Ultra HD 4K Blu-rays, and pricing people out of a format

It should be a crucial Christmas for the Ultra HD Blu-ray format. But not with £30 being asked for Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

At a time when sales of physical discs are dwindling, and when studios can’t enjoy the kind of revenues that DVDs were throwing into their coffers in the early to mid-2000s, the release of a new physical disc format should in theory be something of a shot in the arm. Appreciating that it takes time for a new format to warm up, you only have to look at the £5 premium that’s generally slapped on a Blu-ray disc to see that, when done properly, everybody can win. Consumers get a choice between the resolution quality of their movies, whilst studios can attract a price premium, particularly out of those who really care about their home cinema.

And it’s people who really care about home cinema who are really needed right now. The Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray disc format was launched earlier this year, with the usual mix of a couple of titles you might quite fancy – The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice – and a few shelf-fillers that few ever considered buying a high definition upgrade of (The Smurfs 2 wins the prize this time around. On Blu-ray, I remember the fun Paul Walker thriller Into The Blue enjoying a similar status).

It’s been a cautious start for the new format. There’s been a bit of noise about how Ultra HD Blu-ray is a little ahead of where Blu-ray was at its own stage in its lifecycle, but still: there’s no obvious sense of momentum, nor of the format spreading outside of the realm of cinephiles with a bit of spare cash. If there’s been a big advertising push, I’ve certainly missed it. And I tootled around my local HMV to find a shy shelf of titles, with no explanation really as to what I was getting. My local Asda? Right now, I’d be surprised if Ultra HD Blu-ray made it there, well, pretty much ever. I hear chatter that one supermarket chain will take the discs before the end of the year, but again, more support than that is needed to make these new discs a success.

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As it stands, if this is the last throw of the dice for the physical disc format, it certainly feels like it so far. For a premium format – one whose merits we’ve discussed in more detail here – there’s more a sense of motions being gone through, than an upgrade being sold.

Nowhere is this being more keenly felt than in the catalogue of movies currently available. Whilst the price of Ultra HD Blu-ray players have quickly fallen south of £400 – and the new Xbox One S supports the discs, notably – the titles available to buy make most of us wonder why it’s worth the bother. At the point studios need people to champion the format, there’s more a sense of people being fleeced.

Earlier in the week, the fine online retailer Zavvi (they didn’t pay me to say that, but, y’know, happy to send over my details) fired over one of their occasional discount offers. I thus went shopping, and strayed into the Ultra HD Blu-ray section.

Not long after, I strayed away, with not a sniff of a disc going into my virtual shopping basket. Because, bluntly, who do the people behind the format think they are kidding? Appreciating these discs tend to come with a Blu-ray copy as well for the time being (Blu-rays used to regularly come with a DVD as well whilst the format was building up support), the person who priced a catalogue release of Pacific Rim in Ultra HD for £34.99 has a more acute sense of humour than I do. Appreciating online discounts tend to cut that down, I was still being expected to pay over £30 for Pacific Rim. I quite like Pacific Rim, but I also quite like the £8 Blu-ray and £22 change.

Warner Bros is the one behind that title, and in its defence, it’s been quite keen with its pricing to date. It’s set its prices at a level so that etailers can at least discount the discs below the £20 mark (although that’s obviously at retailer discretion). But not all studios have followed suit.

Universal might be owners of the current biscuit taking shield, although Paramount isn’t far behind (that said, the latter releases its discs through the former in the UK now). Example? Universal wants to tempt you with the original Snow White And The Huntsman, an extended cut of the film. It’s a big blockbuster of sorts, and the follow-up was out this year, so I get the sense behind its thinking. Yet the retail price its set for a catalogue title, routinely available for under £3 on DVD? £39.99. Forty quid. Even discounting is generally levelling that out at £25. I’d think twice about paying that for its pre/sequel, The Huntsman. For the original? I’d rather do without. Spoiler: I have.

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Yet that’s the level Universal is pricing its discs at. It’s putting all five Jason Bourne movies out in the format at the end of the month, and to own them all – even with discounts – will cost you nearly £120. And one of those films is The Bourne Legacy, a film that precious few on the planet have declared “I wouldn’t mind watching that again”. Universal has also put out Oblivion, a film I’ve a bit of time for, but which also screams ‘home cinema workout’ thanks to its stunning visuals. Again, the premium price left me thinking I was punished for being interested, rather than encouraged. 

I don’t think for a minute that a premium format won’t warrant a premium price tag. It’s just it feels like we’ve strayed very far into ‘do me a favour’ territory at a point where early adopters would far rather see some momentum. By Christmas, barely 100 titles will be available worldwide, and with less than a dozen new releases a month most months, there’s little sign that archives are going to be mined too heavily either.

And thus we’re left with a format that was already facing an uphill climb, that’s asking people to pay £40 for Star Trek Beyond, £30 for Inferno, £25 for the Point Break remake (!) and £30 for Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates.

On the upside, catalogue titles such as The LEGO Movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hunger Games, Life Of Pi, the original Independence Day and Labyrinth are being more attractively priced. But they’re in the minority right now.

It’s a pity, because there’s a whole bunch of us, I believe, who still prefer to own a physical disc over an iTunes download, and will continue to do so. To those behind the Ultra HD Blu-ray format then, I’d ask: throw us a few bones now. Give us some incentive to buy more discs. To shout about the quality of them to those around us.

And perhaps more importantly: stop, please, with whatever thinking has led you to think that £35 for a Jupiter Ascending upgrade is a price worth paying.

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