Fromat camps seek ties beyond U.S. majors

As in the U.S. — where six out of seven Hollywood majors publish in the format, four of them exclusively — Blu-ray Disc has the upper hand over HD DVD across Europe when it comes to breadth of blockbuster titles.

According to analysts, Blu-ray exclusives like MGM-Sony’s “Casino Royale,” Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Fox’s “Night at the Museum” have outstripped what HD DVD loyalist Universal has done on high-def disc with exclusive-to-format titles like “Miami Vice” and “King Kong.”

The combined international high-def market share of Disney, Fox and Sony is about three times that of Universal, notes Amy Heller of global industry consultancy Media Control GfK.

Nevertheless, top new releases like Warner’s “300″ and BBC’s “Planet Earth,” which are available on both HD DVD and Blu-ray, net virtually the same sales for each format, whether in France, Germany, Spain or the U.K.

“This proves the appetite for both formats,” Heller says.

As the format war drags on, local distributors and titles could tip the scales.

The Toshiba-led HD DVD camp amassed an early lead over Sony-backed Blu-ray for local-language, locally produced content from distributors like Filmax and DeAPlaneta in Spain, Pathe and StudioCanal in France, and Imagion and Nixbu in Germany.

Continental indies can draw big crowds — the films account for about 30% of the U.K. market, and 50% of the market in France.

Canal’s “Le Pacte des loups” (Brotherhood of the Wolf), a 2002 film based on an 18th-century Gallic monster legend, claimed top 10 spots on the HD DVD charts of Amazon.fr and Amazon.co.uk in early June.

Over at Amazon.de, “Renaissance,” a Pathe animated feature distributed by Ascot Elite Home Entertainment of Switzerland, and “Elephants Dream,” a Dutch CGI short from Imagion, sat comfortably within Germany’s top 20 HD DVDs.

Blu-ray isn’t entirely out of the local loop: Gaumont-Columbia TriStar Home Video’s “OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions,” a 2006 sendup of the classic French spy franchise, charted within Amazon.fr’s top 50 of the format’s June sellers.

Distributors like Canal –which seeks European-major status with a library of 5,000 films — also retain the regional DVD rights to a number of U.S. pics.

So while the 1990 Schwarzenegger vehicle “Total Recall” remains a Stateside Blu-ray exclusive from Lionsgate, Canal-owned U.K. distributor Momentum offers Arnold-lovers across the Pond an HD DVD version as well.

The Holy Grail for both format camps? Better language support, so a single HD DVD or Blu-ray edition can serve multiple territories.

“It’s very hard to get a high-def disc out that can support Dutch, French and Italian, let alone Bulgarian and Romanian,” says analyst Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group. “You can go to a street vendor in Bucharest or London and get a (pirated) DVD that has 10 languages on it.”

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