Will laser stay a box office hit?

It is now a popular film format but with superior digital video disc technology on the way, its future is in doubt. By Helen Johnstone
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Four Weddings and a Funeral is still setting new records. The biggest British-made box-office success has now become HMV's best-selling laser disc, knocking Terminator 2 off the top spot within 30 days of its release.

The success is not just another plaudit for the film; it also marks a coming of age for the video-disc format. With Four Weddings and a Funeral, it seems that buyers have chosen to invest in a technology that has floundered for years. But the turnabout may be short-lived. Two competing technologies launched last year could yet sound the video disc's death knell.

Now, sales are beginning to pick up in the UK. Laser discs have for some time been a popular format for films in the US and in the Far East. In Japan, the popularity of karaoke machines that use the laser-disc technology has made the format so popular that discs can even be bought in supermarkets and garages.

In the UK, where laser discs are only available at selected record shops or through a number of mail-order companies, the laser disc has never been more than a bit-part player in the video market. Since Philips first introduced the technology at the end of the Seventies, its success has been limited to the corporate market, where the discs have been popular as training aids. Estimates from Philips put the total number of players in UK homes at just 15,000.

Although they may be a small minority in the UK, laser discs have their fans. "People I know would never go back to video," says Siobhan Ennis, night manager at Tower Records, Piccadilly and laser-disc buyer for the store. "I'd swear by it." She has a collection of more than 100 films on laser disc. A higher resolution picture, digitally recorded sound, and the fact that the discs will last for ever make the laser technology superior to the video tape.

A forerunner of the audio CD and the CD-Rom, the laser disc uses an optical laser to read information off a shiny, silver disc. Multiple soundtracks can be recorded on the discs, giving movie watchers the option of listening to the ordinary soundtrack or to a director's commentary. Teletext subtitles can be added to foreign-language films or operas and the film can be slowed down to a frame-by-frame playback to reveal how special effects were achieved.

Many laser-disc films include extra footage, short films on the making of the movie and commentaries by the director. The Basic Instinct disc has footage that was cut from the steamier scenes when it was publicly screened, along with comments from the director Paul Verhoeven on Sharon Stone's talents.

But unlike today's CD technology, the laser discs are double-sided and 12in in diameter, making them the same size as the vinyl LP. Although the sound is digitally recorded, the video is still analogue. And with just 60 minutes of recording time per side, some films run to two or more discs, which have to be swapped in and out of the player.

It isn't cheap either. A simple, laser-disc player using only Europe's PAL standard format can be bought for pounds 399, but dual-format players, which can also play discs recorded with America's NTSC standard, typically cost pounds 600 to pounds 800. Although some titles are now available for as little as pounds 14.99, recently released films cost between pounds 25 and pounds 45. Special editions can be even more expensive. The two-disc special of Robert Altman's The Player, including interviews with the director and many of the cast, currently costs pounds 69.99.

The UK laser-disc market has also been fraught with problems. A slow start in the European market meant many Hollywood studios were unable to achieve the volume of sales necessary in the PAL format, so some films were only brought out in NTSC versions. Since most players are compatible with both, shops and mail-order companies have been inclined to import the NTSC version.

European sales of NTSC discs have meant that companies such as Pioneer LDCE, which is the major supplier of laser discs to the UK, have found it even more difficult to market their PAL films. The Hollywood studios have also been annoyed by the transatlantic trade. With some NTSC films appearing on laser disc in the UK even before the cinema release, the studios' schedules have been thrown out of kilter.

For several years, a grey market of US imports has thrived in the UK, thanks to the general confusion among customs officers, distributors, retailers, the British Board of Film Classification and the public. Earlier this year, Pioneer and its licensor, CIC International, decided to clamp down. "We're trying to build up a PAL market in the UK," says Pioneer spokesperson Helen Fripp. "We don't object to NTSC discs that are available legally. But we have a right to protect our business."

Pioneer did that by alerting the trading standards office to a flood of NTSC discs coming into the UK, none of which had been certificated by the BBFC and therefore could not be sold legally. Many outlets stopped supplying the NTSC discs altogether and others have put prices up to cover the costs of the certification procedure.

But now, as the laser disc finally appears to be gaining fans, two new digital video disc technologies are appearing, which could make the laser- disc's success short-lived. Both the Super Density Disk (SD) technology, marketed by Toshiba and Time Warner, and the Multimedia CD, being developed by Sony and Philips, offer digitally recorded video and higher capacity discs.

The SD technology uses a short-wavelength laser to read finely written digital information. Used in conjunction with the new MPEG-2 compression standard, the double-sided 5in discs will be able to hold up to 280 minutes of information. It already has the backing of Hitachi, Matsushita, Pioneer, Thomson Consumer Electronics and Zenith, the leading US television manufacturer, which has promised to have a player out for the SD discs next year.

The multimedia CD records information on two layers, allowing it to hold 270 minutes of video footage on a single-sided 5in CD.

And as the two digital video disc technologies square up for a battle that could be a rerun of the VHS vs. Betamax fight of the Eighties, many of those in the industry think the original laser disc has seen its day.

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