Kaleidescape leaves Hollywood blu in the face

Well, here we go again. With its five-year litigation with the DVD Copy Control Association over its original DVD jukebox still not resolved, Kaleidescape Systems on Tuesday announced plans to roll out a new disc player that will import high-def movies from Blu-ray Discs onto Kaleidescape home media servers, along with conventional DVDs and CDs. The new player, the M500, won’t actually ship until May 18, which gives the studios (or the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator, the Blu-ray equivalent of DVD-CCA) a week to try to file a new suit and persuade a court to issue a temporary restraining order preventing the M500 from shipping.

Assuming they decide to sue, that is. On the face of it, Tuesday’s announcement by Kaleidescape would seem to invite a very similar lawsuit as the one DVD-CCA filed against the company back in 2004. As it did with its original DVD system, Kaleidescape secured all the necessary technology licenses needed to build a Blu-ray player, including a license for the AACS copy-protection system. Also as with the CSS copyright protection system for DVDs, Kaleidescape maintains the AACS license does not, as a legal matter, prohibit the copying of Blu-ray discs, at least not in the manner by which Kaleidescape creates a hard-drive copy of the movie.

In the case of DVDs, of course, the DVD-CCA, which oversees the CSS license, had a very different interpretation of what was and was not permitted under the license agreement, and sued Kaleidescape in California state court for breach of contract on grounds that the Kaleidescape player violated the provisions in the license agreement that prohibit copying.

In April 2007, however, the trial court found that the rules purporting to prohibit copying were not actually part of the CSS license because they were contained in a separate document that was not incorporated by reference into the main license agreement. That finding rendered the question of whether Kaleidescape had actually violated the rules moot — you can’t be in breach of what’s not in the contract — so the court never decided the question.

DVD-CCA appealed the decision and in August, the California Court of Appeal overruled the lower court, declaring that the rules regarding copying were, in fact, properly part of the contract. Since that was the only question before it, however, the appeals court also reached no decision on whether Kaleidescape had actually violated the rules. Instead, the case was sent back for a new trial to determine whether in fact the rules prohibit copying and whether in fact Kaleidescape is not in compliance with those rules. Read More »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Alarm bells come too late for Sony Pictures

The memo Sony Pictures co-chiefs Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal sent to employees Monday announcing massive layoffs, most of which will fall in the home entertainment and IT divisions, obviously wasn’t meant to be made public. But it’s fitting that it was leaked when it was, the same day that Bernstein Research analysts Michael Nathanson and Peter Choi published what amounted to an obituary for packaged media as a profit driver for Hollywood.

According to Bernstein:

  • For 2009-2012, we [previously] forecast overall U.S. home entertainment industry revenues to decline at a -2.1% CAGR. This underscores the mature nature of the industry, plus the importance of share gains for individual players. Over this time frame, aggregate operating profit declines of low single digits are also expected.
  • Now one year later, looking at the cold hard facts of 2009, retail spending on sell-through DVDs and Blu-Ray discs dropped by -18% while rental of these products actually increased by 4%. As a result, the sell-through of physical discs declined from 63% of the market to 57%.
  • This massive change in behavior continues to have negative implications for studio profitability as every home video executive would rather book the $16 of profit contribution per transaction from selling a disc vs. the $3.50 to $1.40 per disc profit contribution from rental.
  • [snip]
  • Our analysis also shows that the Blu-Ray format is having a more modest acceptance rate that traditional DVD. In 2009, three years after its introduction, Blu-Ray’s penetration of TV households stood at 4.4%, compared to 13.0% for DVDs in 2000. We also find that Blu-Ray [sic] has seen lower numbers of titles shipped per converted household relative to DVD. We don’t see Blu-Ray stemming the decline of physical sales. Read More »

Another strike against three-strikes?

More from the be careful what you wish for files: As The Media Wonk noted in a previous post, there is more to France’s three-strikes law than just three-strikes. One less-discussed provision is the strict regulation of movie release windows by the government, taking a key strategic decision out of the hands of the studios. One early victim of that provision appears to be Twentieth Century-Fox, which has scheduled the release of Avatar on Blu-ray and DVD in France for June 1–several months earlier than ordinary business considerations would dictate but necessary to comply with the law.

That provision isn’t the only booby-trap in the law for content owners, however.

The Creation and Internet law, after all, which went into effect on Jan. 1, wasn’t passed only to crack down on digital piracy. It was also intended to promote the legal availability of “multimedia” content on digital platforms. As it turned out, content owners probably should have paid more attention to that end of the deal.

In the spirit of promoting availability, France’s Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, ordered up a commission to study and make recommendations on ways to facilitate availability. To head the commission, Mitterrand named Patrick Zelnik, CEO of Naive Records, which happens to be the label for which French First Lady and pop chanteuse Carla Bruni-Sarkozy records (that’s just the way they do things in France).

The Mission Zelnik, as the commission came to be known, issued its recommendations in early January, and they included a number of surprises. Topping the list was a proposal to implement a collective rights licensing scheme for music on digital linear platforms (i.e. webcasts), in effect a compulsory license. The commission also recommended a “voluntary” collective licensing scheme for non-linear platforms (downloads and on-demand streaming), with the stipulation that if the industry can’t come up with a satisfactory “voluntary” scheme within a year the government should mandate one. Read More »

'Avatar' blogging blues

My post the other day on the Blu-ray Disc release of Avatar in France generated quite a bit of traffic and commentary on other web sites (thank you Engadget HD), as well as attracting a few comments here. Alas, most of it has been critical.

While it’s always tempting to blame the critics for missing your point, as a general rule if a large number of people appear to have missed your point you probably didn’t do a very good job making it in the first place. So: mea culpa.

Let my try to clarify some issues:

Notwithstanding Ben from Engadget’s diligent research in IMDB, there really aren’t other movies comparable to Avatar. True, there have been other blockbusters in the past five years, most or all of which may have been released on DVD/Blu-ray within six months. But there haven’t been others with a $450 million negative cost and an inherently longer theatrical cume period due to the still-limited number of 3D screens. Read More »

For 'Avatar,' three-strikes means a quick out

From the be careful what you wish for file: Twentieth Century-Fox’s Avatar, which is rapidly approaching the top spot among all-time global box-office grosses, and would likely be the biggest selling Blu-ray title to date when released at Christmas time, will actually be released on June 1st, at least in most of the world. Amazon France is already taking pre-orders, for 28.99 euros.

Why not wait until the most propitious time of year to release such a monster title in order to maximize sales? Because it would be against the law in France to wait beyond June 1. And if you release it in France, under EU rules, you’ve effectively released it throughout the EU. And if you release it in the EU, you’ve effectively released it throughout Blu-ray’s Region B, which includes Africa and the Middle East as well as Australia and New Zealand, where they speak a version of English. And if you’re going to release a movie with an English soundtrack in Region B, you might as well release it in Region A, which includes the United States, because it’s going to end up on the Internet sooner or later, probably sooner.

Welcome to life under France’s new three-strikes regime.   Read More »

TV vs. Cable

The Media Wonk spent last week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show where, everybody said, 3DTV would be the big story. And sure enough, nearly everywhere you went on the show floor folks were sporting either polarized shades or the full Geordi La Forge wraparounds and squinting at the new 3D displays tucked into carefully light-controlled alcoves of the display booths, like so many bug-eyed NFL refs going under the hood.

Yet for all the hoopla over 3D, the really important TV story out of CES was the explosion of embedded applications on Internet-capable HDTVs and Blu-ray players for bringing over-the-top (i.e. Internet-delivered) video into the living room. A year ago at CES there were only a few such TV sets on display, from a handful of manufacturers, and about all you could do with them was run a few Yahoo widgets and stream Netflix movies. At this year’s show, it was hard to find a home entertainment device that wasn’t Internet-ready, and if it didn’t come with its own app store it came embedded with one of the growing number of online content platforms from the likes of Vudu, DivX, Rovi and Boxee, among others.

Far more than 3D, set-makers’ growing commitment to enabling over-the-top video delivery to HDTV screens holds the potential to shake up the future evolution of the TV business. Read More »

Not sure I want my 3D TV, yet

Old joke: A chicken and egg are having sex. The chicken climaxes, rolls over, lights a cigarette and says, “Well I guess that settles that.”

chicken-egg-bed-came-firstPoint taken, at least as far as poultry is concerned. But it still takes both partners to get to the punchline. What about cases where you lack a partner?

I’m thinking, naturally, of 3D TV, which is rapidly emerging as the last, best hope of the consumer electronics industry. With the bottom all-but out of flat-panel display prices, major set makers are placing big bets on 3D technology heading into next month’s CES in Las Vegas. On Thursday, Sony inked a pact with RealD to license its 3D eyewear technology, and it, along with Panasonic, Samsung and LG will be showing off new 3D TV sets in their booths at the show.

Earlier in the week, the Blu-ray Disc Assn. finalized the technical spec for Blu-ray 3D, which also, no doubt, will make an appearance at CES.

The timing of all this 3D activity is in some measure fortuitous. CES will be opening on the heels of James Cameron’s $350 million 3D extravaganza, “Avatar,” which many 3D boosters in the CE industry will do for consumer interest in the process what “The Jazz Singer” did for talkies (both the movie and the 3D effects are drawing raves). Assuming it’s indeed a huge hit, “Avatar” will probably be released on Blu-ray sometime in 2011, just in time for the expected roll out of 3D-capable players (PlayStation 3 consoles can be made 3D capable sooner with a firmware upgrade). Read More »

Coming full circle on video rentals

I have covered the home video industry for as long as it’s been an industry. And it never ceases to amaze me the lengths to which the Hollywood studios will go to try to deny the reality of consumer demand. The latest case in point: their scheme to stop the shift in consumer spending from DVD purchases to DVD rentals by carving out a sales-only window before movies would be widely available for rental.

Since the studios can’t legally bar retailers from renting the “sales-only” copies (the First Sale Doctrine, and all that) they would have buy the rental outfits off, presumably by offering them a lower wholesale price for DVDs if the retailers agree to delay the rental window. In his third-quarter earnings call last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings suggested the DVD-by-mail service might agree to go along.

“If we can agree on low-enough pricing, delayed rental could potentially increase profits for everyone,” Hastings said.

If Netflix were to go along, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Blockbuster getting on board as well; it could use the earnings boost even more than Netflix could.  The trickiest case would be kiosk operator Redbox, which has been growing rapidly on the strength of dollar-a-night rentals, much to the chagrin of the studios. Relations are tense between Redbox and Hollywood, so a deal might be tough to negotiate. But it might be a way to resolved the litigation between the kiosk company and the studios.

Independent retailers would probably balk at the deal, seeing instead an opportunity to grab some market share back from the big boys by offering earlier rentals. But Netflix, Blockbuster and Redbox, along with perhaps a few other large chains (Movie Gallery/Hollywood) have enough market share among them at this point that the system might basically work.

Ironically, creating a protected sales window would completely invert standard industry practice back in the VHS days, when the studios maintained a protected rental window by pricing videocassettes at an un-sellable $99, before knocking the price down to twenty bucks or so three to six months later. But it would be no more consumer-friendly.

How about this, studios: Price all DVDs at $10, out of the gate, and make them available in 70,000 supermarket outlets nationwide. If consumers still wanted to rent, they could rent. But how many of those supermarkets would be putting in Redbox kiosks if they were simultaneously selling cassettes for $8.99, on sale? I’d guess about none.

You want to sell a gussied-up version with a bunch of extras and try to get $15 for it as a second SKU, go ahead. Knock yourselves out. Maybe you could get that for the Blu-ray, too. But a $10 base price would triple (or greater the size of the retail base for DVDs and make it easier for consumers to spend their money on packaged movies than on other entertainment options.

OMGZ! OUR MARGINS, I can hear the cries from Century City to Burbank. But what’s the point of protecting your margins if  you’re driving consumers out of the category? Why would you assume, at a time when aggregate consumer spending on DVDs is in free-fall, that you could convert any large number of Redbox renters into buyers at $15 – $25 a pop by actively frustrating their ability to rent?

The studios have been mis-pricing DVDs for a long time — from long before consumer spending started to decline — just as they’ve completely mismanaged the Blu-ray roll out (to say nothing of the high-def format battle that preceded it). They’re now paying the price for that mismanagement. Doubling-down on the same strategy isn’t going to fix the problem.

Is MKV the MP3 of video?

The release of the Napster client in 1999 is seen by most in the music industry as a watershed event. It was the moment when millions of people began “trading” individual music tracks over the Internet and–in the received version of the story–stopped buying CDs. The industry’s response was, first, panic, then to attempt to get the genie back in the bottle by suing Napster and its creators Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. That led to similar suits against Friendster, Aimster, Grokster,  and any other peer-to-peer network “operator” the RIAA could identify clearly enough to serve with papers.  

napster-logoWhat had really hit the music industry, however, wasn’t P2P technology so much as the MP3 codec. The first MP3 encoder was released in 1994, and by 1995 it was being used in commercial consumer software such as WinPlay, and later WinAmp. Using MP3 compression, WinPlay users could store tracks ripped from a CD on a hard drive in files that were a fraction of their original size (a critical issue at the time given the small size of most consumer hard drives), albeit with some loss of sound quality. All Fanning had really done was to figure out a practical way to tie those hard drives together into ad hoc networks so that compressed music files could be exchanged at the relatively slow bandwidth speeds then generally available. Read More »

Toshiba now officially Blu

Toshiba on Monday officially confirmed last month’s rumor that it’s preparing to join the Blu-ray Disc ranks, issuing a one-paragraph statement saying it will roll out Blu-ray products, including set-top players and notebook drives “in the course of this year.”

“In light of recent growth in digital devices supporting the Blu-ray format, combined with market demand from consumers and retailers alike, Toshiba has decided to join the BDA (Blu-ray Disc Association),” the statement said.

blu-ray_disc_logoThat immediately led to speculationthat Apple will be next to join the Blu-ray camp, completing the format’s sweep of the field among electronics makers.

I can’t speak to Apple, but as I noted in a previous post, I think Toshiba’s new-found support for the format has more to do with Toshiba’s business than with Blu-ray.

Why? Because the electronics maker just wrapped up the worst fiscal year in its history, posting a record et loss of $3.5 billion for the year ended in March and things haven’t gotten better since then. The Consumer Electronics Assn. is forecasting total industry sales to be off nearly 8% this year and to turn around only gradually in 2010. About the only bright spot in the CEA forecast was Blu-ray players, which are expected to grow by 112% this year, to 6 million units.

Today’s announcement also comes on the eve of the CEDIA Expo custom installers’ show, which is scheduled to get under way in Atlanta on Sept. 9 and is an important event for CE makers. Installers these days generally like to include a Blu-ray player and their set ups and right now there’s a hole in Toshiba’s product line-up. That means it can’t sell installers complete home-theater packages and is likely losing high-end market share to manufacturers that do offer Blu-ray players. Though Toshiba said it has not decided whether to display its new Blu-ray players at CEDIA, it has at least alerted an important constituency that it is plugging the glaring hole in its product line.

The biggest reason to suspect today’s news is more about Toshiba’s business than about Blu-ray, though, is that Toshiba is still selling HD DVD players in China, under the China Blue High Definition (CBHD) banner.

Desperate times, desperate measures.

Feels like old times

Some news out of China last week laid a nostalgia trip on those of us who covered the long saga of the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD format war. According to a report in the Timesof London, a recently introduced high-def DVD format developed in China, called China Blue High Definition (CBHD), is already outselling Blu-ray in the Peoples’ Republic by a margin of three-to-one.

bluray-vs-hddvdThe Times called the development a “new format war” but it’s really a continuation of the same format war that had simply gone underground after Toshiba pulled the plug on HD DVD  in the West back in February 2008.

The roots of CBHD go back to 2005, when the Chinese government set out to “break the monopoly” of Western and Japanese companies on the technology underlying the DVD format by creating new intellectual property controlled by China to be used in a next-generation format.

In 2007, the DVD Forum fomally approved specificationsfor a “China-only” version of the HD DVD standard, which was to be based on the HD DVD physical specs developed by Toshiba and Chinese-developed audio and video codecs. Instead of MPEG 2, VC-1 and H.264, for instance, the Chinese format would support only the Advanced Video System (AVS) developed in China, saving Chinese manufacturers boat-loads in royalty payments to foreign technology owners. Read More »