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Brave New Medium in Home Entertainment Signals Leap for Storytelling, Gadgetry

High-tech advances and leading home-entertainment players will be feted at the 35th annual Press Play: Variety Home Entertainment and Digital Hall of Fame gala dinner and awards show to benefit City Year Los Angeles. Held Dec. 8 at Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, this year’s honorees are filmmaker Paul Feig; Horak, industry veteran of Redbox and Warner Bros.; Lionsgate co-heads of home entertainment operations Jim Packer and Ron Schwartz; comedian Chris Hardwick, CEO of Nerdist Industries and host of “@Midnight With Chris Hardwick” and “Talking Dead”; and HBO, recipient of the Hall of Fame Innovation Award. Sofia Chang, exec VP worldwide distribution & home entertainment, will accept the award on behalf of HBO.

But along with key figures in the arena of home entertainment, it’s the technology itself that’s more sophisticated than ever and worthy of a standing ovation. To wit, the home theater market is making a new leap in sound and video quality and the studios are lining up to offer content.

The growing format 4K Ultra High Definition offers four times the resolution of HD and includes high dynamic range (HDR), which produces brilliant highlights, vibrant colors and greater contrast on compatible displays. In praise of the more realistic look of HDR, Geoffrey A. Fowler of the Wall Street Journal recently wrote, “It is the best argument in years to upgrade your set.”

“UHD with HDR, it’s a significant step up. The overall consumer experience takes a giant leap.”
Mike Dunn

And consumers are beginning to do just that. Sales of 4K TVs — which observers say are hitting the market at a faster pace than HDTVs did —were up 494% in the third quarter with nearly 2 million sets sold year to date, according to data from DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group. There are 2.8 million U.S. households that have a 4K Ultra HD TV, the DEG reported.

Linear TV programming for the new sets has yet to catch up, but the home-entertainment industry is moving into high gear to offer Blu-ray discs and digital offerings that will fill the content pipeline and help viewers take advantage of what the new format has to offer.

Industry groups have already announced 4K Blu-ray specs, licensing and packaging.

The Blu-ray Disc Assn. announced specs in May and began licensing in August. The specs offer a “creative pallet” on Blu-ray for the new format, says Ron Martin, VP of operations, Panasonic Hollywood Lab. The 4K Blu-ray discs accommodate frame rates of up to 60 frames per second and have the ability to offer the highest quality in HDR, including such enhancements as Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. The specs also provide a “digital bridge,” or copy-and-export feature, that promises to untether content from the player. The bridge allows consumers to make a full-resolution copy on the player itself or a hard-drive bound to the UHD player. The copy can then be exported to a service that allows the consumer to transfer it to another device. Such services could include iTunes, Vudu or the new Vidity, developed by the Secure Content Storage Assn., which promises to make moving high-quality content simple.

Meanwhile, the DEG in November unveiled artwork and other design elements for UHD Blu-ray packaging, featuring a carbonized black color with metallic silver text and logo, helping to differentiate UHD Blu-rays.

According to Martin, while streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and M-Go offer 4K, those offerings face a bandwidth challenge and quality deficit that UHD Blu-ray doesn’t.

“That premium experience from the physical media just simply won’t be able to be beat,” Martin says.

The industry is also moving quickly on the content and hardware front. In September Samsung announced the first Ultra HD Blu-ray player, due in early 2016. And 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment president Mike Dunn made the industry’s first announcement of 4K UHD Blu-ray titles. Dunn says Fox has 30 movies published and ready to go, and that the future slate will be released on the new format at the same time as standard Blu-ray and Digital HD. Combo packs will include both the standard Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray for greater versatility.

“UHD with HDR, it’s a significant step up,” Dunn says. “The overall consumer experience takes a giant leap.”

Sony and Warner have joined a growing chorus of 4K content in recent months.

Oct. 21 Walmart’s Vudu.com digital movie service launched its first slate of movies in 4K Ultra HD resolution, all from Warners, for purchase ($24.99) or for rent ($9.99). Initial titles included such hits as “San Andreas,” “Man of Steel,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and “The Lego Movie.” On Nov. 17, Warners added more titles, including “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “American Sniper.”

500% Projected increase in sales for virtual reality headsets in 2016
2.8m Number of households in the U.S. with a 4K Ultra HD TV
$24.99 The cost to buy home video titles such as “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 4k Ultra HD resolution.

“Movie fans will love 4K UHD,” says Ron Sanders, president of Warner Bros.’ worldwide home entertainment distribution. “It is immersive, nuanced and stunningly true to life.”

“We see 4K with HDR as the next generation entertainment experience,” adds Vudu’s VP of product Scott Blanksteen. “It is a big investment for customers and a big commitment for Vudu. Fortunately, being part of Walmart gives us a pretty good picture of the market and customer trends.”

Vudu 4K supports the enhanced HDR of Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos technology. Blanksteen says Dolby Vision “wowed us.” In addition to Vudu, Dolby has partnered with Vizio, as well as Warner and Sony on Dolby Vision 4K, which offers “ultra-vivid colors, expanded contrast, and brightness,” says Curt Behlmer, VP, content solutions and industry relations, Dolby Laboratories.

Having supplied digital services with 4K content for some time, in November Sony Pictures Home Entertainment became the second studio to announce 4K UHD Blu-ray Disc releases set to arrive in early 2016, including such catalog hits as“The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Salt” and “The Smurfs 2,” followed by new-release film and TV content.

“Sony Pictures is taking a leading role in providing content for the expected 100 million 4K Ultra HD television sets that will be in consumers’ living rooms by 2019,” says Man Jit Singh, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. “Our studio has one of the largest libraries of 4K content in the industry.”

Consumer home-theater enthusiasts are ready for that leap in quality, especially HDR.

“HDR is what makes 4K UHD in my opinion,” says Adam Gregorich of enthusiast site Home Theater Forum.

“You can see detail in the shadow,” adds Bill Hunt, of another enthusiast site the Digital Bits. “Having that larger range of contrast increases the color spectrum.”

Hunt says he’s ready to collect all his favorites again on 4K UHD Blu-ray. And the industry is gearing up to supply them.“There is potential to stimulate demand for physical disc, particularly with HDR,” says Dan Cryan, senior director, media and content, at research firm IHS. “Articulating the value proposition is going to be more important than ever.”

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