Warner Bros. joins Blu-ray Disc Association, plans to release Blu-ray titles

UPDATE 21 Oct 23:15 EST - Burbank (CA) - In a move that had been anticipated earlier this morning, as the Blu-ray Disc Association has confirmed to TG Daily, Warner Bros. has joined the BDA's board of directors, and is making plans to release films on Blu-ray format videodiscs, when that format is made available.

In a statement released Thursday evening by Warner Home Video, the company stated it plans to "release titles on the Blu-ray format to support the launch of Blu-ray players in North America, Japan and Europe, giving consumers the ability to enjoy a wide range of new releases and selections from Warner Bros.' vast library and that of New Line and HBO on the Blu-ray format."

However, in an urgent response to Warner's move announced even later in the evening, Toshiba Corporation - the principal architect of the rival HD DVD format - stated it is Toshiba's understanding that Warner also continues to support HD DVD. "Toshiba and Warner Bros. continue to collaborate closely toward the commercial launch of HD DVD," reads Toshiba's statement. "We understand Warner Bros. continues to strongly support HD DVD, due to its outstanding features, cost structures, and market readiness."

If Warner confirms Toshiba's contention, then it will be joining Paramount in supporting both formats simultaneously.

Warner's decision carries tremendous weight because it has the largest film library of any studio worldwide. Ted Turner is partly responsible, having gathered a massive library of his own through the purchase of the MGM film library for $1.4 billion in 1986. This library included films from MGM's golden era, plus titles from United Artists. Turner then merged this collection with films produced by studios he owned, including New Line Cinema and Castle Rock, before turning over his library to Warner Bros. parent company Time Warner, as part of its merger with Turner Broadcasting in 1996. Now, it would appear the largest film library in the world will be available on both high-definition videodisc formats, taking away one of HD DVD's key bargaining advantages.

Perhaps glossing over the issues that led to Warner's final decision, in its press statement this evening, Warner credits dual-layer Blu-ray Disc with its theoretical storage capacity (the format is not yet finalized) of 50 Gb, as being a critical factor in its decision. Earlier in the day, the entertainment trade publication Variety reported that, late last night, the BDA voted to make amendments to its copy protection and digital rights management systems, reportedly to strengthen them. Yesterday, in an abrupt shift of position, Blu-ray supporter HP suddenly voiced opposition to the strong DRM measures the BDA had adopted, and urged the Association to rethink the adoption of "mandatory managed copy," the iHD interactive layer that Microsoft and Disney co-produced, and other more consumer-friendly measures.

"We recognize Warner Bros.'s participation in the Blu-ray Disc Association," Toshiba's statement continues, "represents the studio's understandable commitment to listen to broad array of opinions and to continue to make technical evaluations of each format, and we are more than confident this will not affect timely introduction of HD DVD content to the market."

Warner Bros. was expected to have made its announcement earlier this morning, but may have delayed due to developments emerging from HP's decision, which we reported on yesterday. In its response statement, Toshiba referred to the HP request, though without referring to HP by name: "The fact that new voices from within the Blu-ray camp have recently called for adoption of key features already in HD DVD - iHD for its superb PC interoperability and Mandatory Managed Copy to allow for secure DVD ripping - shows the level of technical balance achieved by the HD DVD format."

HP, by the way, isn't exactly a "new voice," having been a founding member of the BDA.

In tonight's statement from the BDA, Bob Chapek, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment, a division of Blu-ray supporter Disney, said, "This news further illustrates the potent combination of Blu-ray Disc's superior consumer proposition and the undeniable market support demonstrated by the huge consortium of companies supporting Blu-ray. The continued dramatic momentum towards Blu-ray makes us more optimistic than ever that a 'format war' can be avoided."

Going so far as to claim victory and to start walking home with the prize money, Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment, is quoted by the BDA statement as saying, "These latest developments are the categorical shift needed to avoid a format war and insure the successful launch of Blu-ray and secure the future of high-definition pre-recorded media. The real winner in all of this will be the consumer as a single format comes to market with the dominant support of both the hardware and software industries."

The Toshiba response statement closes with these words: "Toshiba strongly believes the HD DVD format will eventually win broad support as the more superior format, and in cooperation with our partners, we are committed to bringing HD DVD products first to market early next year in the U.S."