What's in a Title?

October 14, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

In the near future, I will be moving into a new house. This is the perfect time to upgrade my home theater. My speakers are high end, so they don't need replacement, but I'll trade in my current TV for something sharper and spiffier, swap out my old reliable receiver (stress the word "old") for a new model, and purchase another standard DVD player. I briefly flirted with the possibility of taking the Blu-Ray and/or HD-DVD plunge, but there are too many negatives urging me to wait. And, considering that I'm usually one of the "early adopters" when it comes to new technology, this can't bode well for this niche of the industry. Of course, I have written about this before, but this column takes (hopefully) a new angle.

The format war remains my #1 reason for avoiding jumping into the uncomfortable high def DVD waters. The only way to be safe is to buy both players, but that's an investment I'm unwilling to make. There's also a matter of principle - I don't like being told that I have to purchase two players in order to gain full advantage of the high def DVD experience. Such naked displays of greed don't make me eager to partake of the merchandise being offered. Sony and Toshiba had a chance to compromise many months ago. When both companies backed away from a joint standard and instead elected to initiate this format war of attrition, they lost any loyalty I might have offered.

There is another issue. I suspect that the average consumer doesn't care much about the existence of two competing formats. What matters most is the availablity of attractive titles, and that's where both formats fall on their faces. Where's Star Wars? Where's The Lord of the Rings? Where's Indiana Jones? Where are the Disney animated titles? Where are the Star Trek movies? Truth be told, if there was a lot of content available in high def that I really wanted, I'd bite the bullet and pay the money for one or both players. But when I survey the landscape, there's not a lot out there that I'm interested in. My approach to high def discs would not be to duplicate my DVD library - that's both expensive and silly. I would re-buy only a select few titles - titles that would show off their visuals.

I decided to quantify how strong a presence high def DVDs have when it comes to my favorite movies. To that end, I spent a little time this weekend scouring title lists and came up with the following information. Of the 105 movies on my "Top 100" list, six are available (or soon will be) on HD-DVD: 2001, Casablanca, The Departed, Lost in Translation, The Untouchables, and The Wild Bunch. Ten are available (or soon will be) on Blu-Ray: 2001, Close Encounters, Die Hard, The Departed, Halloween, The Life of Brian, Memento, The Princess Bride, The Untouchables, and The Wild Bunch.

Looking at end-of-the-year Top 10 lists, here are the findings. From the 2006 list, HD-DVD offers three titles: Superman Returns, The Departed, Babel. Blu-Ray has five: Superman Returns, The Departed, Babel, Casino Royale, Stranger than Fiction. The numbers swing in HD-DVD's favor for prior years. From 2005, HD-DVD provides four titles: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Pride and Prejudice, Syriana, King Kong. Blu-Ray's lone contribution is Syriana. For 2004, HD-DVD offers three - Polar Express, Eternal Sunshine, Million Dollar Baby - to Blu-Ray's two - Closer, Million Dollar Baby.

As a final test, I scanned the lists of the 100 most popular titles per amazon.com for both formats. If a HD-DVD player landed in my lap, I would purchase nine titles. If the same thing happened with a Blu-Ray player, I would buy ten.

What do all these numbers mean? First, in terms of my cinematic preferences, there is no clear "winner." HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are currently evenly paced when it comes to making titles available that are of interest to me. Secondly, and more importantly, neither offers enough content to make choosing one a worthwhile action. The movies simply aren't there to justify a purchase at this point. This is something I'll revisit in another year. Maybe the picture will be clearer by the time the Jack O'Lanterns start appearing on porches in 2008, but I doubt it. For now, I remain firmly on the fence, unwilling to commit with either my voice or my money.