Hollywood historically has a notoriously difficult relationship with new media. The studios spent years fighting videotape before they embraced it and went on to grow it to such a level that it exceeded their theatrical business. The studios may have fought even harder against online distribution of movies, perhaps understandably, although (with the file size of video far greater than that of audio, especially for full-length films) it took the movie industry less time to adapt than the music industry. It's hard to pin an exact year on it but Hollywood's embracing of "digital" distribution came well after the establishment of DVD and Blu-ray Disc. That the balance has now shifted in favor of online distribution and Hollywood's love affair with physical media is over is perhaps nowhere more visible than with 4K movies. How so?
Exactly two years ago, after a gestation period of about three years, Ultra HD Blu-ray saw the light and was introduced with modest fanfare. Except for the most notorious hold-out Disney, all major studios pretty quickly jumped aboard and released more than a hundred titles in the first year, 2016. As is typical with new premium formats, the pricing varied from just about the same as the previous format, i.e. around $20, to more than double that. While no numbers are known about how sales at each price level fared, the disc format was off to a prosperous start, selling considerably more than Blu-ray Disc in its first year. Four times as much, according to the official source – the BDA.
Ultra HD Blu-ray got two big shots in the arm in 2017. First, around the middle of the year, the first players and discs with Dolby Vision became available. It had taken about a year for the developers of authoring tools Sony DADC and Scenarist to add support for the premium HDR video format but all of the present majors adopted it and began releasing titles. All except Fox, that is. While Fox uses Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision for theatrical (Dolby Cinema) releases, for home video they refuse to use these standards, preferring license-free standards for object-based audio and HDR video instead. It was no surprise therefore when Fox was the first studio to endorse Samsung's HDR10+ format.
Shortly after, Disney finally jumped on the bandwagon. The studio announced two big titles: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales' and 'Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2'. Their first two discs, it turned out after some digging, did not come with Dolby Vision, whereas the online versions did. This was attributed to supposed difficulties with the authoring of the then still brand new Dolby Vision Ultra HD Blu-rays.
Then another important event occurred. In September, Apple introduced its fifth-generation TV peripheral, the Apple TV 4K box, along with 4K HDR content on iTunes. Apple used both HDR10 and Dolby Vision from the beginning. Apple insisted that 4K movies should cost no more than HD movies, so maximum $19.99 each. Apple got all major studios on board. All except that one studio that sits on the fence when the others jump in.
Apple's announcement was a big boost for Dolby Vision, for HDR in general, and even for 4K. Nobody could justifiably claim any longer that 4K was an elite, niche format. And if movies studios were willing to sell 4K titles for under $20, surely that must be good news for Ultra HD Blu-ray as well.
While the number of titles released by 2017 was more than double that of 2016, at the beginning of 2018 we're seeing ominous signs. Sure, studios continue to issue new movies as well as back catalog on UHD BD. But it's beginning to look like they're sabotaging the format in various ways.
For one, Ultra HD Blu-rays are not released 'day and date' with streaming editions but weeks later. In the US, Blade Runner 2049 was released on streaming platforms strategically at Christmas but if you wanted the disc you had to wait three weeks longer, until January 18th. In the UK, the difference was smaller: The streaming release was January 28th, the disc release February 5th. By now, we’re looking at a typical delay of two weeks but the delta can be as big as four weeks in the case of Justice League.
This is sure to tempt those who cannot wait but still would not need to hold back those who like to actually collect movies – a desire the physical format caters to.
Then, there's inferior video quality. Ultra HD Blu-ray is supposed to be the superior format, with up to 100GB capacity on a single disc, and – moreover – and maximum transfer rate of 128 Mbps, far more than iTunes or Vudu will ever give you, no matter how fast your broadband connection. By now however, there are about 30 Dolby Vision movies on disc, yet well over 200 on iTunes. Sure, this does include movies that were released on disc before Dolby Vision was an option, but it also includes the entire Harry Potter collection, more recently the Christopher Nolan collection and, perhaps most disturbingly, Blade Runner 2049. This movie, shot in 3.4K with CGI effects rendered in the same resolution and finished with 4K Digital Intermediate with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos was released in theatres in the Dolby Cinema format. One would expect such a flagship title to carry over this premium sound and picture quality on disc, but both Warner Bros Home Entertainment – responsible for Potter and Nolan movies and distribution of Blade Runner 2049 in North America – and Sony Pictures, handling distribution in Europe, decided otherwise. Although box art initially seemed to reveal the movie would come with both Dolby formats in Europe, this turned out to be a mistake. The movies come with no better quality level than HDR10 anywhere. On disc, that is – on iTunes you will get Dolby Vision.
Briefly, it also seemed Sony had equipped the disc with inferior audio, leaving out the Dolby Atmos soundtrack but as it turned out the Oppo Ultra HD Blu-ray player used by some reviewers had a bug that has been fixed in the meantime.
Now you might think that for this lesser version on disc you would need to pay no more than for the streamed one. Wrong. Warner charges $29.96, Sony charges £24.99. It gets even more insulting. You can buy The Dark Knight with Dolby Vision on iTunes for just $9.99 or pay $33.07 for the UHD BD without DV. These studios are screwing their biggest fans by making them wait longer, giving them an inferior experience and charging them higher prices. Ultra HD Blu-ray should be the premium format in every respect, but it's not. This is a bad consumer experience and awful marketing. I don’t know what business school these execs went to but in the one I attended “give them less and make them pay more” was not a mantra.
Is the writing on the wall? Perhaps it's telling that a lot of movies, the studios don't even seem to bother releasing on Ultra HD Blu-ray, but they do on iTunes. And it's not just long-tail catalog titles I'm talking about. How about 'Edge of Tomorrow' (Live, Die, Repeat)?
It's becoming increasingly clear where the studios’ priorities lie. Sure, with Blu-ray Disc never achieving the same level of success as its predecessor DVD, it was clear from the start that Ultra HD Blu-ray was going to be a niche format. For cinephiles (and videophiles), that need not be a problem. While Laserdisc did not become a mass-market product, it was embraced by movie lovers who built vast collections at prices way higher than UHD BD. Super Audio CD, the audiophile high-resolution and (optionally) multichannel music format introduced by Sony and Philips around the turn of the century was abandoned by the major music labels by the middle of the decade as it hadn't lived up to its mass market aspirations, but it continued year after year with a steady flow of about 60 releases each month to a catalog of well over 10,000 titles a decade later, mainly thanks to the unrelenting support of boutique labels – the music equivalent of the likes of Criterion, Arrow, etc. Ultra HD Blu-ray however isn't there yet.
Perhaps the botched release of Blade Runner 2049 is an error, or attributable to technical complications. Some suggest Dolby Vision needs triple-layer (100GB) discs to get right, and these discs would be difficult to manufacture, but both of those hypotheses don't have any basis, people in the industry tell me.
Let's see what happens in the coming months, and judge the studios by their actions. Let's see if they understand the needs of their core fans, what it takes to successfully market and sustain a premium home video format, and whether they really want you to buy it. Oh, and if they persuade you to rather download movies, let's see how happy you'll be after The Blackout...