After a successful trial year in the US, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has brought its Digital HD concept to the UK. And in doing so it gives a strong indication that the movie industry believes that digital and cloud streaming services could one day replace physical media.
Digital HD is the standard under which new movie blockbusters will be released before their Blu-ray or DVD launches. The Fox-fronted service sees new films hit digital locker stores up to three weeks before any other form of release after they have played in cinemas. And all other major studios have also agreed to adopt it.
Films under the Digital HD banner also have the benefit of being cheaper than their DVD and Blu-ray counterparts. They are available in high definition for £9.99 and, while stored in the cloud by whatever retailer you buy them from, are yours to keep forever.
They are also UltraViolet enabled, so if you have an UltraViolet locker and buy your films from a retailer within the UV ecosystem you can access them though your locker on multiple devices, Smart TVs and games consoles. You might want to use a regular supplier, such as iTunes or Google Play, and that's fine too as they will both carry Digital HD movies. In fact, you can find at least one on most services already: animated adventure Epic is available to buy or rent by many of Fox's partners.
Pocket-lint talked to Keith Feldman, president of International Home Entertainment at Fox, who told us that the time has never been better for digital content and the Digital HD brand to gain traction. "Televisions are mostly internet connected now - not all of them but most, either directly, through a Blu-ray player, through Chromecast, or through a games console. There’s been an explosion of mobile devices. And there’s been a big expansion in the number of digital stores," he said.
Fox also thinks it's the right time for consumers to keep their content in the cloud too. "There are different degrees of consumer understanding about cloud but we just knew that the whole experience previously of downloading was not so consumer friendly. Most people are using the cloud for photos, music, so it’s just a natural evolution to have movies and TV shows in the cloud. You can pull them down easily, safely, securely whenever you want," said Feldman.
A complete shift away from physical media to storing collections in the cloud will not be everyone's cup of tea, especially in the UK, but while Fox would rather you keep buying its Blu-rays and DVDs there is an understanding that eventually we'll all switch to digital only. "The British home consumer is the most active home consumer in the world. UK consumers love to collect movies. One in two people in the UK buys discs. So the collecting mentality is already in the culture. We just have to transition that to digital," the Fox executive explained.
"It is our hope that people will have digital collections just like they currently have disc collections at home."
One way of doing that is to ensure that Digital HD offers even more than conventional disc formats are capable of. While there are some who point to the extras and bonus content that come with Blu-ray editions, the potential for a persistently online format outweigh those concerns. "There is a layer of interactivity that we hoped to realise with BD Live that ultimately we haven't realised yet, we can potentially leapfrog with Digital HD," Feldman told us.
"I can tell you that the major digital retailers are actively engaging with the studios to build in features for Digital HD that are beyond what we ever envisioned with BD Live.
"So can we deliver extras? Absolutely. That we're already doing. But the beauty of a connected experience is your ability to have a continuous engagement with the consumer. That's what the forward-looking digital retailers are challenging us with right now. How do we make the Digital HD movie experience beyond what we ever envisioned with Blu-ray Live?"
It is also in the Digital HD make-up to include extended and future video technologies. With Fox being a major producer of 3D movie content, it might come as a surprise that 3D is not part of the Digital HD offering yet. But it is very much in Fox's plans to deliver 3D films digitally. Ultra HD 4K films too. "Right now, we don't have 3D delivery capability, but Ultra-HD 4K and 3D are both in the road map," said Feldman.
UK managing director of Fox Home Entertainment Robert Price also told Pocket-lint that the studio has plans to extend the number of retailers offering Digital HD in the UK.
At present, eight of them have signed on to offer Fox's Digital HD movies: Blinkbox, iTunes, PlayStation, Google Play, Xbox, KnowHow Movies, VDIO and Wuaki.tv. Price revealed that at least seven more will be announced in due course. "We actually soft launched Digital HD in the UK in the spring, with Taken 2 and Life of Pi. We've got eight platforms in place and we'll have 15 by the middle of next year," he said. And some of those could be from the major home entertainment brands.
This could also be good news for UltraViolet. While some digital retailers, such as the stores run by Google and Apple, might lock content to their own ecosystems, ultimately a centralised standard locker system is the only way to ensure that consumers can play their movies across every device they own. UltraViolet adoption could be key. It could also take a little while longer. "There is a clear consumer benefit there," said Feldman. "Being able to connect your collection. But I also believe that feature will become more important once you establish a collection.
"It's kind of like, do you need air conditioning before you buy a car? You have to drive a car first and gone through the experience of getting really hot then that feature becomes relevant.
"I think that as consumers start to build digital collections and move back and forth between different operating systems, different stores, those stores will recognise that they're going to need a feature like UltraViolet to satisfy the consumers. We expect the retailers to react once that need is realised. Right now our problem is not connecting our collection to another collection, right now our problem is finding digital movies at a reasonable price, that are easy to use."
And that's where Digital HD comes in.