Blu-ray Deathwatch?

Format under attack from streaming -- greed


The “Star Wars films” are coming to home video … for what feels like the 30th time.

The home-video releases must conquer a threat more menacing than Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber or the Death Star.

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The films, arriving Oct. 13 on Blu-ray via commemorative steelbook editions, face the seemingly impossibly high expectations of Hollywood executives.

The “Star Wars” franchise isn’t alone in its lofty dreams of selling discs by the truckload and making billions in the process. For years, the studios have relied on home-video sales to boost the bottom line.

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But to hear Blu-ray producers tell the story, the market has become saturated with easy choices for non-discerning audiences.

Studios are much more enchanted with streaming media, which offers lower quality and less frills but convenience for moviemakers and fans alike. There’s no packaging or extra features — from deleted scenes to making-of documentaries — for the studios to spend precious money on producing.

Blu-ray and DVD combined sales for 2014 dropped 10.9 percent from 2013.

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That’s a stark contrast to the seemingly endless parade of “special editions,” steelbooks, director’s cuts and unrated versions pumped out of Hollywood in recent years. The new “Star Wars” editions promise “newly repackaged artwork” — available for a limited time.

Presumably with franchise creator George Lucas no longer holding the keys to the Empire, there are no changes to the actual films this time around. But the same can’t be said for extended cuts of the latest “X-Men” movie, featuring a special edition featuring a character (Rogue) largely left on the cutting room floor for the theatrical release. The barrage of new editions and special features has likely frozen the market instead of whetting audience’s appetite.

That may be one reason why Blu-ray sales are struggling. The Digital Entertainment Group reported earlier this year that Blu-ray and DVD combined sales for 2014 dropped 10.9 percent from 2013. That’s an increase in the 8.1 percent drop from 2013 to 2012.

Cliff Stephenson, a producer and editor for the Blu-rays of “The Hunger Games” film and NBC’s “Hannibal,” blames Blu-rays’ woes on the phenomenal success of DVDs. The DVD format democratized movies in a way that VHS or laserdiscs never did, making movies at home incredibly popular for the casual viewer Stephenson argued at last months’ San Diego Comic-Con. That popularity bloated Hollywood’s expectations when Blu-rays hit the scene a decade ago, Stephenson said. The studios are still chasing this “DVD high.”

The DVD format democratized movies in a way that VHS or laserdiscs never did.

Consumer demand never caught up to those expectations, so the studios lost interest. Stephenson would have preferred that Hollywood marketed Blu-rays exclusive to collectors who were willing to pay a premium — much like laserdiscs of the 1990s. He cited the movie Tron, which debuted on laserdisc for $100 years ago.

“For the studios, it kind of hits that `why bother’ threshold,” Stephenson said.

The cost of Blu-rays – particularly compared to streaming media — is another marks against the physical media. Filmmaker Robert Meyer Burnett headed the team that produced the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” Blu-rays, which cost $15 million to produce. While the discs offered a higher-quality product, fans seemed content with their DVDs and largely ignored the new and improved version. As a result, Paramount canceled plans to release the other Star Trek series on Blu-ray.

“Nobody really cared,” Burnett complained during the Comic-Con Blu-ray panel. “They don’t understand what they’re seeing.”

A contributing factor, Burnett said, is movies’ decline in cultural clout. Instead of the cinema, young people’s attention is focused around video games, he said, citing this summer’s blockbuster Batman: Arkham Knight.

While the pair are still fighting for Blu-rays, they are hoping that Hollywood learns from its recent history and adjusts for the next generation of physical media.

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