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Calls For One Optical HD Format At CES

While the respective participants of the burgeoning high-definition optical disc-format war flexed their muscles by parading representatives of supporting companies before a press conference here, a few key players in that battle campaigned for an 11th-hour unification of the two systems.

Speaking in his role as president of the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG), Buena Vista Home Video’s presi- dent Bob Chapek, who hours earlier spoke at a press conference supporting the merits of the larger disc capacity of the Blu-ray Disc format, told a DEG audience that that the organization should work harder to unite the Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD camps into developing or settling upon a single standard.

“The time for unification is now, before a Darwinian process of natural selection can set in, and before the expenditure of many millions with the prospect of a stunted new format being a distinct possibility,” Chapek said. “There has to be a better way. The risks are apparent, but the prospects are obvious in getting it right the very first time.”

Several weeks before CES, Chapek’s company had joined Sony Pictures in announcing plans to support the Blu-ray Disc format with movie titles, due to Blu-ray’s larger disc capacity and the claimed ability to facilitate a broad range of extra content, including interactive applications.

But with the biggest Hollywood Studios almost equally split between the two systems, he made it clear to DEG members that the best solution is a single standard.

“I think it’s safe to say nobody wants a format war. Speaking from the DEG perspective, it is just a question of what the respective parties are willing to concede in order to make such a war a moot point before it ever gets started,” Chapek continued.

“Of course it is a lot easier to say that the formats should unify and that the decks should make it happen, particularly given the significant differences in the physical formats themselves. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” Chapek said. “In fact, the considerable effort that’s been employed to bring the two sides together in the past will likely be dwarfed by the efforts from this point on.”

Chapek said the DEG, which has members lined up on both sides of the battle, is in the best position “to step up and ask our members what can be done. Otherwise a lot of money will be spent, much of it in vain, trying to beat the other guy to the punch and confusing consumers in the meantime.”

At the same DEG meeting, Best Buy’s Ron Boire, a former Sony executive, echoed Chapek’s unification call.

“We spent a lot of time over the past few months talking with a lot of members of this room about a unified format in the next generation of DVD,” Boire said. “I can say that from the voice of the consumer and from a retail perspective there is no more strategic issue to Best Buy and to our customers than this industry coming together … Best Buy’s vote and the vote of our customers is strongly behind one format, and we will encourage that.”

Meanwhile, at an earlier HD DVD meeting, representatives of the home video operations of Warner Brothers, New Line, HBO, Paramount and Universal, announced the first titles they will release in the HD DVD format to support a hardware launch later this year.

Additionally, Sanyo joined Toshiba and Thomson in announcing plans to offer an HD DVD player in the fourth quarter of 2005. A Sanyo representative said their HD DVD player will retail for around $1,000 and will out put HD signals in up to 1080i or 720p HD resolution. Warner Home Video said it plans to release over 50 titles from WHV, New Line and HBO Video starting in the fourth quarter.

Among the titles will be “Batman Begins,” “Constantine,” Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Ocean’s Twelve,” “The Polar Express,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and titles from the “The Matrix” and “Harry Potter” series.

At launch, Warner affiliate, HBO Video will release “The Sopranos,” and the miniseries “Angels In America” and “From Earth To The Moon.”

New Line Home Entertainment releases will include “Se7en,” “Blade,” “Rush Hour” and “Austin Powers.”

Paramount said it will release 20 titles in HD DVD beginning in the fourth quarter. Planned titles include: “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Elizabethtown,” “Braveheart,” “Forrest Gump,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Coach Carter,” “Italian Job,” “School of Rock,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Ghost,” “Mission Impossible 2,” “Black Rain,” “Save The Last Dance,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “U2 Rattle and Hum,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Star Trek: First Contact,” “We Were Soldiers” and “Grease.”

Universal will offer three titles for HD DVD launch including “Van Helsing,” “Bourne Supremacy” and “The Chronicle of Riddick.” In addition, the studio plans to add catalog titles including “Apollo 13,” “U-571,” “12 Monkeys,” “Dune,” “The Thing,” “End of Days,” “Backdraft,” “Waterworld,” “The Bone Collector,” “Spy Game,” “Pitch Black,” “Conan the Barbarian” and Dante’s Peak.”

Disc pricing was not announced, but one executive said it is logical to expect they will command a slight premium at first, before settling back at prices comparable to current DVDs.