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Is Blu-ray That Red-Hot?

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I suppose it was bound to happen. With time it was inevitable that the technological innovation called "Blu-ray" would impinge on my particular corner of the movie universe, and I would have to confront it, willingly or not.

The fact it took over three years since Blu-ray's ballyhooed introduction speaks volumes. It seems obvious that Hollywood has been way too slow in introducing and seeding this process among consumers.

It seems that with the flattening of DVD sales and rentals worldwide, exacerbated by a global recession and lingering uncertainty over consumers' willingness to adopt new formats, top executives did take a cautious, "wait and see" approach -- perhaps too cautious.

While now the industry can claim triple digit growth in sales of Blu-ray players and double digit upticks in sales of the discs themselves, as we enter 2010, the brass must sheepishly acknowledge this performance comes from an embarrassingly small base, too small to reverse the overall downward trend in DVD sales and rentals for the year.

To illustrate, last year DVDs as a whole reflected 92 percent of video software units shipped, while Blu-ray comprised just 2 percent.

Helen Davis Jayaleth, Head of Video at Screen Digest, summed it up this way: "Clearly the start of a global recession was not the ideal time to launch an upgrade to what many consumers consider to be a perfectly serviceable home entertainment system, and spending on the Blu-ray format has been slower than the industry had hoped...However, [our] research shows that the high-def BD format has the potential to return the physical video market to growth in 2010..."

But how much of this slower-than-anticipated growth was consumer hesitancy, as opposed to a lack of quality product and shoddy marketing?

A telling piece of data: monster retailer Best Buy thinks the industry needs to do a better job of educating the public about the advantages of Blu-ray. Store research shows that 68% of today's customers are unfamiliar with the high-definition format. Mike Vitelli, Best Buy's Executive VP of consumer operations, commented: "People in stores still ask our employees why they need a Blu-ray player. The situation is improving, but we're still not there." One might have expected more progress from 2006.

So -- how did Blu-ray re-establish itself on my own radar?

Last week I was slated to attend a private event to introduce the definitive version of A Christmas Carol (the 1951 British version starring Alastair Sim, also known as Scrooge"). Knowing the DVD would be played on a state-of-the-art projection system, I checked Amazon to see if I had the most up-to-date version of the DVD. My jaw dropped when I noticed the film was available on Blu-ray.

A Blu-ray edition of a black-and-white film? Now this was unusual. My own perception of Blu-ray was that for the most part, only highly commercial, contemporary films got the treatment, the movies with lots of explosions and special effects. And even if one or two ubiquitous classics were included, surely these would be color films, like Gone With The Wind" (1939).

Not so, it would seem... Intrigued, I began my own investigation.

Via Google, I landed on www.Blu-ray.com, a central repository for information as well as Blu-ray releases. I proceeded to review their entire database of titles, culling out those that appear on our own site, www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.

I identified 202 BMBF titles currently on Blu-ray, roughly 10% of our catalogue. Of these only twenty titles were in black and white, and only twenty-eight titles foreign-language. Even these paltry figures were inflated by the Criterion Collection's pioneering commitment to launch Blu-ray editions of their first-rate library of titles.

I contacted Peter Becker, Criterion's President, to get his take on Blu-ray's efficacy for older films, particularly those in black and white. His resounding endorsement follows:

"If you want to see how beautiful a Blu-ray can be, there's no better way than looking at a gorgeous black and white film -- my demo of choice at the moment would probably be [1961's]Last Year at Marienbad. It really makes you realize how much you gain in resolution, clarity, and the solidity of the image. Put it up on a projector with a nice big screen and you finally have the promise of home theater, not home video. Our Blu-rays, projected, rival the experience of a pristine 35 mm print..."

Yet not every Blu-ray release will reflect the quality control Criterion is known for. Notably, on Blu-ray.com, most every title gets reviewed not only as a film, but as a Blu-ray product, with every technical glitch and imperfection noted. In short, not all Blu-ray is created equal, and it stands to reason that the greatest challenges must lie with significantly older films, where the source material might be more challenging to work with.

Indeed, as it turned out, viewing the aforementioned A Christmas Carol on Blu-ray was a mixed blessing. While the visual enhancement was truly breathtaking, the audio quality was quite scratchy and muffled in spots. Ironically, the enhanced image only made me more aware of the sound being wanting!

But Becker's informed enthusiasm indicates that done right, most all timeless films, old and new, will benefit from Blu-ray. And to begin proving it, exciting news: the coming year will bring Blu-ray versions of two Fritz Lang classics Metropolis (1927) and via Criterion, M (1931).

Still, while you can already lay your hands on The General (1927), Casablanca (1942), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) in Blu-ray, reviewing the existing library it is appalling how much recent dreck has been adapted, and by rude contrast, how few of our finest and most enduring cinematic titles.

You'd think Citizen Kane (1941) might have made the cut by now, but no. Also, you won't find Singin' In The Rain (1952) or The Sound Of Music (1965) available, two fairly obvious titles, I would think.

Is this again the fear in Hollywood that their consumer is not quite clever enough to appreciate the best of our film heritage, or that there isn't a meaningful market of sufficient size among educated people over 18?

At the conclusion of my enquiries, I looked over several Blu-ray-oriented blogs, and reviewed posts from dissatisfied viewers decrying the lack of quality titles available in this exciting new format.

Hollywood needs to listen to these people. If Blu-ray is anywhere near as good as they say it is, the industry definitely has some catching up to do.

For over 2,000 outstanding titles on DVD, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com
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