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Movie Studios Offer Consumers Win-Win Way to go Blu-ray

By Jim Bray
February 14, 2009

It looks as if there may be an outbreak of consumer-friendly common sense coming from a couple of the big Hollywood studios.

This particular anomaly is a way to help people transition to the Blu-ray format by marketing "combination" disc packages that include both DVD and BD versions, so those who don't yet have a Blu-ray player (which is most people) can watch their favorite titles on DVD now, with the BD version waiting patiently in the package for the day when they do eventually buy a Blu-ray player.

I think this is a great idea, and it carries the added benefit of giving Blu-ray consumers a copy of their movie that'll play in their car system, portable device, or computer.

What a concept! Now, at least with selected titles initially, people will be able to buy the movie (or whatever the title might be) instead of worrying about the format. And doesn't that just make sense?

If memory serves, Warner Brothers embraced a similar type of initiative briefly during the Blu-ray versus HD DVD format war. Warners released some "Total Hi-Def" hybrid discs that offered HD-DVD on one side of a disc and Blu-ray on the other, though I don't believe a DVD was included in the package. It was an excellent way to give consumers a break during the high def disc format war, but it was made moot by the welcome death of HD DVD and adoption of Blu-ray as the single HD disc format.

Double sided discs are nothing new; DVD's have been released for years that have the widescreen version of the movie on one side and Pan&Scan on the other. In fact, Warner Brothers tells me they still release some titles this way. But packaging completely different formats in a single box is a newer phenomenon.

The first such Blu-ray/DVD "Combo Pack" I saw was for the Walt Disney studio's spectacular Blu-ray release of Sleeping Beauty in the fall of 2008. The "50th Anniversary Platinum Edition" disc was supposedly only available in limited markets, undoubtedly to test the waters, but the Blu-ray release included the feature film on a standard definition DVD as well, offering consumers a way to “future proof” their collections or merely expand their playback options.  

Disney announced recently that their Combo Packs will be extended across a new slate of Disney-branded theatrical and Platinum titles releasing on Blu-ray between February and October, 2009. Upcoming Combo Pack titles include the "teen phenomenon" High School Musical 3: Senior Year, the animated classic Pinocchio (the 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition, available March 10) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Platinum Edition, which the studio will unveil in October.  

It isn't just a Blu-ray/DVD thing, either. Various studios have begun releasing titles that include a digital copy suitable for playing on a computer or digital device. I've tried a couple of these digital files and haven't been impressed with their quality, but at least the choice is there for people who prefer portability to ultimate audio/video quality.

Disney North America will also package 14 of its new Blu-ray titles with a DisneyFile digital copy which in both iTunes and Windows Media file formats. Digital Files are planned for such titles as High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Monsters Inc., and A Bugs Life.

Digital file or not, I can't wait to see Monster's Inc. and A Bugs Life on Blu-ray. Both are excellent Pixar titles that began life digitally and so should look spectacular on Blu-ray.

20th Century Fox is also jumping on the "Combi-pak" bandwagon – and then some! Its pending release of Marley and Me, which features Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in a "tail" about a family that learns important life lessons from their "adorable, but naughty and neurotic dog", is being released in three versions: as a single DVD, a "Bad Boy” Two-Disc Special Edition DVD (that includes the aforementioned Digital Copy as well as common features such as deleted scenes, featurettes and the like), and the “Bad Boy” Three-Disc Blu-ray that adds the high definition Blu-ray Disc to the "Bad Boy" DVD version – as well as exclusive Blu-ray content.  

Including DVD's with the Blu-ray also adds portability to the mix: there aren't a lot of portable Blu-ray players out there yet, but there are plenty of hand held or vehicle-mounted DVD players, so by including the DVD in the package families can play a version of the title in their minivan or SUV, at a friend's house, on an airplane, or anywhere else.

And that, apparently, is part of the rationale behind Disney's move toward offering multiple format packages. “These unique Combo Packs provide the opportunity for consumers around the world to take advantage of the quality of Blu-ray with the portability of a DVD disc in a single package," says Bob Chapek, President of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. “As always, we are committed to offering our consumers exceptional quality and value when purchasing our products.”

That's a delicious irony considering how hard Disney fought the advent of home video back when videocassettes were the new kid on the block. If memory serves, they were part of a group of studios that actually sued Sony for having invented the betamax! Now, they rake in a lot of their profits from the home video market and are probably glad they lost that case.

I've complained for years about the shabby treatment of the consumers who give Hollywood its profits, whether it be via insulting FBI warnings that treat you like a criminal (even if you've bought the title legitimately) or ramming through a digital copy protection scheme (with the HDMI standard) that can lead to problems during playback. But I must give credit where it's due, and if I wore a hat I'd take it off to the studios who are offering consumers the most flexible bang for their after-tax buck.

The cynic in me wonders if this is a deliberate break for consumers or a way for the manufacturers to cut down on packaging costs. But regardless of the reason, the consumer wins and that's a good thing.

Well done!

Copyright 2009 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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