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Blu-ray Disc at 10: Gateway to 4K Ultra HD, Digital Delivery

27 Jun, 2016 By: Thomas K. Arnold

James Cameron once said, “I wish all my movies could be seen by everyone at home in Blu-ray. It’s the image quality, it’s the color, it’s the quality control — it’s everything.”

The acclaimed director of Avatar and Titanic, two of the highest-grossing movies in history, knows what he’s talking about. On the 10th anniversary of its June 2006 launch, the disc remains the best, and most popular, way to watch movies in the home. It’s also the launch point for 4K Ultra HD, the next big step in home-viewing technology. 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc is the widely hailed next-generation disc format with four times the pixel density of HD Blu-ray as well as high dynamic range (HDR), with greater contrast and deeper, more life-like colors. The format got off to a wildly successful start in the first quarter of this year, with the first batch of 4K Ultra HD discs hitting stores in March and breaking all sales expectations — even though there are just two players currently on the market, from Panasonic and Samsung.

That situation is expected to change — and fast. In June, birthday month for the Blu-ray Disc, Microsoft announced its new Xbox One S games console is 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and HDR compatible, while Sony said it is developing an upgraded version of its PlayStation 4 gaming console that will offer ultra-high definition 4K resolution and richer graphics.

Other CE companies are expected to roll out players of their own in the coming months.

Meanwhile, excitement on the content side continues to mount. “In keeping with our steadfast commitment to offering the best possible video and audio presentation, we are excited about the introduction of Ultra HD Blu-ray,” said Bob Buchi, president, worldwide, Paramount Home Media Distribution. “Our first titles, J.J. Abrams’ global blockbusters Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, are the ideal titles to entice consumers into taking the next leap forward in home entertainment.”

That the Blu-ray Disc is the vehicle the CE and content industries are using to drive 4K Ultra HD into the home isn’t surprising. It’s not just the disc’s high capacity; it’s the public’s familiarity with the format. More than 84 million U.S. households have a Blu-ray Disc player, and people continue to spend more money on buying discs than they do on any other medium.

Since the format was launched, consumers have bought some 750 million Blu-ray Discs, according to Home Media Market Research estimates. In the first quarter of this year, consumers bought 3% more Blu-ray Discs than they did in the first quarter of 2015 — while spending was up 6%, according to an analysis of industry numbers by Home Media Magazine’s market research team. This follows a significant gain in the fourth quarter of 2015, as well, with unit sales up 4% and revenue up a stunning 12%, despite rampant discounting centered around the Black Friday weekend.

Paramount’s Buchi said the format is firmly entrenched in the mainstream, noting, “We’ve seen the revenue split shift dramatically, with Blu-ray now accounting for nearly 50% of consumer spending on theatrical titles and as much as 70% on some tentpoles."

That trend is likely to accelerate, particularly with the arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray, which observers say will likely fuel a resurgence in overall disc sales. As CNET said, Ultra HD Blu-ray “will look significantly better than any streaming feed. … The possibility of pristine 4K content is exciting, but even more so is the potential for a wider color gamut, high dynamic range and more.”

Pristine Picture and Sound

This month marks Blu-ray Disc’s 10th anniversary. The format was introduced to consumers in June 2006 on the eve of the high-definition revolution, to give them the single best viewing experience — which it still does today. Indeed, the “archive quality” aspect of Blu-ray Discs is one of the format’s key tenets, meaning studios take great care in handling transfers and video processing because they know the disc is being collected and treasured by people who really care about these movies.

With streaming, the focus is on getting the title to the viewer with as few buffering interruptions as possible. And while some streaming services now offer the same 1080p resolution as Blu-ray Disc, they use significantly more compression to deliver content over the Internet — which impacts image quality.

Brett Ratner, who as director and producer is behind a string of theatrical hits, including the “Rush Hour” trilogy and X-Men: The Last Stand, that have grossed more than $2 billion at the box office, told Variety in January that with every movie he makes, the Blu-ray Disc release is always top of mind. “From the first moment of pre-production to the premiere of the film, I'm always thinking of the home video release,” he says. “It’s the way the film will exist forever. Formats might change but the color correction and sound design will never change.”

Critics agree that when it comes to picture and sound, Blu-ray is the way to go. Forbes noted, “For cinephiles or even anyone inclined in that direction, content viewed on the finest Retina tablet display or LCD flat screen can’t come close to a Blu-ray.”

Making History

DVD may have been the most successful consumer electronics product ever launched, but Blu-ray Disc is certainly the most resilient.
Work on the Blu-ray Disc format began even as DVD was continuing its meteoric rise in popularity. The best minds of the consumer electronics industry knew that as clear and crisp as DVDs looked on regular TVs, they were not meant for the new breed of high-definition TVs poised to take over the market, and it was imperative to develop a next-generation optical disc that could present viewers with true 1080p HD.

After years of lab development, Sony Corp. in 2000 unveiled a pair of projects — one in partnership with Pioneer — that employed blue-laser technology, with the promise of far greater capacity than DVD. The first prototypes were displayed in 2000, and two years later the Blu-ray Disc rewritable format was officially unveiled. The nine founding members of the format — Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsushita Electric Industrial, Pioneer, Royal Philips Electronics, Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Thomson Multimedia — began releasing specifications, and the first consumer Blu-ray Disc home recording device, the Sony BDZ-S77, was released in Japan in April 2003, with a price tag of $3,800. It was touted as a means of recording high-definition broadcasts; no studio content had yet been released on the new disc. In late 2004 the founders of Blu-ray Disc officially changed their name to the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA), and announced the consortium had more than 70 members.

Meanwhile, a format war was brewing. Led by Toshiba, the DVD Forum adopted specs for a high-definition successor to DVD, dubbed HD DVD in 2003. It employed red-laser technology, the same as DVD, but on a higher density disc. HD DVD offered both single and dual layer options, each with three times the capacity of its corresponding single/dual layer standard DVD disc — plenty of room for a high-definition picture, better sound and more extras. It was also an open format. Blu-ray Disc, in contrast, offered even greater capacity — five times that of a standard DVD. Blu-ray also was positioned as a “format of the future” more than capable of accommodating expanded interactivity and associated broadband services.

The DVD Forum and the BDA attempted to unify standards but announced in mid-2005 that negotiations had failed. Before either format launched, both formats had three of the six major studios on their side (Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros. for HD DVD; Sony, Disney and Fox for Blu-ray). Both HD DVD and Blu-ray released their first players and titles in 2006. Both Warner Bros. and Paramount would soon offer support for both formats, though in mid-2007 Paramount switched exclusively to HD DVD.

A big boost to the nascent format came in late 2006 when Sony put a Blu-ray Disc drive in its new PlayStation 3. In March 2007, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Casino Royale was the first Blu-ray Disc to ship more than 100,000 units. That was also the same month that Blu-ray sales topped 1 million.

By this time, Blu-ray was already outselling HD DVD, and in June 2007 Blockbuster announced it would carry only Blu-ray. Disney helped fan the flames of Blu-ray Disc with big media events for new Blu-ray Disc releases like the first two "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies in May 2007 and, that summer, an educational mall tour.

In January 2008 Warner announced it would support only Blu-ray after May of that year. Walmart and Netflix soon announced the companies would carry only Blu-ray. And on Feb. 19, 2008, the high-definition format war officially ended, with Toshiba announcing it would no longer market HD DVD. Both Universal and Paramount quickly announced their support for Blu-ray.

By the end of 2008 there were more than 10.7 million Blu-ray players in the market, outpacing the adoption of DVD (5.4 million players by the end of its third year), according to the BDA. In October 2008 Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment introduced the industry’s first Blu-ray combo pack, Sleeping Beauty, which sought to ease the transition from DVD to Blu-ray Disc by offering consumers the chance to get both formats in one package. Wall-E followed in November and High School Musical 3 came in February 2009. They were so well-received that the combo pack soon became an industry standard.

"The Walt Disney Studios has been at the forefront of innovation and development of the Blu-ray format since its inception,” said Janice Marinelli, president, Disney/ABC Home Entertainment and Television Distribution. “Blu-ray remains an important driver for our business and the industry, and we are proud to have three of the top five Blu-ray titles of all time with Frozen, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Marvel’s The Avengers.”

The January 2009 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) saw huge electronics industry support for the format, with Panasonic announcing the world’s first portable Blu-ray player, and Sharp unveiling HDTVs with built-in Blu-ray drives. By mid-2009 there were more than 2,500 Blu-ray releases in the market, and by the end of the year home entertainment leaders noted that despite the global economic meltdown Blu-ray Disc sales were up a whopping 70% from the prior year.

In March 2010 Redbox announced it would begin offering Blu-ray rentals at its kiosks in the summer. A month later, Avatar became the best-selling Blu-ray Disc ever, with initial sales of more than 1.5 million copies.

Blu-ray Disc sales up shot up another 68% in 2010, contributing $1.8 billion in revenue, with 11.25 million Blu-ray devices sold for the year, bringing the total U.S. installed base to more than 27 million households.

The Blu-ray Disc tide continued to swell, even as Netflix was growing its streaming service and studios began offering movies for sale over the Internet, as downloads, through iTunes and other services. This year, Blu-ray Disc hit $15 billion in consumer sales, with 139 titles having sold in excess of 1 million units each, according to Home Media Magazine market research. Over 12,000 titles have been released on Blu-ray Disc.

“The Blu-ray disc has provided a crucial stepping stone in providing the consumer with next-generation resolution and audio capabilities,” observes Bill Sondheim, president of Cinedigm and an early innovator in Blu-ray Disc bonus content and packaging. “The format stimulated continued consumer interest in packaged media, therefore elongating our ability to drive critical revenue for content producers. Equally important, it has served the avid fan and collector with a far more enjoyable viewing experience than previously available in the home.”

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