Next-gen DVD wars heat up at CES

Studios announce first Blu-ray films as show opens, Toshiba counters with HD-DVD players; existing region system to be reshuffled?


With Sony incorporating its Blu-ray media format into the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft publicly pondering an HD-DVD-equipped model of the Xbox 360, the battle for supremacy between the two formats is likely to have repercussions for the gaming industry.

That battle is heating up today as the Consumer Electronics Show opens in Las Vegas to opening salvos from both camps.

Unsurprisingly spearheading the charge for Sony's Blu-ray was Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which announced an initial lineup of 20 titles to be released alongside the first Blu-ray players this spring. That full first wave includes The Fifth Element, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Desperado, For a Few Dollars More, The Guns of Navarone, Hitch, House of Flying Daggers, A Knight's Tale, Kung Fu Hustle, The Last Waltz, Legends of the Fall, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Robocop, Sense and Sensibility, Stealth, Species, SWAT, and XXX. Sony Pictures also announced Black Hawk Down and The Bridge on the River Kwai for a summer 2006 release.

Also in the summer, Sony Pictures will start adding bonus Java games to its Blu-ray discs and begin releasing some titles for the format at the same time as their standard DVD counterparts. To update its sizeable back catalog of titles, the studio will initially give the Blu-ray treatment to four older titles per month beginning this summer, and move up to 10 titles per month by the end of the year. Also being readied for a summer release is the complete Stargate Atlantis TV series in high-definition.

Independent distributor Lionsgate announced its own support for the Blu-ray format as well, detailing its first 10 titles, set to start hitting shelves in the spring: Lord of War, The Punisher, Devil's Rejects, Saw, T2: Judgment Day, Reservoir Dogs, Total Recall, Dune, Rambo: First Blood, and See No Evil, starring the WWE wrestler Kane. Twentieth Century Fox has also said it will release 20 Blu-ray films in a first wave this year that will include films such as Fantastic Four and Ice Age.

There was news on the HD-DVD front as well, as a primary backer of the technology, Toshiba, unveiled its first two HD-DVD players for the US market. Beginning in March, the HD-XA1 and HD-A1 players will hit stores for $799.99 and $499.99, respectively. Both units are backward compatible with regular DVDs and upconverts the signals from them to an output resolution of 720p or 1080i for HDTVs. Perhaps taking a cue from the Blu-ray-equipped PS3, some HD-DVD players will have USB ports "for convenient connection of gaming controllers," according to Toshiba.

Not all the format wars news is coming out of Las Vegas. Japanese site ITmedia has reported that Blu-ray discs will shake up the current DVD regional lockout system. DVDs and DVD players carry one of nine different region codes, each corresponding to a different set of countries and territories. To play a disc from a given region, a DVD player must come from the same region (or be a Region 0, or all-region, player). According to ITmedia, Blu-ray discs will shuffle which countries are in which regions so that North and South American, Japan, Thailand, Malayasia, Korea, and India are all in Region 1, with Europe and Africa in Region 2, and China, Russia and others in Region 3.

This should make it easier for importers and cinephiles to get their hands on foreign films, as the current DVD Region 1 is essentially confined to American and Canadian releases. It is currently unclear what changes HD-DVD will make to the standard DVD region system, if any.

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