Final thoughts on the format war

With the dust settling on the high definition format war, I
wanted to add my voice to the ever-growing chorus of opinions on what the
future holds.

It’s not really surprising that HD DVD sales are spiking.
Look at the price blowouts. Amazon recently dumped the Toshiba HD-A35 for $169,
with free shipping. Even I couldn’t resist that, since it’s a superb upscaling
DVD player for standard definition DVDs. I could see it in many of my standard
def movies on the first night, and that was without calibrating it.

The A35 special, done through TigerDirect, is already over.
Once word got out that a $600 player was selling for around one-quarter the
price, it sold fast. Last night at Best Buy, I saw a stack of open players
selling ridiculously cheap as well. The Microsoft XBox 360 add-on drive is now
$49 (it used to be $179).

Likewise, software is going fast. Amazon is selling off HD
DVD titles starting at $11.49. The Hollywood Video chain is dumping its rental
discs for just $7.95. I spent one day this past weekend roaming the San
Francisco peninsula, searching out one Hollywood Video after another with the
GPS (thank you, Garmin) but word travels fast on the Internet, and the pickings
were very meager.

So there will be one final burst of HD DVD sales as the
format dies. The players are perfectly fine DVD players and an HD DVD movie
looks every bit as good as Blu-ray. This format war was never about whose
movies looked and sounded better. It wasn’t like VHS vs. Beta, where there was
a clear technological gap in quality. Both Blu-ray and HD DVD are 1080p with
Dolby Digital, DTS or high definition audio. So if you stock up on HD discs,
they will look exactly like their inevitable Blu-ray counterpart.

What Lies Ahead

Now everyone is looking to the future and the prognosticators
are wondering aloud if it was a pointless victory for Sony as we will do
everything on-demand. Having spent two years running a DVD review site and
corresponding with hundreds of readers, I can tell you that it’s not the format
makers who have something to fear from on-demand.

You see, DVD created a culture of collection that was pretty
much unheard of in the VHS days. Very few people built libraries of VHS tapes,
since the things degraded, weren’t easy to navigate, etc. DVD didn’t degrade
with use and you could jump to your favorite scene.

The result is people building libraries of movies and buying
them on the day of release, something unheard of in the days of VHS. Until DVD
came along, no one bought a movie the day it came out, you rented it, period.
The collections on DVD Aficionado are nothing short of impressive, and I’m sure
warm the hearts of studios.

I think people will always want to own their favorite
materials so they can watch them or show them off whenever they want. So I
think a market will remain for hard copy media.

On-demand is a problem for video stores, not for DVD sales. I
believe the ownership culture is fairly engrained and the analogy to music
doesn’t work. We’re not talking a four-minute song, we’re talking two hour

Hollywood Video’s parent company is in Chapter 11.
Blockbuster is ailing. Mom and pop video stores are dying as well. The staple
that kept independent stores going, adult video, has gone almost entirely to
the Web.

The price needs to come down, though. Movies on demand from
Comcast run $5.99. Blockbuster is at least $1 to $1.50 cheaper. That can add up
quick. Netflix is even cheaper if you can watch and return them and get more in
quickly in the course of a month.

Its Worst Enemy Will Be…

Really, I think high definition may be a victim of its own
success, in that it shows too much. Never mind the vain actors and news/TV
hosts kvetching about how it reveals their flaws. Watching movies in high
definition really kills suspension of disbelief because it so glaringly exposes
special effects and make up.

Nowhere was this more obvious than while watching a Blu-ray
demo at Best Buy on a Sony Bravia TV (want want want, as they say on Fark). It
was the first “Fantastic Four” movie, during a crash sequence on a bridge where a
fire engine ladder truck loses control and ends up dangling over the edge of
the bridge, a fireman hanging on for dear life hundreds of feet up.

Except he wasn’t. The “water” under him was so patently
fake as to be a joke. I’ve seen more realistic water in PlayStation 2 games.
The effect was to immediately kill my suspension of disbelief. Since then, I
have seen a number of movies where the effects were glaringly bad. The Neo vs.
100 Agent Smiths fight in “The Matrix Reloaded,” for example, is jarringly fake.
Some shots in “The House of Flying Daggers” were downright cartoony, although that is also one of the worst-looking DVDs out there.

In the end, I can’t help but wonder if HDTV/high definition
DVD will do itself more harm than good, exposing the man behind the curtain and
ruining the magic of the movie. Planet Earth is stunning in Blu-ray, probably
the best demo disc for the format. But effects movies may have their cover
blown by showing us too much.

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