Discounts, flurry of releases planned

And now for the comeback?

The HD DVD camp spent much of the first quarter on the ropes, with sales of Blu-ray outstripping the format by a score of 250,000 units sold to 125,000 for the month of February, according to a Video Business report.

For HD DVD, the bad news culminated with the Blu-ray release of Sony’s James Bond remake “Casino Royale,” which tallied sales of 50,000 discs and unit shipments of 100,000 in the weeks after its March 13 release.

“Casino Royale” has been the biggest hi-def disc release in either format so far, and Sony officials were quick to remind everyone that Sony title “Air Force One” was in the market for 11 months before becoming the first DVD title to ship 100,000 units back in 1998.

Sony officials also tied “Casino Royale’s” success to the uptake of Blu-ray drive-equipped PlayStation 3 game consoles, which have given the Blu-ray side a decided advantage in terms of household adoption.

Still, don’t expect a “no mas” from the HD DVD camp soon, says Richard Doherty, senior analyst for the Envisioneering Group, who notes, “I’ve never seen a more resolute group.”

Toshiba, the leading producer of set-top HD DVD players, has already announced price reductions, including a $100 drop for its entry-level HD-A2 model, bringing the tag down to $399.

That trumped an earlier Sony announcement that its new BDP-S300 model would hit store shelves midyear with a pricetag of $599.

HD DVD studios also announced 70 second-quarter releases, a flurry that includes such offerings as Warner’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “The Matrix” trilogy as well as exclusive-to-format Universal titles including “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “The Hitcher” and “Smokey and the Bandit.”

And there are a few signs of progress for HD DVD of late.

The format just put its 100,000th set-top player into U.S. homes, and its European market infiltration is significantly ahead of Blu-ray right now, VB reports.

Samsung — which had been a staunch Blu-ray denizen — just announced it will join LG in marketing a box that will play both Blu-ray and HD DVD titles.

Meanwhile, pre-orders for HD DVD titles on Amazon have been giving Blu-ray a serious challenge. Last week, for example, the HD DVD version of BBC Video nature-series compilation “Planet Earth: The Complete Series” was the top pre-selling hi-def disc on the site.

Still, despite price cuts, a flurry of new titles and a steely resolve, the HD DVD camp continues to struggle with a content problem.

A raft of sure-to-be-hot Blu-ray offerings is on the way, including Disney’s first two “Pirates of the Caribbean” installments and “Cars.”

Currently, HD DVD has no ties to part-three follow-ups to the “Pirates,” “Spider-Man” and “Shrek” franchises.

Meanwhile, Blu-ray’s long-touted storage advantages –which many considered a niggling tech detail at the beginning of this whole format war — are actually baring out, with a number of titles using Blu-ray’s full capacity.

“No one seemed to realize that the 50-gig point would be reached this soon. But among the studio execs and artists, there are people like Jerry Bruckheimer who have stepped forward and said, ‘I want to use all of that disc,’ ” Doherty notes.

Doherty adds that bargain-priced HD DVD players manufactured in China — which were touted at January’s Consumer Electronics Show — need to be officially announced very soon if they are to materialize by the fourth quarter.

HD DVD hopes would also benefit, he notes, if “15 out of 20 PC makers suddenly announced that they were putting HD DVD drives into their machines” at the upcoming WinHec computer biz confab in Los Angeles.

“I think HD DVD (officials) need more than just the catalog commitments they’ve made for the next few quarters to make the teeter-totter swing back their way,” Doherty says.

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