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Make way for Blu-ray

As James Cameron made the publicity rounds to promote his then soon-to-be-blockbuster Avatar this past December, he had more than the film’s theatrical release on his mind: “Probably the initial Blu-ray release of Avatar won’t be in 3-D and then a subsequent release will be in 3-D,” he told MTV at the time–three months before the film’s Blu-ray release date was even confirmed and more than four months before its theatrical release.

But on March 23rd, Cameron and his producer, Ion Landau, held a press conference to officially announce the mega-film’s Earth Day release date of April 22nd, in a Blu-ray version that will include no supplemental features, purportedly to maximize all of the disc’s storage space in order to provide the best available picture and sound quality. “We wanted the best presentation of any film in the history of the Blu-ray and DVD formats,” Landau grandly noted. “The Blu-ray is going to be pure movie.”

Even with the admission that Avatar’s initial Blu-ray release would be followed by a newer, more likely better disc just a few months later (likely in November), at the time of the press conference, Avatar was already the best-selling movie title on Amazon.com, with more than half of all orders for the Blu-ray edition.

 To put that percentage into perspective: Cameron’s press conference happened to coincide with the home entertainment release of New Moon. Of the more than four million copies sold of that title in its opening week, seventeen percent were Blu-ray discs (one could even further compare that to the only three percent of Blu-ray discs that comprised sales for the franchise’s first entry, Twilight, a year earlier).

So just what is Blu-ray? And what makes it better? From a consumer standpoint, the reasons to upgrade are essentially the same as why people moved from VHS to DVD a decade ago: Better audio and video quality and additional storage space.

Technically speaking, what makes a Blu-ray “blu” is that it utilizes a shorter wavelength, blue-violet laser in order to read the disc (as opposed to a standard DVD’s red laser), resulting in ten times as much storage space. Which further translates to better features–like the ability to access the disc menu without having to stop a movie and the interactivity of picture-in-picture extras, where the viewer can watch a director commentary while the film is playing, for example.

Created to support high-definition formats, the first consumer Blu-ray player–the Sony BDZ-S77–was made available for purchase in the Spring of 2003, with two major strikes against it: A retail price of almost $4,000 and no Blu-ray movies available for purchase.

At the same time the Blu-ray technology was being developed, a competing format–Toshiba’s HD DVD–also came on to the scene, boasting similar high-definition quality and increased storage space. The so-called “format war” lasted until February of 2008, when Toshiba relented, and announced that it would discontinue the development and manufacturing of all HD DVD products.

But unlike the VHS-to-DVD switch, Blu-ray players are compatible with standard DVDs (even CDs), so there’s no need to upgrade your entire DVD collection. In fact, a Blu-ray player can actually “upconvert” a standard DVD from a resolution of 720×480 pixels to up to 1920×1080 pixels, resulting in a crisper, more vibrant, and detailed image.

Of course, the best way to utilize a Blu-ray player is to watch a Blu-ray disc on an HDTV set. But even the studios understand a consumer’s reluctance to shell out big bucks in order to reoutfit an entire DVD library.

The forward-thinking folks at Warner Bros. have one innovative solution: DVD2Blu.com. The premise is simple: Trade in your current DVD titles for a new Blu-ray version for as little as $7.95 per movie. Of course, it’s Warner-only titles, and so far there are just fifty-five from which to choose. But with classic titles such as An American in Paris and Rio Bravo, a tri-fecta of Kubrick films (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket), cult classics like Dark City and The Lost Boys, and more being added, it’s certainly one cost-effective way to update a personal movie collection.

“DVD2Blu is a great way for consumers to start or expand their Blu-ray disc collection,” says Dorinda Marticorena, Warner Home Video’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing and high definition. “We’re launching the program with a wide range of titles that will appeal to a broad audience. In the coming months, we’re looking to expand the program and make additional rifles available.”

Though largely the domain of big-budget blockbusters with names such as “Michael Bay” behind them, like DVD before it, a funny thing has been happening to Blu-ray lately. As the high-definition format finds firmer footing in the consumer marketplace, studio executives are feeling emboldened to begin cracking open their back catalogs to find more universally appealing “classic” titles that could work for a larger, Blu-ray audience.

“Action and new releases seem to be the biggest sellers on Blu-ray, but classics like The Godfather also sell,” says Stephanie Prange, editor-in-chief of Home Media Magazine, of Paramount’s pioneering foray into the Blu-ray market in late 2008 with a disc that included Francis Ford Coppola’s crime trilogy in all its dark (thank you, Gordon Willis), grainy glory.

With a reputation for painstaking restorations and a client base that doesn’t balk at spending $30 to $80 per pristine title, it’s not surprising that Criterion was one of the first distributors to adopt the Blu-ray technology for classic films. In October of 2008, Criterion released its first slate of Blu-rays–an eclectic sampling that included Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. To date, the studio offers more than forty titles on Blu-ray, with plans to release Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, and a box set of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro this summer.

But don’t expect Criterion to convert its entire DVD collection to Blu-ray in the near future. With many of the company’s titles being owned by Studio-Canal, proprietors of the world’s third largest film library, Lionsgate is now working with the French production company to release a handful of its classic titles stateside.

“Lionsgate has been one of the biggest supporters of the Blu-ray format since our first wave of titles came out in 2006,” says marketing brand manager Amanda Kozlowski. “But consumers were most excited about the capabilities of seeing explosive, action-oriented movies like Terminator 2 in Hi-Def at first. So that’s where we, like other studios, focused our efforts.”

As pricing for Blu-ray players and discs has decreased–by the end of 2009, The Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) estimated that some seventeen million households owned Blu-ray hardware–Kozlowski says “the Blu-ray market has grown considerably … so that afforded us the opportunity to look beyond the traditional genres that have worked so well on Blu-ray with an eye toward satisfying what is now a really diverse consumer base.”

In looking to capitalize on a broader market of cinephiles, Lionsgate needed to look past its catalog of Saw films and other genre fare. “StudioCanal came up with a great strategy and look for what became the StudioCanal Collection,” says Kozlowski, “and we were thrilled to be able to distribute those titles in the U.S. market.” The first batch of titles, released in February, included Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, and Kurosawa’s Ran–the latter two of which were previously given the Criterion treatment on DVD.

“Together we culled through their vast library–one of the biggest in the world–and came up with a list of their most acclaimed, international films that we thought U.S. consumers would be most interested to see on Blu-ray,” Kozlowski notes of the reasoning behind the three initial releases.

Audience, of course, is the key; because of the Blu-ray format’s precise specifications, launching a title takes more than a quick transfer from DVD. For example, Warner Home Video’s Fiftieth anniversary edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, released in November, cost the studio $1 million to restore.

Luckily, Warner Home Video’s senior vice president of marketing/theatrical catalog, George Feltenstein, is one of classic cinema’s fiercest advocates. To date, he has helped the studio bring new, Blu-ray life to a host of iconic projects, including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Casablanca.

“I don’t think you’ll find anyone on the planet complaining more about the lack of classic releases on Blu-ray than me,” Feltenstein told High-Def Digest in February 2009. He went on to describe the lack of classic Blu-ray titles on retail shelves as “horrible, ridiculous and frustrating” and posited the catch-22 that many consumers had yet to make the transition to Blu-ray as a result of there not being enough available titles to entice them. “The fact that we are in a recession/depression and the world’s economy is going to hell in a handbasket doesn’t help things,” he added.

Though Feltenstein pointed out that restoring a classic film can often mean starting from scratch, Kozlowski counters that–unlike new films that are coming to DVD and Blu-ray fresh off their theatrical runs–“We’re dealing with mostly classic product that’s not on a certain timeframe. So if we need to devote more attention to a certain title, we have the freedom to do so.”

“Studios have combed through libraries and back lots to find extra material,” says Prange of the time it takes to assemble a worthwhile title. “Some material has been found in people’s basements. Studios have employed the help of film critics and relatives to do commentaries when none of the original players are available or alive. At Warner, they’ve consulted with the original directors and cine-matographers to make sure they get the color and contrast just right.”

This has been the case at Paramount, too (the second major studio to release a Blu-ray disc). The studio’s new DVD and Blu-ray release of The African Queen is a project six years in the making–beginning at Romulus Films, where the original three-strip negative still existed, and including a screening of that print with the film’s cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, to better understand the filmmakers’ original intentions.

With only five Blu-ray titles in its collection so far, Kino, America’s leading distributor of silent cinema, is another company that seems to concur with the slow-but-steady method of DVD releases. In November, the company entered the Blu-ray market with Buster Keaton’s The General, which has been one of the company’s best-selling titles throughout each of its iterations (VHS, laser disc, and DVD), making it a natural choice.

“You look for the best of the best,” says Eric Wilkinson, Kino’s vice president of DVD sales and distribution. “The General is in the top fifteen films of all time according to Sight & Sound and it’s on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Films fist. Despite its age, it’s something that people want to own. And people who want to own this movie want as close as they can get to the original theatrical experience. This transfer on Blu-ray does just that.”

Unlike other classic titles, which need to be Frankensteined together by talented restoration experts, Keaton’s comedy is one film where the original 1926 negative has survived with relatively few blemishes to the print.

“What I like about it is that the film is restored, but not to the point where they digitally ‘scrubbed’ it, for lack of a better term,” continues Wilkinson. “It doesn’t look like it was filmed yesterday. While, on one end, it’s a razor-sharp print and it looks beautiful, there are elements in the film that would be inherent to seeing it when it was originally released that are still in there. There’s grain, of course, because it was shot on film, and then the occasional hair. They didn’t clean it up so much that it looked fake or like a new movie trying to look old.”

Though the proliferation of classic titles on Blu-ray appears to be slow in coming, Prange notes that “Some high-profile catalog came out much faster on Blu-ray than it did on DVD. For instance, The Godfather came out in 2008 on Blu-ray, just two years after the format launched; that’s twice as fast as it took to hit DVD.”

“Studios really wanted to boost the Blu-ray market,” she claims. Which should offer some sense of relief to those on the fence about switching to the newer format. With studios on board and excited about pushing the format, they’re investing a lot of money for the long-term–and won’t be looking to jump ship to a new format any time soon. Not even digital streaming, a medium that Blu-ray can complement.

Mike Atteberry, editor-in-chief of High-Def Digest, believes that “Blu-ray is going to be around for a while. Many of the studios are wisely positioning Blu-ray releases by including digital copies and DVDs along with the Blu-rays, so movies can be played in all rooms (and probably in minivans nationwide), even as Blu-ray players enter more homes and venues. As many players also allow for playback of streaming movies and downloads, it sets Blu-ray up as another viewing option (the best as of now), but doesn’t make it an either/or situation.”

Even Troma–home of The Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD–is getting in on the act. “We at Troma are experts at losing money,” says the studio’s cofounder, Lloyd Kaufman. “We were arguably the first studio to make DVDs; everything was great except that nobody yet had DVD players. With Blu-ray, we waited. Now that Blu-ray has proven expensive and not really popular with a lot of our fans, we have decided to plunge in and lose more money,” he laughs. Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead launched in February, followed by Tromeo & Juliet and Class of Nuke ‘Em High.

Though it’s now a distant memory, the “format war” is one reason why Blu-ray titles in general (not just classics) have had a long road to retail shelves. “Initially, because of the format war, the companies and studios siding with HD DVD or Blu-ray were rolling out their latest and greatest blockbusters in an effort to convince buyers to make a move toward one side or the other based on the titles available on each,” says Atteberry. “Once Blu-ray came out as the dominant HD format, I think it was just natural for studios to switch their existing high-def catalogs over to Blu-ray first, then start working their way through the rest of their catalogs, often starting with the more recent films since, in theory, unless something has gone really wrong, a newer release’s picture and audio elements should be in excellent condition.”

But could the dearth of classic titles be a result of demand more than supply? Are classic film lovers, as a general rule, not as quick to adopt newer technologies? “I actually think true classic film fans are among the first to adopt new technologies once they see the benefits for themselves,” suggests Atteberry. “Show someone a Blu-ray of Casablanca, then ask them to go home and watch their old DVD copy. I’m pretty sure they’ll spend the next hour and forty-two minutes making plans to revisit Rick’s in high definition as soon as possible.”

While the new release titles Twilight, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and The Hangover proved to be the highest-grossing Blu-rays of 2009, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the overall best-selling, according to the DEG. In fact, in an overall home entertainment market that sank five percent in sales, Blu-ray was the one “bright spot,” according to the organization’s end-of-year report for 2009. Sales of Blu-ray devices were up seventy-six percent, with more than $500 million in revenue in discs generated in the fourth quarter alone. (Clearly, it was a very Blu holiday season.)

“The home entertainment business is doing remarkably well given the overall economic environment,” noted DEG president Ron Sanders, who is also president of Warner Home Video. “With Blu-ray titles topping $1 billion in sales and Blu-ray hardware now in seventeen million homes, the format is well on its way to mainstream consumer adoption,” added DEG chairman Bob Chapek, also president of distribution for The Walt Disney Studios (the studio behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

“I think classic films are every bit as important to the Blu-ray marketplace as recent blockbusters,” offers Atteberry. “High-Def Digest readers always want to know if a new release title is hitting Blu-ray with high quality video and audio, but they seem to be just as interested, if not more so, in knowing that a film like The Third Man, Gone with the Wind, or The Wizard of Oz has been given the attention these classic films deserve. If a studio invests the necessary time and money into restoring a classic film for high definition home video release, I’m confident Blu-ray customers will make it more than worth their while.”

Which means it is up to the consumer–and classic film lovers in particular–to make the demand known so that additional classic titles will be brought to Blu-ray. “The more that quality films are available on Blu-ray, the more that film lovers are going to buy Blu-ray players,” concludes Kozlowski. “And that’s how we’re able to offer a foreign-language classic like Contempt on Blu-ray, so that everyone can enjoy it in the best viewing experience possible. And if Lionsgate/Studio-Canal or another studio can find a way to generate interest in the art of film amongst new consumers, there’s also an artistic value on that which goes beyond dollars and cents.

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