With the upcoming March 1 release of Warner Bros.’ first titles in the new Ultra High Definition format—Mad Max: Fury Road, The LEGO Movie, San Andreas and Pan—we thought it would be a good time to talk about UHD (Ultra High Definition) so our fans can get a better understanding of all that's involved to get themselves on the frontline of a home entertainment experience that was only hinted at with Blu-ray. To accomplish this, we went right to the top of the Warner Bros. executive hierarchy when it comes to UHD to talk with studio veteran Jim Wuthrich, who has been involved with the technological logistics and advancements of the 4k Ultra High Definition universe since the beginning.
Throughout our conversation, we not only discussed the necessary hardware—UHD TVs with High Dynamic Range and UHD disc players—but also where digital distribution sits in the current UHD landscape, as well as Warner Bros.' future plans in the new Ultra High Definition marketplace, and, ultimately, what it all means to you...the consumer.
How long has this 4k Ultra High Definition (UltraHD or UHD) format been on the Warner Bros. road map?
JW: All new formats have a long gestation period and this one is no different. UHD started a number of years ago when the tech industry started looking at the next evolution of screen technology and putting more bits on the screen, so 4k showed up a number of years ago actually in its original iteration at CES (Consumer Electronics Show). Then there was a lot of discussion of what the format would look like to support that, so it’s been a number of years in it coming together.
With Ultra High Definition, there was an alliance put together last year which included the CE (Consumer Electronics) companies as well as a couple of studios, and Warner Bros. was a participant in helping to define what it means to have Ultra High Definition. And in that process, we defined a product that was made up of a couple of things: One was the 4k resolution, but then the other piece of it that we think is ultimately more important is the High Dynamic Range (HDR), which has the wider color palette; the brighter brights, the deepest colors, just better pixels essentially. That was all put together in probably the last year or so, in defining what that would be.
From a consumer standpoint where are we at currently? Obviously people will have to purchase the UHD TVs…
JW: It’s interesting. The 4k Ultra High Def screens have come into the marketplace very quickly and one of the reasons it’s happening quite fast is the cost of the panels are coming down rapidly. At the end of 2015, we estimate there were about six million households in the U.S. that had Ultra High Def televisions. We expect to more than double that in 2016 based on our latest numbers. I was encouraged coming out of CES [this past January] as there was a lot of enthusiasm around 4k—as well as this High Dynamic Range concept—so those numbers could grow faster.
We project right now that by 2019 over one-third of homes will have a 4k television in it. So the adoption is happening pretty quickly.
Aside from the UHD TVs, for the physical format of UHD discs, consumers will need to have the UHD player as well. Where are we with those at the moment?
JW: It’s a good question: How do you get this Ultra High Def content to these beautiful screens that everybody’s buying? From a studio perspective of distributing primarily film content at this point, there are two ways of getting content to these screens as of today: One will be a physical format and the other, of course, is through digital distribution. There are a number of services that are already offering Ultra High Definition content digitally to these screens, but you have to have a fast broadband connection in order to get this content or have the ability to download it over a period of time if you’re not going to stream it.
So there are services today like VUDU that has Warner Bros. content and they’re the first one with whom we launched. Amazon offers Ultra High Definition content. Netflix has a tier where they sell UHD content. So there’s an increasing number of digital services that offer this content.
For those who prefer physical content, we’re launching our UHD disc content starting March 1st to tie-in with the official launch of the physical disc players that are coming into the marketplace.
The first UHD player in the U.S. will be Samsung, which is coming in at a very reasonable price, $399. The other company that has the player in the marketplace is Panasonic and they were actually the first one into the marketplace in Japan last year and, this year, they’ll be in the U.S. and in Europe. So the first two companies in the U.S. marketplace with the UHD players will be Samsung and Panasonic, and there will be more that come in during the fourth quarter. That’s primarily due to who is making their silicon chips. Samsung and Panasonic make their own, so they were able to get out first. The other companies buy them from third parties and that silicon will be ready in the third and fourth quarter, so that’s when we’ll see more players come in.
Since the new UHD players will also play Blu-ray and DVD discs, will there be any upscaling that will happen with those older formats?
JW: They do. The new players coming into the marketplace are backward-compatible so they will play your Blu-rays and your DVDs, and our research shows that when consumers look at a DVD or Blu-ray using the UHD player and the UHD television they see a better picture. But, of course, using UHD product allows you to view the movie the way the filmmaker intended and there is simply no better way to enjoy a film.
There has been talk that this new UHD disc is a last gasp for the physical format with streaming becoming more and more popular. What would you say to that?
JW: Well, I think some people are surprised that there’s another generation of a physical format. A lot of people had written physical formats off awhile ago. I’m actually pretty bullish about physical.
If you take a step back and look at the overall home entertainment marketplace: 70 percent of consumer spend is still on physical, with 30 percent on digital. So the vast majority of people are still buying physical media. A lot of people love their physical media, they love the flexibility of it, they love the reliability of it, and they love just owning things. So that continues to be the dominant way that people collect and own their content.
I think some are surprised that there was actually another iteration of physical coming in because all you hear about is digital distribution. Digital is a more efficient way to get content, but the reality of it is that it has its limitations; particularly when you start talking about Ultra High Definition. These files are four times the size of an HD file, and anybody who has lived through the buffering times—which we all have—will appreciate it when you’re trying to push four times the number of bits down that little pipe.
So if you want to make sure that you have the best and most pristine experience, putting a disc into a player will provide it. Now having said that, we actually think that the majority of Ultra High Definition content over the years will be digitally distributed and will provide a terrific consumer experience but there is an opportunity here for another iteration of physical, which is great for our physical retail partners and they’re quite enthused about it. All of them are interested in distributing this physical content, and you’ll find it in stores like Best Buy that are also fulfilling the hardware technology, but it’s not going to take long before we begin distributing UHD discs into mass merchants as well.
In terms of 4k itself, most content is shot in 2k today, so some naysayers question the process of creating 4k content at this time. How would you respond?
JW: That’s a good question. This gets into the debate about the quality of the pixels. The vast majority of content today is not shot at a 4k level and even if it were, you still have the issue of Special Effects and whether the Special Effects are created at that resolution, and, in most cases, they're not. In almost all cases, at some point, there is up-rez’ing that happens. We do it professionally with extraordinary precision at the studio where we up-rez the best masters that we have to get to the 4k quality, and we also get the filmmakers involved and make sure it’s the experience that they want the end user to see.
Some have described this UHD viewing experience as looking through a window versus looking at a TV screen. What is your personal opinion of the 4k technology as a fan and as a consumer?
JW: I’m really excited about it. It looks just stunning. Some people have described it as having a depth to it that they just haven’t experienced before. We actually think that the ultimate product configuration includes a couple of things: One, it has the 4k resolution. Two, it has the High Dynamic Range with the wide color palette and that’s really important, and the TVs coming into the market have the High Dynamic Range. You can really see it. It really has a depth to it, and some people have described it as almost like a 3D experience without the glasses. And we complete the whole experience with immersive audio and there’s a whole push towards dimensional sound. Examples of this are Dolby Atmos, and DTS has a version of this coming into the marketplace as well.
You package all three of those things together and you have the best home entertainment experience you can have, and that’s where we’re positioning the product, be it physical distribution or digital distribution. We will master our product for 4k high definition, for High Dynamic Range—and there’s two forms of High Dynamic Range: Dolby Vision and the industry standard of HDR10—and immersive audio. Our end products, both physically and digitally, will have these configurations.
In terms of UHD and digital distribution, what is being done to improve the “pipes” for people to be able to stream and/or download these new massive files?
JW: In order to package up this Ultra High Definition experience with HDR, it’s a lot of bits. For example, the vast majority of Blu-rays are around a 50 gig disc. You can make a 66 gig disc, but it’s still not enough to hold a lot of these films. We actually need a 100 gigabyte disc that is coming into the marketplace now. That single 100 gig disc is the equivalent of 21 DVDs, to give you some context. So there’s a lot of information that’s put on these UHD discs.
When you think about how you’re going to deliver that amount of content through the pipe to get it into the household, there’s a lot of work that’s being done on the codecs to squeeze these bits down and deliver them into the home and then open them up again once they get there. Amazon, Netflix, VUDU, and the other folks who are delivering this content into the home are still working on a lot of development that needs to happen with the technology so that they don’t have to deliver as much—as far as payload—but still get that effect on the screen. This is really cutting-edge technology. It’s even cutting-edge technology on the physical side because to manufacture a 100 gig disc is no easy feat. That’s an extra layer that has to go on there, so those lasers are getting very refined in order to look at all those layers and to read that data.
Warner Bros. has announced that we will be creating 30-some titles on UHD disc this year. What do you foresee beyond that in terms of physical UHD titles and how are decisions made as to what titles are going to receive the UHD treatment?
JW: In any format launch we take a look at what content would best represent the format, especially at the beginning because it’s a relatively limited marketplace when you’re coming into it. So you look at your catalog and what you have available and that’s what we did. We had a team of experts take a look at the quality of the masters that we have to work with and how they would look in this new Ultra High Definition with HDR format. And then we work with the filmmakers as we’re going through and remastering and refining and getting the product ready to go. That’s how we take a look in the rearview mirror, if you will, of what titles we want to make available at launch. And then, on a go-forward basis, depending on our belief on where the format’s going and whether or not we think that it makes sense to make all the products in the new format, will determine what we will make going forward.
Most of our new theatrical slate will be made available in Ultra High Definition and HDR. Some of those titles may just be digitally distributed initially and that’s primarily because of this issue around the 100 gig discs as the manufacturing capacity is somewhat limited as we begin to produce them. We’re thinking this year we’ll probably have around 30-35 titles available physically and we’ll have approximately 60-70 titles digitally available by the end of the year. So we’re a big supporter of the format and we’re going to support it with some of our best content.
How will you be gauging this new format and the adoption of it? Will you be using the adoption of Blu-ray as a benchmark or what will play into that thinking?
JW: We’re bullish on the UHD format, as I said before. We think that consumers will choose this higher quality format on a go-forward basis, but it’s going to take a little while to develop the ecosystem. If you want to use the physical disc, you’ll need the UHD television and the UHD player of course. And for the digital distribution, you’ll need the television and the ability to deliver it through the pipes, so you need to have a fair amount of broadband. These two things have to come together, and then the industry has to support it with content.
The entertainment industry is one component of the overall ecosystem. The other one that is very important to the development of any of these new tech formats as far as screens go is what happens on the broadcast side. Broadcasters are looking at delivering content in Ultra High Definition; often times it will be sports that will come in first and then other content will follow thereafter. So that ecosystem is developing as well.
We think that in the next couple of years, by 2019, 15 percent of all consumer spend in home entertainment will be in this Ultra High Definition format, and that’s well over a billion dollars that will be spent on the category.