Universal to help expand Chinese hi-def format

Universal Pictures will become the second US major to release on China's domestic hi-def format CBHD, the first titles expected by end 2009. The studio also plans to release on Blu-ray Disc (BD) in China, although no date has been set.

Although the domestic format has only just launched, Screen Digest has learned that expectations are for sales of 300,000 units by end 2009. This fits with recently released forecasts from China's hi-def disc industry association (CHDA) of 1m by the end of 2010, with total sales of 10m in three years.

CHDA has also unveiled a second-generation CBHD player that supports the Chinese developed AVS encoding standard and a new Chinese-developed content-protection system, DKAA, for use with Chinese domestic movies; it also plans to develop players and discs that will support non-Mandarin minority language titles. According to local reports, Chinese distributor China Record and Warner's local joint venture CAV Warner Home Entertainment have already released 'dozens' of CBHD titles for around yuan 50 ($7.30). By the end of 2009 total slate is expected to exceed 100 titles.

Our take...
Universal's product—along with that of Paramount and DreamWorks Animation—may be distributed in China by CAV Warner, but its decision to endorse CBHD is in keeping with the studio's practical approach to high-definition video.

The only US major never to release on BD during the hi-def format war, Universal attributed its stalwart support of BD's rival HD DVD to the latter format's lower production costs and more advanced (at the time) interactive capabilities. Although BD has been available in China for some time, WE understand that take-up to date is extremely low. CBHD's substantial price advantage over the Sony-backed format—and the stated aim of establishing it as a mass-market hi-def option—make it an arguably more practical solution for companies seeking to generate revenues from the hard-to-crack Chinese market.

The development of a content-protection system for optical disc media in China, albeit for domestic product, is a positive step in a market notorious for its lack of respect for intellectual property rights.

Although research indicates that over 100m Chinese already have a DVD player, compared with the anticipated 10m CBHD households, if steps are really taken to promote legitimate copies on the latter format, it might arguably be the first step towards creating a viable commercial market for international video product in China.