Blu-ray: Licensed to be killed

Back in 2008, explaining the lack of Blu-ray Disc drives on Apple’s newest line of notebooks, CEO Steve Jobs famously described the licensing process around the format as “a bag of hurt.” After this week’s announcement by the newly formed BD4C Licensing Group, he’s going to need some more bags.

Photo: ArsTechnica

The members of the new group, Toshiba, Warner Bros., Thomson and Mitsubishi, claim to own, collectively, a portfolio of patents “that are essential for BD Products.” Though none of the four are known to have contributed much original IP to the Blu-ray spec, they do own a number of patents essential to DVD products. Insofar as the Blu-ray spec requires that BD devices be backwardly compatible with the older format, device makers are stuck (or stuck up, depending on which end of the deal you’re on), to the tune of $4.50 per Blu-ray player, $7.00 per Blu-ray recorder and $4.00 per Blu-ray drive.

Blu-ray media manufacturers and replicators are also on the hook, the group claims, for 4 cents per disc and 8 cents per BD/DVD flipper disc. Read More »

Memo to Hollywood: You can't go backwards on consumer functionality

Back when the VCR first appeared, along with the video-rental market it spawned, it offered consumers something they had never had before in their home entertainment experience: do-it-yourself programmability. Renting a movie from the video store bought you not just two hours of entertainment. It bought you any two hours of entertainment–on your own schedule, continuous or not, experienced once or repeatedly–anywhere you had a VCR, which fairly quickly became anywhere you had a TV. In exchange for that flexibility, consumers were willing to suffer the inconvenience of a return trip to the video store.

The studios flattered themselves by insisting their content was “king,” and that their movies provided most of the value for renters. But the evidence says otherwise. For a decade and a half, consumers routinely put up with having to rent something other than their first choice of title because the basic value proposition of renting–any two hours of entertainment–was greater than the value of any particular title. Read More »

Walmart Does That VOD Vudu

Let’s stipulate that the $100 million price tag being bandied about for Walmart’s acquisition of Vudu is exaggerated, or includes various earn-out targets that likely will never be met, making the ultimate price something less than nine figures. Walmart hinted at as much in its press release, indicating the acquisition would “not be material” to its first fiscal quarter despite being scheduled to close within that period, suggesting there are triggers and contingencies in the deal that will play out over time, if at all.

Yet the fact that we’re even talking about a price that could reach into the $100 million ballpark suggests there’s something more going on here than meets the eye.

Or maybe not. Perhaps, as has been suggested, Vudu,  somehow, simply blew smoke up Walmart’s ass and convinced it to overpay for a marginal VOD provider. Or perhaps, as Streaming Media’s Dan Rayburn argues, Walmart simply doesn’t know what it’s doing in digital delivery and is setting itself up for another massive VOD fail.

But I think that’s too narrow a view of what Walmart is up to.

From Walmart’s perspective, Vudu has a number of valuable assets that make it more than simply a VOD provider with some nice content licensing deals. One of those is the HDX encoding format, which Vudu introduced back in 2008. With HDX, Vudu claims, it can deliver genuine 1080p video over the Internet in 4.5 Mbs of bandwidth. The format is optimized for LCD and plasma screens over 40-inches in size and incorporates a process Vudu calls TruFilm, which simulates the cinematic experience in a home theater by preserving film grain and other textural qualities of film. Read More »

Seeing Red over copyright

Having failed to put forth a competitive consumer proposition to counter Redbox’s dollar-a-night DVD rentals, the studios are on the verge of accomplishing what, from the point of view of their own economic interests, is the next best thing: they have brought the rental kiosk operator to heel and effectively forced it to accept a 28-day window after street date before it begins loading their DVD releases into its ever-expanding red maw.

On Tuesday, Redbox and Warner Bros. announced an agreement to settle the litigation the kiosk company had brought against the studio last year. As part of the deal, Redbox agreed to a 28-day “vending” window and to limit sales of used Warner discs. In return, Warner will allow Redbox to acquire its releases at a lower cost and promised to “cooperate” with Redbox on possible future digital delivery ventures.

While Tuesday’s settlement applies only to Warner, it’s widely expected that similar deals are in the works with Twentieth Century-Fox and NBC Universal, which are involved in similar litigation with the Redbox. Assuming that happens, new releases will essentially disappear from Redbox kiosks.

Make no mistake. Redbox rentals were hurting DVD sales and undercutting the studios’ other revenue streams. Its dollar-a-night rentals accounted for roughly one of every five dollars consumers spent on DVDs last year, and it returned a far smaller share of that dollar to the studios than Wal-Mart sends them when it sells a DVD. And from the studios’ perspective, the trend lines were getting worse. Something had to be done. Read More »

Miscalculating movie release windows

Speaking of windows, Disney has touched off quite the firestorm in Europe over its plan to release “Alice in Wonderland” on Blu-ray and DVD just 12 weeks after its March 5 worldwide theatrical debut instead of the usual 16 to17 weeks. Holland’s National Board of Cinema Owners is up in arms, and has organized a boycott among that country’s four largest theater chains, representing some 80-85% of screens. Three top chains in the U.K. are threatening to follow suit, vowing to keep Tim Burton’s 3D extravaganza off 95% of the 3D screens in the realm unless Disney backs down.

Good luck with that. I don’t see Disney backing down on this one. It obviously picked this fight with theater owners now because it knows it has the leverage to win. “Alice in Wonderland” will be one of the biggest-grossing theatrical releases of the year, with or without wide distribution in The Netherlands, and it has “Toy Story 3” in the wings, which will be even bigger. In crude terms, the theaters currently threatening boycotts need Disney’s movies more than Disney needs their screens, and both sides know it (U.S. theater operators have more leverage, of course, which is why Disney apparently has cut some sort of deal with NATO that would let it “experiment” with windows on one or two movies a year so long as it doesn’t make a habit of it).

The real question is: why is Disney so intent on getting “Alice in Wonderland” out on DVD and Blu-ray so soon.

In an interview with CNBC last week, Disney CEO Bob Iger said the early “Alice” release would allow the studio to “put the video out before the doldrums of the summer and to put it out when the movie is very fresh in consumers’ minds.” Read More »