Format War Heats Up in Hollywood

Next year, high definition discs and players for movies will start hitting the stores, but a battle over the discs' format may keep buyers away. Blu-Ray is the choice of Sony and most major movie studios to succeed the DVD format for home movies, but Microsoft and others surpport DVD-HD.

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High-definition discs for movies and the devices to play them will start hitting the stores next year. Images with higher resolution than DVDs and new features may tempt consumers to open their wallets, but a battle over the format of the new discs may keep many buyers away from the stores. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

Hollywood has never been afraid of a bloody battle.

(Soundbite of promotional video)

Unidentified Man: Imagine watching the graphic thriller "Sin City" and being able to load a shooting gallery bonus feature that allows you to participate in a bloodletting while continuing to watch the movie.

SYDELL: At Fox Studios in Los Angeles, a group of representatives from various movie studios and consumer electronics manufacturers displayed their weapon, the Blu-ray disc. The new format will hold more material than DVDs, and it will allow for new kinds of interactivity. So, for example, if you're watching "Pirates of the Caribbean" in English but you speak French, you'll be able to change the dialogue without stopping the movie and going back to the menu.

(Soundbite of promotional video)

Unidentified Man: The menus are seamlessly loaded directly over the movie, and the selections are instantaneous.

(Soundbite of French being spoken)

SYDELL: The interactivity isn't the biggest draw of Blu-ray, says Danny Kaye, a vice president at 20th Century Fox Entertainment.

Mr. DANNY KAYE (Vice President, 20th Century Fox Entertainment): To see it, it's actually a staggering experience. You haven't actually seen anything, certainly not seen high-def broadcast look like it, and you don't see it in the movie theaters, either.

SYDELL: Actually the format war that's about to unfold isn't likely to be a bloody battle. It's about winning the hearts and minds of consumers. The makers of HD-DVD, the other major format about to be introduced, can be just as seductive.

Mr. MARK KNOX (Toshiba): The quality of the picture is so good and the quality and accuracy of the sound is so good that they can suspend their disbelief and become a part of the experience.

SYDELL: That's Mark Knox, who works with Toshiba, the designer of HD-DVD. The virtues of HD-DVD technology are similar to what consumers will get with Blu-ray. The biggest difference is about who's lining up behind each technology. Most of the major studios and the consumer electronics manufacturers, including Apple, are behind Blu-ray. But Microsoft, Toshiba and Intel are backing HD-DVD.

Warren Lieberfarb is the former head of Warner Home Video and the man credited with making DVDs a market success. He's backing HD-DVD because he believes it will be a better deal for consumers.

Mr. WARREN LIEBERFARB (Former Head of Warner Home Video): One would prefer that which is more efficient in production than that which is less efficient. I believe that a Blu-ray disc will cost more than an HD disc.

SYDELL: Lieberfarb says that's because HD-DVD builds on existing technology, whereas Blu-ray will require entirely new tools for manufacturing. However, Fox Entertainment's Danny Kaye says Blu-ray will hold more content, and most importantly, it will be harder for hackers to steal.

Mr. KAYE: We were extremely concerned about protecting our content on whichever next-generation format, and quite simply, Blu-ray stepped up and agreed to support those content protection initiatives.

SYDELL: Those same initiatives didn't make Microsoft very happy, says Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research. Blu-ray will give the studios the option of preventing consumers from transferring a movie to a computer.

Mr. TED SCHADLER (Forrester Research): Microsoft and Intel's business is based on selling PCs, and they want the ability to have consumers copy movies to their PC.

SYDELL: Schadler is one of many analysts who believe that Blu-ray will win this format war because it has the backing of most movie studios. But HD-DVD proponents say diplomacy behind the scenes may yet win them converts.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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