Will HD Save the DVD?
The sales figures certainly support those Cassandras who predict that the DVD will become the eight-track of the 21st century. Retail DVD sales in both the adult and mainstream categories were decidedly down in 2006 from the previous year. Most people in the adult industry see things getting worse in 2007.
Most, but not all.
Ali Joone, founder and co-owner of Digital Playground, believes that high-definition technology not only will keep the DVD format from disappearing, it will keep it robust well into the future.
"If you ask anybody who ever bought an HD TV and watched HD programming, they never want to go back to looking at regular programming," Joone says. "We always catered to the high-end market. We feel that our market will buy the HD DVD players, and they're going to want programming in HD. That's why we feel that HD has a viable future."
Joone has put his money where his mouth is, investing heavily in the new equipment required to shoot an HD movie and making Digital Playground the first adult company to produce a movie meant for viewing on HD TVs.
"We're about to release our first one," he reveals. "The way I look at it is we're in the same market that Mercedes and Rolex are. People who buy Mercedes are not looking for a car to get them from point A to point B. They're looking for the experience and the quality. That's the market we've always tailored our product to.
It didn't take long after Digital Playground announced its commitment to HD for another adult firm, Vivid Entertainment, to make a similar announcement in late October. Although Digital Playground's first HD feature will be released months before theirs, Vivid plans to have its own HD feature debut in the first quarter of 2007.
"HD is the next step in our business, and certainly in the future of the DVD," says Marci Hirsch, Vivid's head of production. "We do a lot of research before we make this kind of decision. We've been researching over the last year or so how to enter the HD market. We definitely believe it's part of the future for our company and we're hoping that it increases sales."
Of course, there are good reasons why the rest of the production houses in adult haven't jumped pell-mell into HD production. For one thing, shooting a movie in HD costs more money — a lot more.
The simple cost of replicating and authorizing an HD DVD is 10 times higher than standard DVDs. And that's just a tiny part of the equation.
"It's pretty expensive right now," admits Joone, "but DVD was almost the same price when it first came out as far as replication goes. We're not looking at anything different. So for now I think you've just really got to step up to the plate and create stuff that you're going to have a large market for. It's not like you can sell 1,000 pieces and you'll be happy."
Joone admits that the added costs in special equipment, authorization and replication will have to be passed along to the consumer, estimating a 20 to 30 percent hike in price over the standard DVDs.
"We'll charge more money initially," Hirsch agrees, "but then we'll lower the price as our costs come down. It's like when you first bought a DVD player, it cost over $300. Now you can get them for $69."
Right now, Hirsch says her company's problems in HD are not the costs, but in finding outlets where the new DVDs can be replicated. She claims that the mainstream movie industry is behind it "because the Hollywood studios don't really want adult to be in HD before them."
Conspiracy theories aside, any company making the move to HD DVD format will find that there are some sticky issues, not the least of which is the war between Sony and Toshiba for the HD market with their dueling, incompatible formats.
Sony's HD product, Bluray, is a high-quality, high-cost format. Toshiba's HD-DVD is less expensive to shoot, and more affordable to consumers, but it delivers a lower quality picture.
"We like Blu-ray because of the higher capacity and also because Sony Playstation 3 has got Blu-ray in it," Joone says. "But we're supporting both formats. In fact, the initial movies we're putting out will be HD-DVD."
Joone believes that the competition between Sony and Toshiba — unlike the battle between VHS and Betamax formats in the 1980s — will not end with one format lying in the dust.
"The cool thing is that technology is stepping in and might be able to solve [the Sony-Toshiba battle]," he says. "Philips has a combo player coming out that plays both. The new machines have two lasers in them.
"There's another technology where you have one disk with three versions on it. You have one layer that's HD-DVD, one layer that's Blu-ray and one for standard DVD. When you put the DVD in, the appropriate player just plays it. To me, that's the ideal solution."
Vivid has committed to the Blu-ray system for its first HD feature, mostly because the authorizing and replication tools for the Sony system are more accessible to them right now. But shooting in HD is nothing new to Vivid or Digital Playground.
"We've already shot a lot of movies on HD, even though they weren't replicated and authored," Hirsch reveals. "We got a jump on it, and even through they're standard definition DVDs, you can see the difference. So we already have the equipment."
Digital Playground has been doing the same thing for three years.
"We have the largest HD library in the adult business right now," Joone says.
Still, the naysayers continue to toss out caveats about the dangers inherent in HD films. They've criticized the very thing that sets HD apart — the incredible sharpness of its image — saying it's all wrong for adult content because it shows too much detail.
"Hollywood has been shooting 35mm film, which is high-resolution, for 100 years," Joone points out. "When you watch a movie, and it's blown up three stories high, you see stars with flawless skin. You shoot it right, use the right makeup, and put the right stuff in front of the lens, and you can make sure they look right."
Joone adds that the important aspect of HD is not just the format, but how it's shot. He advises filmmakers in HD to "go the extra mile, using the right cameras," along with taking care about lighting and makeup.
He also sees HD becoming something quite different than it is right now.
"The obvious advantages of HD are the interactivity and the choices," he says. "You're not going to see it right off the bat, because the tools aren't there yet. But down the line, you're going to see it. It's going to be a lot more tied in with the web, having movies already on there unlocked so you can watch them for less money. It's almost like pay-per-view, but you already have the content."
Perhaps the most enticing aspect of HD is its rapidly growing use by businesses and consumers. This trend was not lost on Vivid's Hirsch.
"Everybody seems to be moving toward HD, like the hotels for VOD, because the quality is so much better," she says. "We realize that not everybody is going to have an HD DVD player, so we will continue to replicate our movies in standard DVD also, until the time comes when there's no longer a call for standard definition. I am not sure how long that will take."
For companies such as Digital Playground and Vivid, sooner is better than later. Both firms have made substantial commitments to HD, in trust that it will breathe new life into the DVD format. Joone, for one, is sure HD DVD has a bright future.
"I foresee that, instead of having four-hour compilations, you'll have 24-hour compilations on a disc," he says. "So a lot of people who have standard-def libraries will probably find new life for them in this new product."