To 4K Or Not 4K, That Is The Question – Or Is It?

What do Disney's latest announcements about future physical releases signify for fans?

With Disney well on the way to being the largest cinematic entertainment content producer in the world with its ownership of Marvel, Lucasfilm and Fox, regardless of individual perceptions of the actual product made under each banner, any announcements they have to make about formats and distribution need to be taken seriously; where they lead, others will follow. Also, the influence they will have on the largest markets and consumer masses is undeniable. What, then, are we to make of the back-and-forth this week between premiere online outlet The Digital Bits and finance bible Forbes? What was said and what does it all mean to those of us still buying physical?

If, as outlined by Bits editor Bill Hunt, Disney are instituting an internal policy of no further physical 4K releases of catalogue titles from any of their labels, then at first this seems highly concerning for those who have moved to the new format.  It would seem that Fox’s significant back catalogue would then continue to be released or re-released solely on DVD & Blu-ray, if that. With Marvel’s back catalogue now upgraded to 4K, only future releases need to be in that format, and it’s that commitment to future releases across the board that makes economic sense.

While only 42% of UK households have smart TVs as of last year, 63% of all smart TVs shipped in Europe in q4 2018 were UHD (data sourced here). Disc players, however, are not at the same level, with Samsung and Oppo leaving the market in 2019 and 2018 respectively, although in the U.S. numbers have been going up. In other words, more and more consumers can stream 4K, but the uptake for the physical media version is not growing as quickly. Given players launched in the U.K. in 2016, there are some obvious reasons why this is happening. Entry cost was extremely high to start with, and while it has dropped significantly, it’s still twice to 4 times as much as a basic blu-ray player. DVD’s big break was being included with the PS2 console, and blu-ray in the PS3. But with only Xbox One S and Xbox One X machines possessing 4K disc playback and losing out to the PS4, and the latter console sticking with blu-ray only, one of the most important drivers of the growth of this sort of technology from previous growth models was absent. And finally, the boom in streaming which includes (admittedly sometimes lesser) 4K file options, coupled with the realisation that many films shot on 4/6/8K were then mastered at 2K (meaning the images provided on UHD discs are effectively upscaled), meant even the more technically minded consumer looked at their Smart TV and opted to pay monthly to stream instead.

New reports suggest Disney have no plans to release 4K discs for any of its back catalogue unless it’s a Disney animation, Pixar movie, Star Wars or Marvel related.

How, then, to interpret Disney’s formal statement as described in John Archer’s Forbes piece? Well, denying a blanket policy makes corporate sense if one doesn’t want to lose those consumers now on board with 4K playback. Those who are, are passionate consumers and often cinephiles, interested in the best possible reproduction of the theatrical projected experience at home. They often pre-order or buy on release at close to full price, making them economically one of the most significant parts of the remaining audience for physical media. Age and earnings also play as factors here; we’ve been here before with each format possessing monied early adopters: 8 and 16mm home projection, VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray. That means the catalogue has value in physical media. In addition, remastering to a sufficiently high standard is mandatory for quality streaming; from the very early days, if distributors lacked an HD master then services like iTunes and Netflix would not buy the license. This is one reason why you can still find such low-quality VHS/DVD rips on Amazon Prime Video. So catalogue remastering will continue apace to supply Disney+ at the very least, and where profit & loss justifies it on a “case by case” basis, there will be discs. But will they be 4K discs, especially when blu-ray now is sufficiently mass market to have much lower reproduction costs than at the start, and be priced lower to the consumer?

In its early days, the entry cost to blu-ray manufacture was extremely high for labels, and Sony DADC (their manufacturing arm) also created a gate in mandating security coding be done in a very limited number of facilities at a significant price. While this writer is unaware if there is such a bottleneck with UHD, it would not be a surprise.  In addition to raising initial costs, this limitation forced labels to only spend on remastering titles with a good chance of a decent return, assuming they hadn’t already done so when prepping masters for DVD. This led to a further narrowing of the range of titles available to the consumer – to this day there are titles that never made it to a home video format and need to be found as film reels, others than haven’t gone from tape to disc, and even more that haven’t gone to high definition. By allowing the economics to decide from both the manufacturing side and the consumer side, we have seen this insane inverse pyramidal effect on what cinema titles are widespread and what titles are sinking into relative, if not real, obscurity.

So when Disney say “case by case”, but the Digital Bits says no catalogue 4K physical titles to come, these statements are not incompatible with each other. Almost certainly 4K titles will be mastered for streaming and made available to higher-tier subscribers.  The big guns of Fox franchises such as ALIEN and DIE HARD, will probable see 4K remastering and releases a la PREDATOR and STAR WARS, assuming that the sales of the 1st discs in those franchises can justify the sequels being released.  Noted directors working for Disney, e.g. James Cameron, will probably see their past titles released in a format he has supported, especially with future AVATAR releases to tie them in to. But from an economic standpoint, simply releasing EVERYTHING to the format currently makes no sense, as it did in the earlier formats. Given the speed with which Disney+ has grown internationally as a service since launch, why WOULD Disney spend the extra after remastering to manufacture the discs?  Maybe things will change, but with COVID and a multitude of recessions internationally, it seems unlikely.

Hugh K. David

What are your thoughts on the current 4K physical media market? Do you watch 4K solely through streaming or by UHD discs? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Hugh K. David hosts several shows through Bunkazilla UK including Binges & Boxsets, Hustlers of Culture and Reel History UK. All shows are available on Bunkazilla or through podcast providers.

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