U.K. Retailers Watch Walmart’s UltraViolet Campaign

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UltraViolet may be about to take off in the U.S. as Walmart gets behind a disk-to-digital promotional drive, but in the U.K. retailers are playing wait-and-see.

Indeed, 20th Century Fox has admitted its reticence to release movies in UltraViolet until more retailers are onboard.

With more than 100 UltraViolet titles on release or announced in the U.S. UltraViolet is a few months ahead of the U.K. in rollout, helping to drive household accounts on both sides of the pond over 1 million.

The U.K.'s second largest supermarket retailer, Sainsbury's, is to launch its own video-on-demand service this year. It's partnering with Rovi, and wants UltraViolet on board. However, Mark Bennett, head of entertainment at Sainsbury's, remains cautious.

"What needs to be in place is a tipping point where there are sufficient CE [consumer electronics] manufacturers releasing UltraViolet-enabled devices and where there is enough content," says Bennett. "If only 10 percent of new releases are UltraViolet-ready by the end of the year then we will not be excited about putting a promotion behind it. But, if there is a substantial catalogue and an ecosystem of devices, then we will go for it."

Tesco, the U.K.'s largest retailer and a member of the UltraViolet Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), has launched its own branded but UltraViolet-compatible rights locker, +Blinkbox.

The U.K.'s leading CE hardware chain, Dixons, will launch a UltraViolet promotion across its 550 stores later this year. "UltraViolet removes a lot of the complexity for retailers so we can make it easy for customers to understand the move to digital," says Gary Hearns, senior category manager for video at Dixons. "We sell more connected devices than any other retailer in the U.K., so we can drive that usage in other devices." 

Rental of physical product remains strong in the U.K. "There is a huge customer base not engaged in digital, so rental customers are a significant slice of the UltraViolet target market," notes IHS Screen Digest head of broadband Dan Cryan. "Nonetheless, Netflix has proved that physical product is a great way of moving customers into digital quickly and seamlessly."

Fox will join Warner Bros., which so far is the only studio to release a limited number of titles with UltraViolet keys, "as soon as we feel it is no longer a work in progress," says Danny Kaye, executive vice president of global research and technology strategy for 20th Century Fox. "The user interface has to be worked on, the common file format has to be available, and the most important thing of all is that retailers need to be involved."

Sony is following Warner Bros. with a first set of UltraViolet titles available this summer in the U.S. on DVD including The Vow on 25 June, Jack and Jill and 21 Jump Street. Warner Bros. says all of its new releases and some of its back television and film library going forward will be UltraViolet, and Smith says Sony's new release number will be above 80 percent.

"Every studio needs to play their part," says Jo Williams, vice president of digital distribution for Warner Bros. Home Entertainment U.K. "We can't run a mass-market campaign on five titles [its own release tally to date]. We are waiting for other studios to board. Once we get critical mass it will snowball, but until then it's about under-promising and over-delivering."

The rollout of a marketing campaign, agreed upon by the major studio DECE members, and the release of the common file format to enable interoperability between devices this summer "will see numbers [of UltraViolet accounts] rise exponentially," predicts Richard Smith, vice president of digital distribution for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

As a side note: Fox and Warner Bros. are backing yet another digital rights management system that would make digital media available across multiple devices and through the cloud, including but not exclusive to, UltraViolet.

Project Phenix is described as a means to allow customers to watch their digital copies without an internet connection.

Details are light, but the technology is said to be able to render content ten times faster than current streaming media and will be available for device makers to license later this year.

The initiative comes from the Secure Content Storage Association (SCSA), a new consortia which comprises memory stick developer SanDisk, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, and hard disk maker Western Digital.

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