CD’s in picture for future pix distrib’n

The ability to cram a feature onto a compact disc may be under Hollywood’s Christmas tree next year.

This new way of distributing films appears to be one of the uses of IBM’s Power Visualization System computer. According to IBM and Laser-Pacific Media Corp., the pair have teamed up to develop software that compresses a 120-minute film onto a compact disc.

The carrot for studios is cost. Top entertainment executives have talked longingly about stamping movies out on CDs at an average price of $ 1 apiece, vs. $ 4 for packaging a videocassette.

But Laser-Pacific’s first customer is likely to be Philips Electronics, since its multimedia arm, Philips Interactive Media of America (PIMA), makes the CD-I multimedia player. PIMA began talks last fall with Laser-Pacific to make a high-speed production process possible (Daily Variety, Oct. 29).

PIMA is already writing computer software, code-named the Edison kit, that permits studios to simply “roll over” films and videos to its CD-I format.

The goal, say Laser-Pacific exex, is for the entire production facility to be ready by May, so Philips can give its CD-I platform a much-needed push next Christmas.

“I personally think CD-I needs video and feature films,” says PIMA executive Andy Davidson. “The goal is have that in the market for Christmas this year.”

The results will be a big boost for CD-I, says Gary Drucker at PIMA’s Sidewalk Studio, simply because the Philips player will now be able to be marketed as offering more than just interactive games and CD-quality music. That combination has not been enough so far to enable the CD-I to live up to expectations. Backers are more hopeful that sales will take off when it becomes a souped-up videocassette player.

“You’ll get rock videos with random access, movies, audio CDs, and games,” Drucker contends.

“It’s a first step,” says PIMA president Bernie Luskin. “Edison is the interface.”

PIMA reportedly is talking to all the studios, including sister companies owned by Philips, such as Working Title and Interscope.

The key, though, is how fast Laser-Pacific can get its work done. Laser-Pacific president Emory Cohen said the post-production house has set lofty goals. “Our target is to provide a service to those who want to put movies-on-demand in place,” he said, meaning on CD, or distribution over phone lines or satellite. “The facility we’re building is to produce movies on compressed media, whatever it’s to be.”

By using the Motion Picture Expert Group, or MPEG, international standard for compression, Cohen contends he can squeeze a movie down by a ratio of 160-to-1. Moreover, IBM system will be able to compress the images at near real-time with no loss of quality.

Still, several hurdles remain. First, the process must deliver high-quality pictures. When compression takes place, something is inevitably lost.

“If they can demonstrate motion picture quality, you have something,” notes Keith Schaefer, president of Paramount’s new Technology Group. But, he adds, “It’s unrealistic to have all that happen by Christmas next year.”

Indeed, many familiar with Laser’s progress wonder if they can meet their Christmas deadline. In current tests, the system isn’t close to real-time, but it’s being improved. And, Philips has to meet a deadline to ship its full-motion video cartridge for the CD-I player.

Of course, fancy software is going to just sit on store shelves unless there are machines in consumers’ hands. So far, results aren’t encouraging.

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