Disney Taps Into Blu-rays Interactive Technology
The Walt Disney Company, along with the broader entertainment industry, is counting on “Sleeping Beauty” to help awaken interest in Blu-ray DVDs.
In October, the company will release a 50th anniversary edition of the classic animated movie in the high-definition Blu-ray format. But Disney is not stopping there. “Sleeping Beauty” will also come with unusual features geared toward a generation of viewers that embraces interactivity and social networking.
Viewers can watch the movie in tandem with friends in other locations and chat using a laptop, P.D.A. or cellphone. (Comments appear on the screen.) Parents who are not able to watch the film with their children can record a video message that will pop up during a designated scene as the child watches. Viewers will also be able to compete against others around the world at trivia.
All of these activities are possible because of a technology that connects Blu-ray discs with the Internet, which the entertainment industry is calling BD Live. Disney and other studios, including Lionsgate and Sony, believe that BD Live could be Blu-ray’s killer app, potentially altering the tepid response that consumers have given Blu-ray to date.
“Our research shows that so many people watch TV with their laptop nearby,” said Lori MacPherson, senior vice president and general manager for Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment North America. “Online gaming and texting are already popular. The question is, how do we harness this?”
Hardware is a giant hurdle. First-generation Blu-ray players are not compatible with BD Live and cannot be upgraded. Although Sony’s PlayStation 3 can use the technology, there is currently only one BD Live Blu-ray machine — Panasonic’s DMP-BD50K model — and it costs about $800.
Several new BD Live-enabled machines will arrive in stores by fall, but they will still be out of reach for many. The new Blu-ray players will sell for as little as $400.
There is also the problem of acquainting consumers with a technology that sounds daunting. In reality it is fairly simple to use, but Disney plans advertising and demonstrations in stores and elsewhere to help introduce it to the public.
“We need to demystify this technology for the mass market,” said Bob Chapek, president of Disney’s home entertainment unit.
The lack of compatible hardware has not stopped the studios from incorporating BD Live features. They assume the market will catch up. Lionsgate released BD Live titles in January 2007. With “Saw IV” and “War,” viewers can exchange messages with other fans and see the conversation as the movie is playing. Text chat, which Lionsgate calls MoLog, for “movie log,” is also available in the recent release of “Rambo.” The company said it would add BD Live features to selected titles in the future.
Sony currently has eight BD Live movies, including “Men in Black” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” By the end of August, an additional eight movies will be available, including “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and three “Starship Troopers” titles.
Viewers of “Walk Hard” can download three featurettes. “Men in Black” offers a multiplayer game, and viewers can upload a still image of themselves into two of the three “Starship” movies, which will then be incorporated into a series of stills from the movies.
Consumers will also be able to download new trailers appropriate to the rating of the movie they are watching.
Lexine Wong, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s senior executive vice president for worldwide marketing, is pitching Blu-ray with BD Live as “packaged media that feels new and exciting.”
“BD-Live lets us have a direct relationship with the consumer, which we could never have with packaged media,” she said.
Making DVDs exciting is a trick movie studios are desperate to pull off. After years of blistering growth, domestic DVD sales fell 3.2 percent last year to $15.9 billion, according to Adams Media Research, the first annual drop in the medium’s history.
While DVDs are still a big business, any decline is cause for concern because DVD sales can account for as much as 70 percent of revenue for a new film. Results for 2008 have been mixed, with overall sales flat. Sales for the DVD version of the box office hit “I Am Legend,” for example, were notably soft.
Blu-ray discs, which sell at a sharp premium to standard DVDs, are growing quickly but still occupy a tiny bit of the market. The industry estimate for sales of Blu-ray discs in 2008 is nearly $1 billion, up from $170 million last year.
The BD Live-enhanced Blu-ray discs cost even more. The “Sleeping Beauty” Blu-ray set will carry a suggested retail price of $40.
Another barrier, according to consumer surveys, is the opinion of many people that they do not need to upgrade to high-definition DVDs with futuristic-sounding side offerings; standard DVDs are good enough.
Mr. Chapek of Disney brushes aside that skepticism. “Henry Ford said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse,” ’ ” Mr. Chapek said. “We don’t rely on the consumer to have our vision for us.”
Although “Sleeping Beauty” is Disney’s first BD Live-enhanced Blu-ray release, all of the company’s future Blu-ray titles will include BD Live features. Mr. Chapek says he sees BD Live as Blu-ray’s breakthrough moment.
“The idea of my little girl being able to experience a movie and chat in real time with her grandparents across the country is very exciting to me,” Mr. Chapek said at a recent BD Live demonstration in Los Angeles. “I can’t help but think it will be exciting to a lot of consumers, too.”