A Blu Love Fest

Sponsored by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment but involving all the major studio supporters of the Blu-ray format, a so-called "Blu-ray Festival" was held in Hollywood over the past two days (October 29th and 30th).

Yes, there were a few of the usual shots fired at the competition. At the entrance to the first day's breakfast session, a posted copy of a blog from online columnist Nikki Finke quoted prominent players in the Blu-ray camp who seriously questioned the reported sales statistics of the recent HD DVD release of Transformers (100,000 on the first day alone). The blog, however, also included comments from Paramount/Dreamworks, the studio that released the Blu-ray disc, defending their numbers.

During the visit by the assembled press to the Fox lot, Michael Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, noted the widely speculated-on, heavy payment that Paramount reportedly accepted for going HD DVD exclusive. He also suggested that a certain "800 pound gorilla" was supporting HD DVD in hopes that a long-running HD disc format war open the door for the dominance of pay as you go, on-line movie downloads—an outcome that could greatly profit said gorilla. He wasn't specific in naming names, but he didn't need to be.

It has been reported elsewhere that Daniel Silverberg, Vice President, HD Media Development at Warner Brothers Home Video, commented at the event that Warner was reconsidering its dual format policy and was talking up Blu-ray as the frontrunner. But Silverberg did not make this statement to the assembled press. In fact, he did not formally address the group. It is possible, however, that he made this statement in a private conversation with the parties who reported it. The same Dan Silverberg, however, stated in a panel discussion at the DisplaySearch HDTV 2007 conference in early October (reported on in the blog just below this one) that Warner had no plans to change its dual format release policy in the foreseeable future. But the only thing certain in Hollywoodland is that nothing is certain!

But for the most part the presentations were Blu-ray promotions, not format war slugfests. There were, of course references in the formal presentations and printed press handouts to the usual numbers: Blu-ray has 2:1 software sales advantage over HD DVD, 17 of the top-selling 20 titles have been on Blu-ray, 3 million Blu-ray discs have been sold through September 2007, the theatrical runs of upcoming Blu-ray titles generated $1.6 billion in domestic box office revenues, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But the event featured a lot more, including formal visits to Fox Studios and the Panasonic Hollywood Labs (PHL does the mastering for many of the top Blu-ray titles).

During the visit to Fox, studio representatives demonstrated many of the special features expected on a number of premier Fox titles scheduled for the remainder of this year and early next, including The Day After Tomorrow (already out), Independence Day, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I, Robot, the Die Hard films, and Sunshine. They were so pumped about these features that we had to ask to get them to actually show a few minutes from one or two of the films, which they did!

Asked about additional titles from Fox (a studio that went "dry" on Blu-ray releases for much of 2007), they only said that there would be a "lot" of them in 2008.

One unique new feature will appear on Fox's DVD re-release of Independence Day on November 20 (but not on the Blu-ray scheduled for the same day). The set will include a separate, standard definition transfer of the film that the user may download from the disc a maximum of twice, most likely to a computer and a portable entertainment device. The download should take about 5 minutes. The audio will be LtRt, not 5.1, and the operation is Windows only. While the 1.6Mb/sec data rate of the downloaded version is considerably lower than typical DVD data rates (and the resulting resolution was said to be slightly less than DVD's 720x480), it looked quite respectable when demonstrated on a very big screen.

This feature appears to be a test run; Fox does not believe that it will result in piracy issues (the transferred file will carry copy protection) but clearly will be watching closely for signs of abuse. It may also be significant that it's appearing on an older catalog title, not a hot new release.

The PHL visit featured the formal launch of a new Panasonic Blu-ray player, the DMP-BD30 ($500, available November 12). Despite being considerably smaller, lighter, and cheaper than Panasonic's first and now discontinued first BD player, the DMP-BD10, the new machine produces a clearly superior picture, if the side-by-side demonstration shown to us were representative. For more on this player, go here.

But the main reason for the Disney-orchestrated festival was celebration of next Tuesday's (November 6) launch of both Cars and Ratatouille on Blu-ray (and the DVD release of the latter, as well). A big, loud launch party for both of these titles capped it off on its final night.

The highlight of the scheduled events, for me, was held earlier that day—a Q&A session with Brad Bird (shown on the left in the above photo), director of both The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

Brad raved about the (um!) incredible image quality on Ratatouille—a comment that appeared to be sincere (in fact, nothing in the session smacked of prepared or random hype). There are details on the Blu-ray, Brad noted, that were not visible in most theatrical presentations. (I saw it screened in digital projection, so while I haven't yet seen the Blu-ray version I have a pretty good idea what is talking about here.) He also noted that the producer of the Blu-ray disc also produced the outstanding DVD of The Incredibles (no word from Bird on when that title might be released on Blu-ray).

A perfectionist and, for that reason, a self-admitted pain in the *** to work for, Bird insisted on fixing a few shots for the BD/DVD release that could not be fixed in time for the theatrical run. For example, keep an eye out at the end of the disc for Remy in a tiny chef's hat—the hat was not there in the theater!

Asked to name some of his favorite non-Pixar animators, Bird's first reaction, among living animators, was Miyazaki. He also mentioned the late Chuck Jones as a key influence in his own development. Not exactly unexpected choices. And when asked if Pixar pre-plans for the extras on their discs as early as the actual production of the film, he noted that they began doing this on The Incredibles.

In a subtle dig at the competition, he also noted that Pixar chooses voices for the characters based on those that best fit the part, not on the popularity or fame of the voice actors!

Bird's next directing gig will be the live-action 1906. But when asked if he planned to abandon animation for "serious" filmmaking, he definitely said no—good news for animation fans.