the studios to use the same machines to produce new hi-def discs, the consumer would still have to buy a brand new machine to take advantage of the product.
Capacity Round: Blu-Ray
Score: Blu-Ray 2 / HD-DVD 1
Blu-Ray is a Sony product and HD-DVD is a joint product of Toshiba and NEC. Now, before you start grousing, I’m aware of the various Sony missteps along the way. For one, Betamax lost out on the original home video format war, now becoming a historical joke, and the Mini Disc craze never took off, leaving not so much as a side mark, at least in this country. But for every Sony hiccup there’s been much success. The Walkman became a household name as well as a must have product during the cassette era, followed closely by the Discman. The Playstation game console was also a winner, still going strong with the third incarnation, which weighs heavily on this format war. More on that later. The same goes for the other side, if not from the creators, then from the backers, Microsoft and Intel. Microsoft is well-known as a monopolizing group who holds their users hostage with faulty bug-ridden merchandise, chock-full of the dreaded blue `error’ boxes of computer death. As I write this, the criticisms of the new Vista platform are flying fast and furious. Intel is merely along for the ride with anything having to do with their big bully protector, Microsoft. Yet, Microsoft is one of the most successful companies in the world, infiltrating hundreds of thousands of households in this country alone, so allegiances by name recognition alone are bound to affect an outcome. But, as this is an opinion piece, here’s mine. I try to avoid anything produced by Microsoft. I have nothing against Bill Gates. I think he’s become one of this world’s most admirable humanitarians and I applaud him, but his products just have too much vulnerability to security breaches and have nothing new to offer me personally. I’m an Apple guy to the end.
Reputation Round: Blu-Ray by TKO based on personal opinion
Score: Blu-Ray 3 / HD-DVD 1
Besides Microsoft and Intel, only one major movie studio is backing HD-DVD, that being Universal. Universal is one of the biggest movie studios in the country with a large library, and is probably the one huge stumbling block for a final outcome in this skirmish. One other studio is backing HD-DVD, the Weinstein Company, a fledgling movie studio with heavyweight backing that hasn’t yet had a blockbuster film on the market, as of yet. That could change, I suppose, with the 2008 release of Sin City 2. (Ironically enough, the original Sin City is a Disney product and will thus be Blu-Ray exclusive). There are a few studios releasing films in both formats. Those include Paramount, Dreamworks, Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. (Since the original draft of this article, the format war has heated up considerably and added a bit more controversy. Paramount and Dreamworks announced they have gone HD-DVD exclusive. Various news outlets are reporting that Microsoft has paid the two studios a total of $150 million for the alliance. Besides the furor this caused among consumers, it also prompted Michael Bay to attack his own studio saying that the action made him decide not to make Transformers 2. He later recanted after pressure from Paramount.) But it will most likely be the studios backing Blu-Ray exclusively that will tip the scales in favor of the Blu-Ray format. Because Sony makes the product, Columbia and MGM, two proprietary studios, along with Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox and Disney, are supporting Blu-Ray.
What this means to all of you is title availability. While The Bourne Ultimatum, Heroes: Season One, and to a lesser extent Knocked Up and Evan Almight will only be made in the HD-DVD format, that title will be swallowed up by the many titles due this holiday season from Blu-Ray. Already, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, being owned by Disney, has dealt a significant blow to HD-DVD thanks to its exclusivity to the Blu-Ray format. So has Sony’s Casino Royale. But titles like the Spider-Man trilogy package, Lost: Season Three and an entire catalog of Disney classics will tip the scales even further, most likely to the breaking point, hopefully to the advantage of the consumer. Put in another way, Disney is probably going to make or break this format war. The Disney classics are a lynchpin in the home video collector’s market, and, in my opinion, a format war can’t be won without that catalog. For instance, coming soon you’ll be able to find Blu-Ray titles of Aladdin, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Beauty and the Beast and Ratatouille on store shelves.
Another very interesting aspect to this format war is the entire Speilberg / Universal snafu. A vast majority of Steven Spielberg’s most popular early films were released with Universal Studios. Heck, the tour even includes a Jaws shark chomping hungrily at tourists in a tram! You’d think that Steve’s alliances would be with his old studio (he’s now the S in Dreamworks SKG), but an announcement that several Spielberg films, including Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park, were to be released on HD-DVD was soon retracted. Instead, an announcement was made at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was coming instead…to Blu-Ray. Was this some kind of crazy legal subterfuge that took place without the approval of its director? No, Spielberg actually signed off on the high-def transfer to Blu-Ray. Zing! (Now that Dreamworks has been bought off by Microsoft for the HD-DVD camp, you’d think this would make things muddier for Spielberg, but he specifically made his own properties immune and separate from the deal that was made due to his reported preference for Blu-Ray.)
Allegiance Round: Blu-Ray
Score: Blu-Ray 4 / HD-DVD 1.5 (This was originally only a point for Blu-Ray, but the recent payoffs change things slightly. I still believe Disney is going to win this war for its preferred format)
Other aspects to exclusivity are store availability of titles and linking to other electronic product. Soon, for the all-important retail fourth quarter, both Target and Blockbuster will only carry Blu-Ray product. Sure, there will be other stores carrying HD-DVD, but for the most part, stores will be skewing more towards the Blu-Ray camp. Why? Take for instance the studios that are releasing movies on both formats. One of the more recent releases is 300, the mind-numbingly asinine film about the legendary 300 Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae. Don’t get me started. I’m just reminded of Captain Clarence Oveur asking little Johnny whether he liked gladiator movies. I’m a big fan of Frank Miller, but this movie was ridiculous. Basically, it was a two and a half hour advertisement for the Ab-Roller. I fear for the Watchmen movie. But I digress. The point is, even though 300 is available on both formats, leaving it to the consumer to decide, and even with exclusive content available on the HD-DVD disc, the Blu-Ray version is outselling the HD-DVD version 2 to 1. Prepare for glory! And 600 diamond sharp nipples above 1800 abdominal muscles!
Momentum Round: Blu-Ray
Score: Blu-Ray 5 / HD-DVD 1
Let’s also talk about players. Yes, players of both formats are ridiculously high in price for the average consumer. Neither player can be bought at this point for under $300. Most format wars aren’t won until prices come down to a realistic range, or until one drops out entirely before that happens. At this point, the latter is unlikely. HD-DVD prices are slightly below those of Blu-Ray on average in regard to basic players. If this is the case, then why are Blu-Ray discs outselling HD? My best guess is the availability of Blu-Ray in the Playstation 3. That’s right, each PS3 comes with the capability to play Blu-Ray discs built into the system. Microsoft’s Xbox offers HD-DVD capability only as an added component you have to purchase separately. This is a big stumbling block for most consumers. The PS3 has a built-in fanbase thanks to excellent sports games titles, the Final Fantasy series of games, and the idea that the console offers backwards compatibility with titles for previous PS systems. Both systems offer regular CD and DVD playback, but the Playstation also plays Super Audio CD’s. This might not matter to most consumers, but it’s been great for me since I have a few hybrid CD’s that I haven’t been able to hear in true Super Audio until now. Let me tell you, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde sounds freakin’ amazing in surround Super Audio. Both systems lack a real remote, which has to be purchased separately. It’s somewhat of a nuisance to use a game controller to access your Blu-Ray or HD-DVD experience. Microsoft would deceptively have you believe that `gamers and players,’ as they quote, prefer HD-DVD 2 to 1 over Blu-Ray. Well, as I’ve shown, the actual films, the true barometer of these formats, are favoring Blu-Ray, as they will even more heavily continue to do into the fourth quarter.
Player Access: Blu-Ray
Score: Blu-Ray 6 / HD-DVD 1
Finally, there’s the aspect of shady dealings. True, HD-DVD has one capability, at least that I know of, that Blu-Ray does not, and that’s the aspect of more interactive features, including the heavily billed `picture-in-picture’ commentary. I get, sort of, why people would find this attractive. Sure, I’d want to watch Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson in a little box all through a film commentary, but most people in Hollywood don’t look like the two of them. If I want to watch a movie, I don’t need a little box with some yokel’s head in it, effectively blocking out part of the action. (Although it would be funny to see some schlubby special effects guy’s head floating around on top of some 300 guy’s cut physique). Ultimately, that’s a feature I can do without. I used to be incredibly interested in special features such as mini-documentaries, commentaries and the like, but lately I’ve been skipping them. Other than the Simpsons commentaries and extra features for movies I would put in the upper echelon, I generally tend to ignore them. For instance, I don’t really care how they made the skeletonized pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean. I really don’t. Now, that scene in Children of Men with the car chase and how they filmed that piece of wizardry, that I am interested in! Back to the shady dealings. Apparently, General Electric has been giving its subsidiary Universal (remember, the only studio to back HD-DVD) financial incentives to make exclusive content for HD-DVD and is exerting significant pressure on the studio not to cave in this format war. Just so that I’m clear, this information can be found on the great website, The Digital Bits as well as on Hollywood in Hi-Def.com. Just as the fine folks at the Bits have made clear that no one is giving them money to favor Blu-Ray, the same goes for yours truly. As a music critic, no one would even think to give me money for such a claim. Eventually, this format war has to end, with what I believe will eventually lead to Microsoft and Universal waving the white flag of surrender to Blu-Ray who is running on significant momentous steam and future promise.
Ethics Round: Blu-Ray
Final Score: Blu-Ray 7 / HD-DVD 1
Well, I’ve taken up way too much of your time, but I have had a lot to say on the subject of this debacle with HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Well, I’m off to watch my hi-def Blu-Ray version of Purple Rain! Oh, and you really can’t miss out on the featured release of the upcoming holiday season, a five-disc ultimate Blade Runner, packaged in a metal suitcase `replicating’ (ha!) Deckard’s attaché that he carries around for implementing replicant tests. It contains a whopping five different versions of the film and a ton of special features. Gotta love it.