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Sony, Toshiba disc formats still vying for studios, retailers

September 10, 2007|Dawn C. Chmielewski and Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writers

Raging in the backrooms of Hollywood this summer has been a battle that will play out in the aisles of Wal-Mart and Target.

Until recently, it had appeared that the two camps vying to set the standard for next-generation DVDs would settle the score this holiday season.

But last-ditch maneuvering in recent weeks has all but assured that the format war will extend well beyond December, keeping many home-movie buffs from laying their money down until a winner is declared.

It's no wonder that neither rival -- Asian consumer electronics giants Sony Corp. or Toshiba Corp. -- can bear to give in. Licensing fees on equipment that could be worth $10 billion or more over time are up for grabs.

At the moment, Sony's Blu-ray discs have the edge, with a 2-to-1 advantage since January, thanks to support from Walt Disney Co. and News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox, as well as the sale of 1.6 million Sony PlayStation 3 game consoles that play films in the new high-definition format.

But in an attempt to swing momentum in its favor, Toshiba has struck a flurry of deals aimed at winning studio allegiances and securing prized retail space for its HD DVDs.

Toshiba recently paid a collective $150 million to Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Animation in a bid to buy their support, according to people with knowledge of the terms of the transactions.

Toshiba spokesman Keisuke Ohmori declined to comment on possible marketing payments, but said the two studios had picked HD DVD on the merits, as "the optimum platform" for consumers and film distributors.

Toshiba's expanded partnership, which had already included Universal Pictures, means that many of this summer's biggest movies, including "Transformers" and "Shrek the Third," will be released in video this fall in HD DVD.

The brinkmanship is intensifying. Another major studio, Warner Bros., is being courted by both camps and believed to be mulling over a lucrative offer that could bring such popular titles as "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" into the HD DVD camp, according to Hollywood insiders who requested anonymity because the talks were confidential.

"Any movement by one of the studios tilts the playing field in one direction or the other," said David Sanderson, head of the global media practice at consulting firm Bain & Co. "It's a bit of jump ball right now."

What's more, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the dominant seller of DVDs, has been contemplating whether to boot stand-alone HD DVD players from its shelves in favor of Blu-ray. Wal-Mart executives would not talk about the company's conversations with suppliers, but said it would continue to carry hardware and software in both formats until consumers indicate a clear preference.

Nonetheless, they expressed frustration with the continued format race.

"It would be good for the studios or somebody to make the call," said Kevin O'Conner, Wal-Mart's vice president and general merchandise manager for consumer electronics.

The stakes for Toshiba and Sony are enormous. The winner would probably enjoy dominance in the home video market for the next decade, notwithstanding the growing threat to plastic-boxed DVDs from movie downloads over the Internet.

When DVDs supplanted VHS, a who's who of electronics giants collected the royalties. After a fleeting format war, the two camps merged, bringing a consortium led by Sony together with a group that included Matsushita Electric's Panasonic, Toshiba and Warner Bros.

Toshiba and Panasonic collected the bulk of the royalties because they had the most patents, said Jim Taylor, author of the book "DVD Demystified." Manufacturers paid $10 to $20 for every dedicated movie player, game console and computer that incorporated the technology -- major money, he said, given the approximately 1.3 billion DVD players worldwide.

"Even if the high-definition formats are only half as successful as DVD, that's still incredibly successful," said Taylor, senior vice president at Sonic Solutions in Novato, Calif., whose software is used to produce movie DVDs. "That's why the format war hasn't gone away."

Come the fourth quarter, manufacturers and studios will barrage consumers with promotions that emphasize the improved imagery and the new, interactive features of the high-definition discs. Blu-ray discs have greater capacity than HD DVDs, which proponents such as Bob Chapek, president of Disney Studios Home Entertainment, say is important for picture quality and interactive bonus features.

But if the past is any indicator, other factors matter more. Though Sony's Betamax format was technically superior, it lost out to JVC's VHS videocassette format in the 1980s in part because it was more expensive, said Wolfgang Schlichting of IDC, a technology research company in Framingham, Mass.

Sony was reluctant to license its technology to competing manufacturers, wanting to keep hardware sales to itself. But JVC made licensing easy, helping to drive down the cost and flood stores with VHS players. Movie studios followed the supply.

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