The Great Box Office Slump of 2005 has become a source of endless fascination for Hollywood watchers, who speculate that the multiplex is not long for this world. Even worse, the demand for DVDs, the industry's current cash cow, is beginning to plateau. It's enough to make a studio executive fear that someday soon he'll have to forgo the Ivy in favor of Del Taco.
Yet in the midst of the misery comes a ray of hope: Sony's half-dollar-sized Universal Media Disc, which can be used to play movies on the company's PlayStation Portable. To the surprise of tech pundits everywhere, UMD movies have been selling splendidly since the first discs came out in April—American consumers have purchased more than 500,000 so far, according to one industry estimate. The DVD, by comparison, took a full year to ship half a million units in the United States after its 1997 debut. There's not yet a formal list of UMD best-sellers, but the current chart-topper at Amazon is Sin City. How did Robert Rodriguez's * ultra-violent comic-book adaptation become this week's UMD king?
Sin City, like most films that have enjoyed strong UMD sales, shares a target demographic with the PSP: technophilic males between the ages of 25 and 29. Portable gaming devices attract older gamers than their console counterparts, a trend that has been especially pronounced with the PSP. Few parents are willing to spring for a $250 PSP, especially when Junior already has a PlayStation 2 at home.
The postcollegiate professionals who've snapped up the lion's share of PSPs tend to buy R-rated action flicks and bawdy comedies, often as soon as they're released. Amazon's current UMD top 10 also includes Kung Fu Hustle, Black Hawk Down, and Team America, none of which veer anywhere close to chick-flick terrain (the scenes of tender puppet sex in Team America notwithstanding). Needless to say, Must Love Dogs probably isn't coming to UMD anytime soon.
But if there's nothing particularly surprising about Sin City's triumph, the same can't be said about UMD movies as a whole. New video formats rarely enjoy such stellar sales out of the box; just ask Warner Bros., whose Mini-DVD format has been limping along. The factor that has probably contributed most to the success of UMD movies is the dearth of blockbuster PSP games. Sony has sold in excess of 1.2 million units in the United States alone, but software has been slow to materialize. There's no Grand Theft Auto title yet, for example, and Madden 2006 is just now hitting stores. And the gaming press contends that most existing titles are subpar. The best games so far have been driving simulations like Midnight Club 3; if that's not a PSP owner's cup of tea, his options are fairly limited.
UMDs have filled the void in part due to some clever marketing by Sony. During the PSP's March launch in the United States, Sony bundled UMDs of Spider-Man 2 into the first million units sold, thereby alerting new owners to the format's existence, as well as to how great video looks on the device's 4.3-inch screen. The colors in House of Flying Daggers, for example, actually looked richer on the PSP I tested last week than they had in my local cinema, where the screen was lit too dimly.
Sony also launched an ad campaign in gaming magazines like Official U.S. PlayStation. The spots depicted a UMD viewer calmly sitting amid a Lord of the Rings-style battle royale, and the slogan read "Immerse Yourself." The ads seemed to promise the sort of interactivity one normally associates with gaming rather than video watching.
The early success of two Sony UMDs—House of Flying Daggers and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, which Sony claims sold more than 100,000 copies each—convinced other studios to publish in the format, despite the fact that it's proprietary and only works with the PSP. By year's end, around 90 titles will be available on UMD from virtually every major American studio save Warner, which is stubbornly standing by the Mini-DVD.
The rush on UMD movies, combined with the lack of big-name games so far, has led retailers such as Best Buy to place the video discs front and center in their PSP displays. In an informal survey of three New York Gamestop stores, Slate found that two of them actually dedicated more shelf space in the PSP sections to UMD movies than to games. The films are certainly priced to move: The Sin City UMD can be found for less than $20, while most PSP games run from $40 to $60.
The PSP's gaming doldrums could end this holiday season when Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is slated for release, along with a deluge of other highly anticipated games. Which makes you wonder whether the format will keep growing or go the Betamax route. It might be smarter to bet on the latter. Sony isn't big on licensing its technology, so don't expect to see any third-party UMD players. And then there's the nagging fact that UMD movies will never be simpatico with normal-sized televisions; even if someone concocted a stand-alone UMD player, the images would look far too pixelated on bigger screens. That means Sin City fans who also own PSPs are forced to buy both the UMD and the DVD if they want to be completists.