Blu Christmas?

October 14, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Recession or not, it appears that a fair number of Blu-Ray players will be purchased between November 1 and December 31, 2008. Most of these, I suspect, will be PS3s since those units have the advantage of combining gaming with Blu-Ray capabilities. My current BR player of choice is the PS3. A lack of free time prevents me from playing many video games so I have used the PS3 primarily for watching high-def and standard DVDs, and it excels at playing both. The simplicity with which system upgrades can be achieved is also a nice bonus (although I believe the latest stand-alone models also have this capability).

BR player prices will probably drop a little in an effort to get consumers to bite. It's the razor blade analogy. Companies give away razors because they're in the business of selling blades. It's a little like that with BR players, especially where Sony is concerned. They can afford to sell the players at (or even below) cost because the real profits come not from the hardware but from the discs.

Going forward, it's pretty clear that, as BR becomes widely accepted (something that will happen until the Next Great Thing comes along - probably downloadable HD movies), consumers will buy new movies in BR rather than DVD. That's the way I'm doing it now. My most recent purchases - Iron Man, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Enchanted - have all been BR. I don't mind paying the extra $5 (or so) for the better format. But that's not enough for BR to be the windfall Hollywood wants it to be. The studios are interested in re-selling old titles in the new format, and I'm not sure how successful that approach is destined to be.

My DVD collection contains about 1500 titles, give or take. Some of those are screeners provided by studios, some are freebies, and some are titles I picked up at throw-away prices. But a good number of those DVDs were purchased at about $15-20 each from I have little or no interest in replacing those DVDs with Blu-Ray copies. Yes, BR movies look better, but not that much better. If I could trade a DVD in and pay an extra $5, I might consider it, but I'm not going to go out and spend $10 or $15 or $20 for a spiffier copy of a movie I already own. There are a few exceptions, but the list is very short. I have re-bought Patton , Close Encounters, and The Godfather Trilogy in high def. For me, Patton was a must-own because it's my favorite movie. The Godfather Trilogy has been re-mastered. And Close Encounters was the first BR title I purchased. I can only think of nine other films I would repurchase in BR and all feature either C3PO or hobbits. Oh, and maybe Titanic, especially if James Cameron was involved.

Based on sales figures, my approach to BR catalog titles that have been out on DVD for some time is not unique. While BR sales for new movies (those that arrive in the high-def format day-and-date with standard DVDs) are strong, they are tepid for older titles (with a few notable exceptions). There is no rush to replace previously purchased movies, nor should there be. There was a compelling case to overhaul entire VHS collections when DVDs came out. Not only was there are marked upgrade in audio and video quality but DVDs do not degrade. Even the best VHS tape looks worse after five years and is borderline-unwatchable after 15 years. There's no durability advantage with BR (over DVD) and the quality upgrade is nowhere close to being as eye-popping. Plus, repurchasing can become a vicious circle. 10 years from now, there will be another wave of the same titles in a different format. If you've got a decent DVD copy of a movie, why not skip its BR incarnation and catch it next time around?

This isn't the kind of sane, rational approach the Blu-Ray disc retailers and their studio partners want to hear. The revenue model expects a certain amount of repurchasing. They're hyping BR as if it's a quantum leap forward rather than just a next generation advance. I know a few people who purchased BR players after the format war was settled and were disillusioned with their purchases. They conceded that BR discs looked better, but the upgrade didn't meet their expectations. The bigger the screen, the more BR shines. The "bang for the buck" factor escalates enormously when the picture is really big (>70") compared to what is delivered in the moderate (40"-70") or small (<40") size ranges. Those who have huge front-projection systems with 100" screens may want to consider watching everything in Blu-Ray.

It all distills to the question of what "success" means where BR is concerned. For the average consumer, it means that most new titles and a healthy selection of old ones are available if a purchase (or rental) is desired. For Hollywood, it means that consumers are gorging themselves on new titles and old repurchases. There's a gap there, although it remains to be seen how effectively marketing bridges it.

My advice, for what it's worth, is straightforward. If you have any interest in gaming (even a minimal interest), get a PS3. If you have never played a game in your life and don't intend to start, wait for the Christmas sales and pick up a stand-alone player for around $200-$250. Going forward, when possible, buy new titles in BR. For older titles, repurchase only if you (1) plan to watch the movie repeatedly and (2) have a large enough screen where the BR will be able to "show off" its advantages. If you're curious to see the difference between the standard DVD copy in your collection and the newly-minted BR version, that's why Netflix memberships exist. When it comes to purchases, especially repurchases, don't throw away money. The studios claim they have consumers' best interests in mind - they want to provide us with the best possible home video experience. Remember this, however: these are the same studios that engaged in a divisive format war that left HD-DVD owners with an expensive piece of obsolete electronics. Makes you wonder what they mean by "best interests."