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Has Paramount killed HD?

Just when things were looking good for Sony and its Blu-ray format, one company's decision has meant that customers and retailers will be the biggest losers in the so-called "format war".

Ty Pendlebury

commentary Just when things were looking good for Sony and its Blu-ray format, one company's decision has meant that customers and retailers will be the biggest losers in the so-called "format war".

Paramount's announcement that it will support HD DVD exclusively has seemingly thrown this conflict into irrelevance. Only last week, figures emerged that Blu-ray was outselling HD DVD two-to-one in the US. Just as consumers seemed to have a quick end in sight to this war -- with Blu-ray the victor -- Paramount's decision throws it all into darkness again.

What would prompt Paramount's announcement? Could it be money? Movie news blog Deadline Hollywood Daily claims that Paramount and Dreamworks were offered a total of US$150 million by the HD DVD Promotion Group for "promotional consideration". According to the site, none of the companies involved have denied this.

The decision has been slammed as a backwards step from one very unlikely source: the director of Paramount's Transformers, Michael Bay. He wrote on his blog under the title "Paramount pisses me off!" that the decision to "deny people who have Blu-ray sucks!", and ultimately claiming there would be "no Transformers 2 for me". But he has now flip-flopped on this -- possibly after some heavy pressure from the studio -- and said: "Today I saw 300 on HD DVD, it rocks! So I think I might be back on to do Transformers 2!"

The PlayStation 3 has been seen as a Trojan horse by many in the industry and was perhaps the best chance for the public to embrace a high-definition movie format. The Xbox 360's HD DVD player -- on the other hand -- was a tacked-on afterthought, and while many people would use the PS3 as their main disk spinner I doubt anyone would consider the Xbox 360 a serious option.

The few multi-format players that exist on the market have received a resounding 'meh' from the press, and will continue to remain in a minority given that most companies are strong supporters of one or the other format.

Some have suggested that Microsoft's support for HD DVD was simply to stall Sony long enough so that digital downloads would emerge triumphant. This may seem a fairly cuckoo statement, but look what happened with DVD-Audio and SACD -- the other war that Sony lost. Format-agnostic players couldn't save a format that the public didn't seem to want anyway, and instead consumers went headlong into a lo-fi format -- MP3.

The attraction of MP3, of course, is that people could rip their existing collections of CDs and (naughty, naughty) download content for free. Digital download sales came much later and now it is fast becoming the dominant format for new music. There'll be no such "ripping", though, of the heavily encrypted Blu-ray and HD DVD formats.

But this isn't the first time that Paramount have cosied up with Microsoft -- last year the movie house announced the availability of downloadable HD trailers on the Xbox 360. This newest announcement could be seen as a logical progression of this.

At present, it's possible to download full-length HD content -- mostly illegally, of course -- but as download limits and bandwidth increases, this will become an even more viable option. At the moment though, your typical Blu-ray movie eats up about 25 GB of space which is up to double that of most download limits.

As a consumer myself, there are so few players and movies available on either format that I don't actually mind who comes out on top, but having a such a protracted fight can only be harmful to both sides. Now that the studios are choosing one format or the other -- unless more players quickly appear that can play both -- I believe that consumers will be hesitant to pick sides, and so we're pretty much back where we started.

Have you invested in either HD DVD or Blu-ray, and do you have a preference? Has Paramount's decision made you change your mind about buying a HD disk player? Let us know your thoughts below!