Studios pledge high-definition movies by year-end

When it comes to high-definition video discs, movie fans finally have something more to look forward to than a format battle. Three major Hollywood studios and hardware makers backing the HD-DVD format committed on Thursday to releasing players and high-definition movies by the end of this year.

Toshiba, NEC and Sanyo Electric said players for the format will be available, starting as early as September this year, and Warner Home Video, Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures announced 89 titles that will be available on the new format at or close to its launch in the fourth quarter of this year.

The announcement, which took place at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, marks the first time that any major Hollywood studio has committed to a release schedule and provided names of titles that are set for release in high-definition format.

Companies supporting the rival Blu-ray Disc format Thursday announced new support for their format from Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, Electronic Arts and Vivendi Universal Games. However, a launch schedule for Blu-ray Disc has not yet been defined as clearly as that for HD-DVD. Sony said Wednesday that it plans to release content on Blu-ray Disc sometime in 2006, but did not provide more specific details.

"HD-DVD is reality, Blu-ray Disc is imaginary," said Hiroshi Inada, chief research manager of NEC's Media and Information Research Laboratories. NEC is using CES to show its latest prototype HD-DVD drive for personal computers, which is a standard 'half-height' type drive and is compatible with both the new format and also DVD and CD.

High-definition movie titles coming this year include around 50 titles from the Warner Home Video, New Line Cinema and HBO units of Warner Bros. These will include several new movies, including Batman Begins, Constantine, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Warner will also offer titles from the Matrix and Harry Potter series. Paramout said it will release around 20 titles, including The Manchurian Candidate and the upcoming Elizabethtown. Universal named 16 movies including Van Helsing, The Bourne Supremacy and The Chronicles of Riddick.

"This is very encouraging," said Hisashi Yamada, chief fellow of Toshiba's digital media network division. "First we got commitment (from Hollywood) but no actual schedule. Today, they announced titles to be launched on HD-DVD."

For Toshiba and other hardware makers, the announcement increases the pressure on them to get their first devices ready in time, Yamada said.

Toshiba and Sanyo said they plan to offer HD-DVD players in the fourth quarter. NEC said it will have a read-only PC drive in September and a rewritable drive available before the end of the year. Toshiba also said it plans to put on sale a notebook PC with HD-DVD support by the end of 2005.

Things yet to be announced are the precise regional roll-out plan for HD-DVD and the price of the discs and players, although some clues were provided.

Initial roll-out of the format is likely in the U.S. and Japan. Europe will come later, partly because there is little high-definition broadcasting or televisions in Europe at present. The roll-out of titles is likely to follow the current practice for DVDs, and so come after the theatrical run of the movie. Because most movies are launched first in the U.S., titles are likely to be available earlier in that market.

On pricing, HD-DVD discs are likely to cost more than current DVDs at launch, said Dominic DallaVerde, senior director of disc preproduction at disc maker Cinram International Inc. However, in time the price is expected to fall to close to DVD, he said.

So far the only indication of player pricing has come from Toshiba, which has said it is aiming for a price of under US$1,000.

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