March 31, 2006
Sony’s Universal Media Disc Facing Last Rites
LOS ANGELES -- Exactly a year after it was launched in the United States, the Sony PlayStation Portable's days as a hand-held movie-viewing device might be numbered.
Disappointing sales have slowed the flow of movies on the proprietary Universal Media Disc to a mere trickle. At least two major studios have completely stopped releasing movies on UMD, while others are either toying with the idea or drastically cutting back.And retailers also are cutting the amount of shelf space they've been devoting to UMD movies, amid talk that Wal-Mart is about to dump the category entirely.
Wal-Mart representative Jolanda Stewart declined comment on reports that the retailer is getting out of the UMD business. But studio sources say such a move is imminent, and a check Wednesday of a Wal-Mart store in Santa Ana, Calif., revealed a drastic shrinkage of UMD inventory. Several shelves of movies in the PSP section were gone; all that remained were seven UMD titles sitting bookshelf-style on the top of the PSP section, with no prices or other information.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has completely stopped producing UMD movies, according to executives who asked not to be identified by name. Said one high-ranking exec: "It's awful. Sales are near zilch. It's another Sony bomb -- like Blu-ray."
(Sony, in fact, vowed Wednesday to stick by the announced May 23 street date for the studio's first batch of Blu-ray Disc titles despite reports that the next-generation hardware needed to play the discs likely won't arrive in U.S. stores until the following month at the earliest.)
Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment also is said to be out of the UMD business. "We continue to evaluate the PSP platform for each title, and if it makes sense for business reasons and the target audience, we will release them," spokeswoman Brenda Ciccone said. "Our focus right now is much more aimed at HD (high-definition) at the moment, though."
A high-ranking executive was more blunt: "We are on hiatus with UMD," he said. "Releasing titles on UMD is the exception rather than the rule. No one's even breaking even on them."
Also out of the UMD business is Image Entertainment, while other studios -- including 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Buena Vista Home Entertainment -- have drastically slashed release schedules.
"No one's watching movies on PSP," said the president of one of the six major studios' home entertainment divisions. "It's a game player, period."
Observers speculate the studios released too many movies, too fast. Within five months of the PSP's March 2005 launch, 239 movie and TV titles already were either in the market or in the pipeline -- a significantly higher tally than games, according to the DVD Release Report.
But while sales were initially strong -- two Sony Pictures titles even crossed the 100,000-unit threshold after just two months -- the novelty quickly wore off, observers say. The arrival last fall of Apple's video iPod only hastened the PSP's decline as a movie-watching platform.
Benjamin Feingold, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, was a big believer in PSP as a movie-watching platform. He still is, even though he concedes retail shelf space for UMD movies is on a sharp decline and his own studio is being "more selective" in choosing movies for UMD release.
Feingold believes the PSP's biggest drawback as a movie-watching device was the inability to connect the gadget to TV sets for big-screen viewing, "which would have made it more compelling," as well as the inclusion of memory stick capability.
"I think a lot of people are ripping content and sticking it onto the device rather than purchasing," he said.
But next week, Sony Computer Entertainment executives will begin making the rounds of the Hollywood studios to discuss plans for making the PSP able to connect to TV sets.
"We're hoping the format's going to be reinvigorated with next-generation capability that may include living-room or normal television playback," he said.