With Hollywood studios and consumer electronics companies already declaring their allegiances to the Sony-backed Blu-Ray format and the Toshiba-backed HD-DVD, the only lingering question is, which format will adult filmmakers choose?
According to Jason Hoke, director of sales and marketing for the Hillsborough, N.C.-based Adam & Eve Productions, those who compare the competition between the Sony-backed Blu- Ray and the Toshiba-backed HD-DVD formation to the VHS vs. Betamax showdown of the 1980s are forgetting just how radically the industry has changed since then.
"That was such a radical shift in the marketplace," Hoke said, recalling the first home videotape players. "I think this shift is going to take a little longer. Personally, I think we're five years away from having a standard in the marketplace."
One reason for the delay, says Hoke's boss, Adam & Eve president Bob Christian, is that this time around, adult film companies know they have the power to cast the deciding vote. With more than half his company's films already shot and edited in high definition video, Christian is simply waiting for the phone call from the industry consortium willing to put his company on the same press release as Disney (a prominent Blu-Ray backer) or Universal Pictures (HD-DVD).
"We'd love to have something worked out with the HD-DVD or Blu-Ray folks where we endorse the format," Christian said. "We'd be doing it for marketing and economic reasons, knowing that, as a mail-order company with one of the largest databases in the business, we could provide customers for each format."
The reason for the coming standards battle boils down to the current storage limitations of the average DVD and the proposed strategies to overcome those limitations. The storage capacity of the average DVD today is 5 gigabytes, barely enough to carry 20 minutes of high-definition content. To make it possible for viewers to watch feature-length films undisturbed, companies have looked for ways to pack more information onto the disk.
In the case of Blu-Ray, the chosen method is to switch from the standard red laser used by today's DVD readers to a higher- frequency blue laser (hence the term). Just as an electron microscope picks up smaller objects than a visual light microscope, this upshift in signal frequency allows for the condensation of digital data; meaning the standard Blu-Ray DVD, when it comes out later this year, should be able to store up to two hours worth of high definition on a single-layer disk. Current backers of the Blu-Ray standard include Sony, Disney and Electronic Arts.
The downside of the blue laser method, however, is that it renders pre-existing DVDs, built for red laser scanners, all but useless. For this reason, a second group of companies has rallied around a red laser-compatible standard that increases information density by adding new storage layers. Backing companies Toshiba, NEC and Paramount are gambling that consumers will upgrade their machines more quickly if they know they won't immediately lose access to previously purchased content.
While many see parallels to the VHS vs. Betamax choice of the 1980s, TV consultant Philip Swann sees a closer similarity to the analog vs. digital transition in recorded music during the same time period.
"It's sort of like how CDs were first marketed," Swann said. "Sure, you've heard Pink Floyd on your stereo system, but have you heard it on digital?"
Such concerns, coupled with the inevitable hiccups that come with any technology switch, have led Jackie Ramos, director of the internal DVD division for Wicked Pictures, to hold off on making any long-term bets.
"When I've been going over this with my [DVD] authorers, they're suggesting to me that we hold off," Ramos said. "The advice I'm getting is that it's just not practical at this stage."
Then again, with high-definition camera prices falling, more and more directors are starting to chafe against the inherent limitations of the existing DVD format. Jennifer James, co-founder of ArchAngel Productions, described her recent work with a new Sony HD-900 camera as "a learning experience from the very first moment." Over time, however, her production crew grew accustomed to the camera's higher light sensitivity and other idiosyncrasies.
James says she'd be willing to put her works on one of the two major formats, or even an upstart format, just to give home viewers the same viewing experience she has in the studio. In the meantime, she admits to feeling like a spectator herself, waiting alongside the ordinary video consumer for the two industry groups to roll out their wares.
"With all things in our business, the big companies have their hands in it. They're all making money, but they don't want to be attached to it," she said. "They all have an arms-length communication policy when it comes to this industry."