How Hollywood studios left high-def fans high and dry

So HD DVD is dead - but did that really mean that all the movie studios had to up sticks immediately?

Disc battles: a curse of the modern age

When Paramount Pictures elected – with the help of some financial inducement – to support the HD DVD format exclusively in the Autumn of 2007, it left a good number of Blu-ray supporters in the lurch by cancelling titles that had already been announced, and had been up for pre-order for some time. As a result of a few moves in a couple of Hollywood boardrooms, those releases – including Top Gun, Blades Of Glory and The Jack Ryan Boxset – were pulled from the schedule pretty much immediately.

Hollywood, it seems, still hasn’t learned from its lesson. Because what happened back then was that the early adopters of one of the high definition formats were left without said films, even if they’d already ponied up an order for them. High definition adopters at this stage are effectively evangelists for the technology, and it was hardly a fitting way to thank them.

And now the HD DVD buyer is in a similar position. Notwithstanding the fact that prior to Christmas there was heavy advertising of HD DVD, nor the fact that as late as January’s Superbowl in the US money was being spent pushing the format, Toshiba finally plugged the plug in February. HD DVD was no longer to be manufactured.

The catalyst, of course, had been Warner Bros’ decision to go Blu-ray exclusive back in January, but Warner – to its immense credit – didn’t do a cut and run, but instead pledged to continue supporting HD DVD for a number of months. That support will run until the end of May, when – ironically – it could be the last studio still releasing titles for the HD DVD format.

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Because since the Toshiba announcement, under the guise of trying to remove confusion in the high definition market, studios have been falling over themselves to get out of the HD DVD market. And if that means cancelling previously announced titles, and leaving the million plus people who plumped for HD DVD in the lurch, then so be it.

Paramount was once again guilty: There Will Be Blood and Sweeney Todd had been announced, and put up for pre-order. Courtesy of another meeting in another boardroom, all planned Paramount titles have been cancelled, as the studio switches to Blu-ray. Universal? It’s going pretty much immediately too, with Atonement its last HD DVD release (and even that was up in the air for a while), taking Charlie Wilson’s War off the HD DVD roster in the process. Image Entertainment went last week, taking Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead with it, and several more indies have done the same thing.

Is it just me then that thinks this shows a disturbing – if not surprising, given Paramount’s actions of last Autumn – level of contempt for the high definition customer?

I accept that studios have no long term reason to support HD DVD, but would a Warner Bros-esque wind down period really have been too much to ask? For a technological product to be so heavily promoted and then staggeringly abandoned at such speed is a kick in the teeth to some of the movie industry’s most loyal customers, and to take titles off the roster seems quite mean-spirited.

It’s little secret that I personally preferred HD DVD, for reasons primarily of regional coding, but I accept Blu-ray has won, and have little wish to see the format war dragging on any further than necessary.

But fair’s fair, surely? And right now, with no retailers, manufacturers or movie studios – with the exception of Warner – seemingly doing anything for the HD DVD customer whose money they gladly accepted prior to Christmas, it really is a sorry and grubby state of affairs. I accept the reasoning: that the longer two formats co-exist, the slower high definition gets picked up. But right now, its as if someone yelled “Everybody out”, and out everybody went.

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The only shining light for the HD DVD customer is some of the amazing fire sales going on right now, with some Australian e-tailers in particular knocking prices down to the equivalent of £5-6. But it’s going to take more than that to appease many high definition supports who simply became pawns in a format battle that greedy companies allowed to happen in the first place.

Shame on them.