Indie distribs influence format war

Smaller suppliers choose Blu-ray or HD DVD

With the major studios more equally divided than ever between Blu-ray and HD DVD camps, will it be independent suppliers who determine the outcome of the format war?

A small number of indie distribs have, indeed, chosen a side.

Tartan Video USA, for example, last month announced the Nov. 6 high-def debut of Korean cult fave “Oldboy” exclusively on Blu-ray.

“To go with Blu-ray was a no-brainer for Tartan,” company owner Hamish McAlpine told Variety sister pub Video Business, citing Blu-ray’s early 2-1 overall disc sales advantage.

Starz Home Entertainment, meanwhile, has begun to release some of its titles in Blu-ray only — a version of “Beowulf & Grendel” and “Masters of Horror: Season One, Volume 3” arrives next month.

On the other side, the Weinstein Co. has issued titles such as “Clerks 2” only in HD DVD.

The collective influence of these releases toward deciding the format war seems nil, however, with most indies releasing a small number of their titles in both formats or eschewing them altogether.

With consumer demand for the new technologies nascent right now — and the cost to produce Blu-ray and HD DVD discs still prohibitive for smaller suppliers — most of these would-be swing states are more inclined to sit out the election than vote on either high-def party with an exclusive slate.

Magnolia Home Entertainment, for example, has released titles like “The World’s Fastest Indian” in both Blu-ray and HD DVD — a strategy shared by other indies.

“We’re playing — a little — in both fields,” says Garrett Lee, senior VP of DVD production for Image Entertainment.

Image, a veteran from the days of Laserdisc, was an early believer in conventional DVD. Ten years into the format’s reign, the company rolls out some 30 new titles a month across a range of genres.

But as of mid-January, Image will have released just 13 titles in HD DVD and six in Blu-ray.

“We have well over 140 titles in our library that could make the transition (to high-def),” Lee says. “But because of the authoring and replication expense and with the player base the way it is right now, it’s not economically feasible to release them all.”

Sylvia George, VP of sales and marketing for Acorn Media, says that nearly 18 months after their respective releases, neither Blu-ray nor HD DVD has generated much discussion at her company, which distributes sought-after British TV gems like the Emmy-nominated “Prime Suspect.”

“None of our retailers have said there’s an immediate need — as a matter of fact, we’ve gotten the opposite feedback, to wait and see who wins the format war,” George says.

Last year, Acorn launched a fitness brand, Acacia, shooting many of its original yoga instructionals and wellness guides with high-definition cameras. But for the foreseeable future — that is, at least well into next year — even these 40-plus HD programs will lead a standard-def existence on disc.

“We do envision a day when we’ll have to (release in Blu-ray and/or HD DVD),” George says. “But we want to let the market decide first.”