Commentary: Year-End Studio Report Cards

Posted Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 12:48 PM PST by

Editor's Note: A long-time movie buff and video collector from laserdisc to DVD and beyond, Joshua Zyber is a veteran disc reviewer, and an enthusiastic supporter of all things High Definition. In his twice-monthly High-Def Digest column, Josh discusses a broad range of topics of interest to other early adopters.

By Joshua Zyber

As we move forward into the new year, it's time to look back fondly on all the exciting developments of the past 12 months. In the world of home video, 2007 was certainly a tumultuous year for the ongoing High Definition format war. Despite proclamations at the end of 2006 that the conflict would be wrapped up within a few months, both the HD DVD and Blu-ray camps remain as firmly entrenched in their positions as ever. In fact, if anything, the animosity between the two sides has only grown more bitter and vitriolic.

Big things happened in 2007, some positive and some negative for both sides. Each format saw the release of around 300 additional titles during the calendar year. Some studios made aggressive pushes for High Definition media, unleashing both major day-and-date new releases and prestigious catalog titles. Other studios seemed to back away from the table. One major player shocked the industry with an unexpected decision to drop one format entirely in favor of the other. Meanwhile, a company that was rumored last year to likewise change strategies wound up holding its ground. As if that weren't enough, yet another studio spent the better part of this last quarter mired in rumors that it was planning a shift of its own.

To bid farewell to the year that was, please join me as I look back at all of the major High Definition studios and hand out some year-end report cards, rating each on how well they've supported their chosen formats.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Encompassing the various divisions of the Disney empire, from Walt Disney and Pixar animation to the Touchtone and Miramax labels, Buena Vista released a little over 30 titles on Blu-ray in 2007. Among them were some day-and-date hits like Mel Gibson's controversial 'Apocalypto' and the inexplicably successful John Travota/Tim Allen biker comedy 'Wild Hogs', as well as a smattering of other live action catalog titles. As far as Disney's famed animation, all we saw were the recent digital entries 'Chicken Little' and 'Meet the Robinsons', but none of the classic traditional animation that fans are really waiting for.

Undoubtedly, Buena Vista's most important High-Def releases this year were the three 'Pirates of the Caribbean' blockbusters and a trio of Pixar animation discs: 'Cars', 'Ratatouille', and the 'Pixar Short Films Collection'. The studio wraps up the year with the outstanding 'Lost: The Complete Third Season' television series box set and the massively popular 'tweener TV movie 'High School Musical 2', both of which are sure to sell very well.

Buena Vista has a solid track record for quality, favoring AVC MPEG-4 video encoding and uncompressed PCM sound, though they did let a serious framing error slip though in their 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl' disc (the studio recently announced a replacement program for affected copies). In the coming year, they should focus on releasing a broader selection of titles. They've got some tremendous movies in their catalog, from Disney and Pixar animation (let's see 'The Lion King' and 'Toy Story', please) to some great independent and foreign films from their various specialty labels. Not to mention that we still need the first two seasons of 'Lost', as well as some of their other great TV properties. Thus far, the studio still seems to be testing the High Definition waters and has been timid to unleash their most important titles. It's time to open that vault.

It would also be nice if they'd stop forcing numerous movie trailers at the start of all their discs. That's just annoying.
Grade: A-

Lionsgate Entertainment
At the end of 2006, rumors circulated that Lionsgate was on the brink of abandoning their Blu-ray exclusivity and releasing on HD DVD as well. That did not come to pass, and a year later the studio seems to be more gung-ho for Blu-ray than ever.

Lionsgate may not be one of the biggest players in Hollywood, but they do have some appealing titles in their catalog, mostly genre and cult fare. In 2007, they released just over 20 Blu-ray discs. Among them were some perennial favorites like 'First Blood', 'Basic Instinct', and 'Reservoir Dogs', as well as two seasons of the popular Showtime TV series 'Weeds' and a couple entries from the seemingly-endless 'Saw' horror franchise. Their biggest Blu-ray hit this year was easily the Jason Statham action flick 'Crank', a movie that lingered near the top of the High-Def sales lists for months.

Lionsgate has been hit-or-miss in video quality, and has spotty support for lossless or uncompressed audio. Some of their discs, like the major catalog release of 'Dirty Dancing', look just awful. In fact, other than 'Crank', I can't think of any other Lionsgate Blu-rays this year that could be described as having exceptional video or audio quality. Improving their video transfer and disc authoring process is absolutely their biggest area for improvement in the coming year.
Grade: C

Magnolia Home Entertainment
One of the few independent studios to embrace High-Def media in a significant way, Magnolia (a division of Mark Cuban's mini media empire) doesn't have a huge catalog, but has been daring enough to release titles on both Blu-ray and HD DVD. They didn't put out much in 2007, their most notable releases being the acclaimed documentary 'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room' (Blu-ray | HD DVD) and the Korean cult monster movie 'The Host' (Blu-ray | HD DVD). Quality is a hit-or-miss affair, largely dependent on the condition of the material they're working with. They almost never offer lossless or uncompressed audio. However, they did knock out a nice transfer for 'The Host', and included PCM sound on the Blu-ray edition (the HD DVD unfortunately had no comparable lossless audio option). Their releases of the French actioner 'District B13' (Blu-ray | HD DVD) were flawed on both formats, including only English closed captions (spelling out all sound effects) to go along with the original French soundtrack.

Magnolia has been erratic in their support of both formats, sometimes delaying their releases on one side or the other for no discernable reason. They need to straighten out problems like that, and work on improving their quality. A more aggressive release slate would also be nice, but with their limited catalog I don't know how much more they can do in that regard.
Grade: C-

MGM Home Entertainment
I kind of feel bad for MGM. In 2006, the studio's Blu-ray support was tied up with Sony as home video distributor, and the discs they released suffered from the quality problems Sony was having at that time. MGM broke off the distribution deal with Sony at the end of last year and switched to Fox, only to have their Blu-ray slate pulled when Fox mysteriously disappeared from the High Definition format for a large chunk of the year (more on this below). As a result, they released a grand total of five Blu-ray discs in 2007, not counting the fact that their name technically appears on the packaging for 'Casino Royale'. Although that James Bond reboot was one of the biggest High-Def titles of the year, the picture was a co-production with Sony, which holds the distribution rights and takes most of the credit. Of the rest of MGM's titles, three were catalog releases: 'Hart's War', 'Hoosiers', and 'RoboCop', the latter two with middle-of-the-road video transfers. The others were new titles: the bizarre Kevin Costner psycho thriller 'Mr. Brooks' and the Werner Herzog war drama 'Rescue Dawn'. Both were box office disappointments, but at least featured better High-Def video transfers. On the plus side, MGM has provided lossless DTS-HD Master Audio (corresponding with new distributor Fox) on all releases this year.

Where should MGM go in 2008? With their distribution problems sorted out, the studio should begin a more aggressive release slate for titles from their still-impressive back catalog. Lest we forget, MGM still holds the rights to the first 20 James Bond films, among other desirable properties. Please, MGM, give us some of those.
Grade: C-

New Line Home Entertainment
Arriving late to the High Definition game, New Line will officially take the same format-neutral stance as parent company Warner Bros. However, the studio has made the frustrating decision to enforce region coding on Blu-ray and to stagger new releases on HD DVD until several months after the comparable DVD and Blu-ray (catalog titles will be released simultaneously). Their first High-Def title was 'Hairspray' on Blu-ray at the end of November, and they knocked it out of the park with stunning video and audio, plus a bunch of good bonus features. Ending the year are 'Rush Hour 3' on Blu-ray (HD DVD to follow later) and the dual-format bow of catalog release 'Pan's Labyrinth' (Blu-ray | HD DVD).

For 2008, I have four words for New Line: 'Lord of the Rings'. You know that fans are salivating for it. You held out on High-Def media too long. It's time to make a splash by jumping in whole-hog with the full Extended Editions and all the bonus features from those lovely DVD box sets. And drop that nonsense with the staggered format release schedules.
Grade: C (mainly due to lack of content released)

Paramount Home Entertainment and Dreamworks Home Entertainment
In August of 2007, Paramount delivered the most shocking development in the High Definition format war to date by dropping their prior stance of format neutrality to support HD DVD exclusively. Though they reportedly received financial incentives to do so, Paramount maintains that the production costs and infrastructure of both formats were their biggest concerns. In making this decision, they've brought Dreamworks Home Entertainment (whom they own and distribute) with them, and the two studios are so tied together that there's no sense in separating them for this discussion. Technically, the Dreamworks Animation division was spun off into its own separate entity back in 2004, and does not fall under the ownership of parent corporation Viacom; however, their home video products are also distributed by Paramount, and the three companies acted as a united front in 2007.

Before the switch, the studios released a solid but unremarkable assortment of content on both formats. Among them were a few big catalog movies like 'The Untouchables' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), and 'The Warriors' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), plus new releases such as 'Babel' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), 'Black Snake Moan' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), and 'Disturbia' (Blu-ray | HD DVD). All were decent titles but none quite broke any High Definition sales records. It wasn't until after the transition that Paramount and Dreamworks brought out the big guns, namely 'Transformers' and 'Shrek the Third', two of the biggest box office hits of the year, for which Paramount pulled out all the stops in terms of outstanding video, audio, and exclusive bonus features. Also notable is the impressive 10-disc box set release of the "Remastered" first season of 'Star Trek: The Original Series', which is available exclusively in DVD/HD DVD Combo format with no separate DVD-only release.

Paramount has largely done a very good job with the video and audio of their releases, with 'Dreamgirls' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), 'Flags of Our Fathers' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), and 'Shrek the Third' ranking as some of the best-looking High Definition movies of the year. Controversially, the studio has not yet embraced lossless audio to any significant degree, but has regardless pushed the bar for sound quality with high bit rate Dolby Digital Plus. Even without a lossless track, 'Transformers' took the prize for Best Audio Quality at the recent High-Def Disc Awards. At the end of the year, the studio also started a push for interactive picture-in-picture and web-enabled bonus features, something they will hopefully continue into the future.

For 2008: Time to start digging into that rich catalog of yours, Paramount. For a major studio, you barely released a measly 30 titles this year. Where are 'Chinatown', 'Apocalypse Now', and 'Grease', or the 'Godfather' and 'Indiana Jones' franchises? For that matter, where are 'Team America', 'The Truman Show', and 'Lemony Snickett', all of which you used to tease us with during those High Definition promos at the start of your discs? Stop holding back. It's time to up your game.
Grade: B+

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
The award for "Most Improved Studio" of 2007 goes to Sony, who completely turned around all the quality problems they experienced in 2006, and delivered over 70 titles on Blu-ray this year, most of them boasting quite impressive quality. To help make up for past transgressions, the studio even remastered 'The Fifth Element' with a significantly better video transfer, and offered buyers of the original disc a free mail-in exchange program. That's probably the classiest thing any High-Def studio did all year. Kudos to you, Sony.

Admittedly, the quality turnaround is largely attributable to the studio's conscious decision to focus mainly on releasing known "eye candy" titles, movies with attractive photography and high production values that have been recently mastered or remastered. Not all of these are particularly good movies, unfortunately. That's a real shame considering how many great films Sony holds in the Columbia and Sony Pictures Classics catalogs, material that deserves to be treated with the same attention and care they've been lavishing so far on marginal titles like 'Identity', 'The Replacement Killers', or 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within'.

The studio did however put out a number of respectable movies, including acclaimed foreign-language films 'The Lives of Others', 'Curse of the Golden Flower', and 'Volver'. But their biggest releases of the year were of course 'Casino Royale' and the 'Spider-Man Trilogy', both sure-fire bestsellers. They've also finished off the year with a splendidly remastered edition of the Steven Spielberg classic 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', which features every major version of the movie and a bunch of nice bonus material. Hopefully that's a sign that the studio will continue to dig into their catalog and expand beyond the Playstation 3's gamer demographic they've been largely catering to so far.
Grade: A-

Starz Home Entertainment
Formerly known as Anchor Bay Entertainment, Starz had a rather small Blu-ray release slate in 2007, comprised of only nine titles, four of which were volumes of the 'Masters of Horror' Showtime TV series. The other releases were primarily safe bets such as 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978) and 'Evil Dead 2' that the studio had already released, and re-released, and re-re-released innumerable times on DVD to continually bilk fans for every last dollar. The technical quality of those discs was fine, considering the source of the material, but Starz really screwed up 'Halloween' (1978) by using a miscolored video master that undermined many of director John Carpenter's original artistic decisions.

What to do in 2008? Start releasing a better selection of titles (Anchor Bay had a huge catalog of interesting foreign and cult movies) and pay more attention to the quality of the transfers.
Grade: D+

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Here we go. The most disappointing High-Def studio of 2007 is unquestionably Fox. For a company sitting on such an amazing catalog of huge movies, major franchises, and outstanding television programming, the studio's Blu-ray support has been quite pathetic, primarily focused on low-interest films the likes of 'Chain Reaction' and 'Men of Honor' that would be lucky to sell a couple dozen copies on Blu-ray. Their habitual problems with announcing titles only to delay or cancel them were the joke of the High-Def community this year. In all, Fox barely released 30 titles in 2007. Their discs are some of the highest-priced in High Definition media, yet rarely carry over many bonus features from the original DVD editions and in too many cases have mediocre video transfers. On the other hand, at least they support lossless DTS-HD Master Audio on all discs.

For no clear reason, Fox completely ceased all Blu-ray releases in April of 2007 and didn't resume until six months later in October. Speculation has it that they were concerned about breaches in the format's AACS security encryption and were waiting for the added layer of BD+, but the company made no official statements about the reason for their shutdown (ironically, BD+ was cracked by hackers almost immediately after implementation -- Whoops!).

To give them credit, Fox returned from their sabbatical stronger than when they left. Their discs started including more bonus features, and they've recently put out some very desirable releases such as the 'Die Hard Collection', 'The Simpsons Movie', and 'Prison Break: Season One'.

Unfortunately, not everything has been peachy keen since their return. The company made two of the most frustrating decisions of the year. First, they've released the blockbuster 'Live Free or Die Hard' on Blu-ray only in its PG-13 theatrical cut, while an unrated edition is available on standard DVD. Even more perplexing than that, one of their most high profile catalog releases was '28 Days Later', a movie that was actually shot on Standard Definition video. The Blu-ray contains an upscaled Standard-Def transfer almost indistinguishable from the old DVD edition, and they have the gall to charge $39.98 for it!

To be blunt, Fox needs to clean up its act in 2008. They made a complete mess of things in 2007.
Grade: C-

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
As the biggest and most vocal HD DVD exclusive studio, Universal released over 80 titles on the format in 2007, which has been both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing for the obvious reason of putting a lot of content out there in High Definition. They've really run the gamut from blockbuster hits like 'Knocked Up' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum', to major TV properties 'Heroes' and 'Battlestar Galactica', to cult favorites such as 'The Big Lebowski' and 'Being John Malkovich'.

On the flip side of that, they've made a lot of frankly inexplicable choices in what to release. I'm talking about stuff like 'The Watcher' and 'Mercury Rising' that I can't imagine anyone being eager to purchase. Sometimes it really feels like the studio executives pinned a printed list of all their titles to a wall and have been throwing darts at it to decide what comes out on HD DVD next. Seriously, Universal, you're ending the year with 'Timecop'?

The other big problem is that in cranking out so many titles, Universal has been mainly recycling existing High Definition masters that were originally created for DVD downconversion, some of them quite old and nowhere near modern video transfer standards. While day-and-date stuff and those titles recently mastered or remastered usually looked pretty good, too many of the studio's catalog titles featured pronounced edge enhancement or noise reduction artifacts, like those in 'Liar Liar' and 'In Good Company'.

The studio also continues to use the DVD/HD DVD Combo format for all day-and-date releases, which is frustrating considering that a significant number of discs in that format wind up having glitchy playback problems. Their support for lossless Dolby TrueHD audio has been spotty, though they've done a pretty good job with high bit-rate Dolby Digital Plus, and have started including TrueHD on more titles toward year-end.

In 2008, Universal needs to put more focus on quality rather than quantity. They should take a closer look at the video masters in their archives before rushing them out to HD DVD, and start remastering titles when needed. I'd also like to see them dig a little deeper into their catalog for movies made prior to 1980. Give us some Hitchcock classics like 'Vertigo' and 'Psycho', please. And enough with the damn Combo discs. Those are more trouble than they're worth.
Grade: B+

Warner Home Video
Warner Bros. started out 2007 with a little movie called 'The Departed' (Blu-ray | HD DVD) that you may have heard of. After that came such low-profile releases as 'Happy Feet' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), '300' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), the 'Planet Earth' (Blu-ray | HD DVD) box set (distributed for BBC Video), 'The Ultimate Matrix Collection', the 'Harry Potter Years 1-5 Gift Set' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), and the 'Blade Runner Ultimate Collector's Edition' (Blu-ray | HD DVD) that has all 5 versions of the movie in High Definition! You know, just a bunch of rinky-dink stuff like that.

The only major studio still releasing on both next-gen formats, Warner issued almost 80 titles on each format in 2007, among them many of the best High Definition discs of the year. They've not only aggressively made High-Def new releases available day-and-date with standard DVD, but have dug deep into their catalog to pull out some fantastic material like 'Dog Day Afternoon' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), 'Rio Bravo' (Blu-ray | HD DVD), and five Stanley Kubrick classics including a beautiful presentation of '2001: A Space Odyssey' (Blu-ray | HD DVD). The studio has consistently strong video quality (favoring VC-1 encoding), almost always carries over all the DVD bonus features to both HD formats, and has pushed for innovation in web-enabled and picture-in-picture interactive content.

I do wish, however, that they'd beef up their audio support. The studio only offers a limited number of titles with either lossless Dolby TrueHD (on HD DVD) or uncompressed PCM (on Blu-ray), and usually defaults to Dolby Digital (BD) or Dolby Digital Plus (HD) at the low 640 kb/s bit rate, which is disappointing to say the least. They still have some titles exclusive to HD DVD (like that 'Matrix' box set) that have yet to make the transition to Blu-ray as well, and insist on using the damned Combo format for all day-and-date releases on HD DVD. These are all things that deserve fixing in the near future, preferably as soon as possible.

Warner has also been experiencing something of a bumpy ride in this last month, during which they've suffered unfortunate production glitches such as packaging HD DVD discs into some copies of the 'Harry Potter' Blu-ray box set, mis-pressing the wrong content onto the final disc in some copies of the 'Blade Runner' collection, and mistakenly encoding the 'Terminator 3' Blu-ray video at 1080i resolution. These were all clearly unintentional errors, and the company has been prompt in responding and taking steps to correct matters, but they are nonetheless a black mark on the firm's reputation.

Even so, in my opinion, Warner Home Video easily qualifies as the best High Definition studio of the year, bar none. Some rumors have recently made the rounds that the company is considering dropping one format and declaring exclusivity to the other. Whether that exclusivity would favor Blu-ray or HD DVD depends on which rumor you believe, but Warner executives have so far denied any such plans. If such a thing were to happen, it would certainly be a tremendous loss to whichever side they abandoned.
Grade: A

The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment
Last and certainly least is The Weinstein Company (distributed via Genius Products), the worst High Definition studio of 2007. Technically HD DVD exclusive, the company released only 7 titles this year, the last back in June. They made no effort to issue new discs day-and-date with DVD and released mostly crappy movies (though I'll admit that 'Feast' is a fun guilty pleasure). They then acted surprised that their discs didn't sell and subsequently pulled up their stakes and vanished. Where are the 'Grindhouse' movies? Where is '1408'? Where's that 'Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair' consolidated edit they've been promising for ages? Nowhere to be found on High-Definition, that's where. Thanks for nothing, Weinstein.
Grade: F

That's it for the major labels. I want to wrap up by offering a shout-out to all the smaller independent studios that dipped their toes into the High Definition waters in 2007: Koch, Concert Hot Spot, and DVD International for all those scenery discs and the 'Digital Video Essentials' calibration tool; Razor Digital for the IMAX documentaries; Eagle Rock, Image, Interscope, and Rhino for the concert videos; FUNimation and Bandai Visual for the anime (though Bandai really needs to rethink its obscenely high prices); Opus Arte for bringing some opera to class up the joint; the porn studios for doing the opposite; and any other indies I've missed for giving it a go in 2007. We're still in the early stages of these High Definition formats, and the breadth of interesting content you bring helps enormously. Here's to more in 2008 and beyond!

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