The future is here …it’s about time

HD DVD first out of gate

Score the first round for HD DVD.

After months of jockeying between two rival camps to roll out high-def DVDs, a handful of discs from Warner and Universal in the HD DVD format hit stores Tuesday.

Rival Blu-ray discs aren’t expected on shelves for another month.

But even if it was HD DVD’s day in the sun, there were still some first-day clouds.

While randomly visited stores in the L.A. area were carrying four or five copies each of the three movies that debuted — Warner’s “The Last Samurai” and “The Phantom of the Opera” and Universal’s lone entry “Serenity” — Warners’ “Million Dollar Baby” has been delayed a few days, and “Serenity” was nowhere to be found at some L.A. Best Buy and Circuit City stores. Other retailers contacted by sister publication Video Business hadn’t received their copies of “Serenity” Tuesday either.

Warner said problems with the “Million Dollar Baby” HD DVD master held back the title’s shipment to retail. The studio is on track to send out discs Thursday and Friday.

The studio pushed back its original HD DVD launch from March 28 due to production issues. Universal had no explanation for the missing “Serenity” shipments, but such delays were not uncommon during the early days of standard DVD.

The first Toshiba HD DVD players went on sale Monday, with an estimated 10,000-15,000 units shipped. Warner and Universal are shipping about 10,000 copies of each of their initial releases. Users must have an HD TV and an HD DVD player to watch HD DVD movies. HD DVD players will also play standard DVDs, but standard DVD players won’t play HD DVDs.

Priced between $24 and $35, the initial HD DVD releases are light on bonus materials — an element suppliers say they’ll focus on more down the line. At a press event Tuesday, Universal execs talked up interactive features coming on future HD discs, with studio prexy Craig Kornblau deeming current DVD features “yesterday.” He promised new features allowing viewers to personalize objects in the films and chat with friends online simultaneously by year’s end.

But that’s all later — the first four releases included interactive menus that allow users to continue watching the movie while switching formats or languages, but no other new interactive features.

More interactive components will be available on May releases “The Bourne Supremacy,” from Universal, and Warner’s “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Batman Begins” and “Constantine.”

U plans to begin releasing new films day and date on HD DVD this fall, with hybrid discs also in the offing.

HD packaging itself looks similar to that of standard DVDs — and the Blu-ray discs. For their part, HD DVD backers insist the logos and coloring make it very clear which disc goes with what player. “It just kind of ended up that way,” said an official at the HD DVD packaging designer, Seastone Media Group, noting the similarity.

Packed in red boxes, the HD DVD discs hit retail Tuesday with little fanfare. Toshiba is supporting the launch with an ad campaign targeted at high-end consumers. (TV spots running on HDNet include the slogan “So real you can feel it.”)

Suppliers contributing titles to the HD DVD launch are relying on retailers to supply the bulk of promotion during the format’s formative stages.

“Early on, our focus will be on helping the retailers communicate to the consumer in the store,” explains Steve Nickerson, Warner senior VP of market management. “That’s where the decision is really happening and where the education that needs to happen will happen — it’s not going to happen in a 30-second commercial and it’s probably not going to happen in a series of print ads.”

Blu-ray discs are expected May 23, with the first players arriving June 25.

(Daniel Frankel, Jennifer Netherby and Susanne Ault contributed to this report.)

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