Studio first to distribute format in country

Sony Pictures is poised to become the first Hollywood studio to distribute Blu-ray DVDs in China. Move comes as pirates in China are beginning to trade in new forms of fake discs.

Starting Friday, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will distribute 30 current and classic movies in the Sony-developed high-definition format for 205 yuan ($30) per disc — a considerable sum in a low-wage country.

Pics include “Hancock,” “Kung Fu Hustle,” the “Spider-Man” trilogy, “Hitch,” “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Launch coincides with the preem in China of Sony’s BDP-S350 Blu-ray player.

Other Hollywood studios have not announced firm plans to release movies in China on Blu-ray, though Warner Bros. and Disney are understood to be close behind.

“We will launch once (local) Blu-ray replication capability is ready — hopefully in the first or second quarter,” a Disney spokesman said.

Sony will import Blu-ray DVDs into China initially, with local production beginning within the year.

Local manufacturing could help companies cut retail prices and also earn a higher degree of protection from Chinese authorities against pirate operators.

Although pirating Blu-ray discs is a tricky technological proposition, illegal high-definition discs are now on sale in China. Only last month, trading standards officers in Shenzhen, just across the Chinese border from Hong Kong, uncovered a massive stash of pirated material including 800 discs that purported to be Blu-ray.

In fact, they used Advanced Video Codec High Definition, a high- and standard-definition recording format for use in tapeless digital camcorders. But they were packaged in fake blue plastic boxes complete with Blu-ray holograms.

The Motion Picture Assn. described the seized discs as “sheep in wolf’s clothing.”

“Consumers are being cheated twice — they are buying stolen movies peddled on fake Blu-ray format,” said Mike Ellis, MPA president-managing director for the Asia-Pacific region.

It is not just consumers who will have a headache. The arrival of AVCHD discs is a major worry for the studios.

AVCHD discs can be manufactured using cheap, standard blank DVDs, yet they are playable in Blu-ray disc players and provide a better image than standard definition discs.

The MPA estimates that AVCHD discs could account for 10% of Chinese piracy within the next six months. And Chinese pirates are expected to become exporters of AVCHD and fake Blu-ray discs — something that could slow the spread of legitimate high-def discs in other territories.

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