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Studios, Consumers Face Sound Decisions

15 Jul, 2004 By: Erik Gruenwedel

In 1993, when creating Jurassic Park, director Steven Spielberg realized his digitally perfected T-Rex had the growling menace of a neighborhood dog.

Enter Agoura Hills, Calif.-based DTS (Digital Theater Systems), whose founder, Terry Beard, remedied the situation by putting the film's soundtrack on a separate CD-ROM, thereby giving the film's sound technicians the digital capacity to properly enhance T-Rex's violent snarl.

At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, San Francisco-based Dolby Laboratories created a 7.1 surround sound audio clip for the classic wartime film Das Boot that was so realistic that several attendees ducked to sounds of rivets ricocheting through the hull of the embattled German submarine as it descended to avoid Allied depth charges, according to Craig Eggers, consumer electronics marketing director at Dolby.

The aforementioned examples represent bookends to technological advancements in sound on film that are resonating in home video as studios re-release classic movies with digitally enhanced audio tracks now playing in the burgeoning home theater system market.

“It's about the experience,” Eggers said. “Without audio, special effect is not very revealing.”

Home Theater in a Box
A typical integrated home theater system includes a big-screen TV, DVD recorder, DVD player and A/B receiver all built into one unit.

In the first quarter, unit shipments of home theater systems from factory to dealer in the United States, including imports, totaled 1 million ($193 million) compared with 509,000 units ($181 million) during the same period last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

“The market has become pretty competitive because there are any number of affordable options for under $100,” said Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis at CEA. “It's become a very attractive option for a consumer, particularly those who are investing tremendous amounts of money into … paring an audio experience with a video experience.”

While DTS shipped and installed 876 DTS playback systems in select movie theaters in the six months prior to the release of Jurassic Park, today virtually every DVD player and home theater system comes with at least a DTS or Dolby audio decoder.

“You can look at some of the older movies where studios have gone to the trouble and expense of remastering and remixing, which is something a few years ago they did not have to do because most consumers didn't have the equipment to take full advantage of it,” said Brian Caldwell, director of marketing with DTS. “But now with the prevalence of home theater systems, there are people looking for it and expecting it.”

Surround 101
In the digital age, audio quality has come a long way from the days of two-channel stereo sound.

The advent of surround sound, whereby the audio is disseminated via five or more speakers, including left and right surround speakers from the front and left, and right, center and subwoofer channels from the rear, has helped spawn new markets for movies and music.

Most studios encode a film's soundtrack with two-channel or 5.1 capabilities. Dolby and DTS each offer technology that allows content providers to disseminate sound in almost limitless channels.

Eggers said it is possible there could be a 13.1 signal, but that would require the ability to deliver the audio in an environment that doesn't resemble a recording studio.

“Do you want speakers on the ceiling, on the side of the wall?” he said. “For the average consumer, what is the return on investment? Is it really worth it? It is our position that for the majority of the consumers, 5.1 is a very satisfying environment. It satisfies their listening and room requirements.”

DTS' Caldwell said the company provides studios with materials to help explain the benefits of including DTS technology on DVD releases.

“When it gets to the home video stage, it's obviously a very competitive marketplace, so whether it is the initial DVD release from a recent theatrical or whether they are going into catalog, [studios face] the challenge of looking for different features” to enhance discs, Caldwell said.

Superbit Me
With many studios enhancing catalog soundtracks for home video, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment (CTHE) two years ago began marketing select audio-enhanced titles under its Superbit Collection label.

To make room for the 5.1 surround sound audio and enhanced picture quality, the company eliminated the bonus fare found on most DVDs.

“We decided to do it as a way to satisfy the more technological consumer, the early adopter who has the home theater system,” said Alison Biggers, VP of worldwide DVD marketing with CTHE. “We see it as a bridge for the consumer between DVD and high def. As we see more consumers upgrading their systems and getting 5.1 and better TVs, Superbit caters to that.”

Columbia has released about 40 mostly action and science-fiction titles in the format, including the original Spider-Man and Black Hawk Down this year. Biggers said the collection is not designed for mass appeal as compared to special edition releases.

“We are selective of the titles for Superbit with the right kind of sound and visual attributes,” Biggers said. “It's something you want to show off.”

Image is Everything
While other studios might not market a video line dedicated to connoisseurs of the visual arts, they are looking at ways — whether on a reissue or initial issue — to make audio technology stand out.

That said, could technological advances in sound dictate a video's success at retail?

“Like any entertainment product, it is always going to first be about the content,” Caldwell said. “But if a consumer is contemplating several titles and only has the budget to buy one, research has suggested that the overall viewing experience will win out.”

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