Effects-driven action thrillers such as Independence Day,X-Men, U-571, Die Hard and the first two Terminator films are about to be re-issued in the US in a new digital videotapeformat aimed specifically at that small niche of (predominantly male) hometheatre buffs who have decked out their pads with expensive high-definitiontelevision sets.

Four US film studios -namely 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, DreamWorks SKG and ArtisanEntertainment - have all agreed to start distributing titles on the newhigh-definition D-VHS platform which was developed by Japanese electronicsgiant JVC and is being marketed under the "D-Theatre" logo. Thesepre-recorded movie tapes are expected to sell for between $30-$40 apiece.

JVC has been selling itsD-Theatre video cassette recorders in the US since September, at a retail pricejust shy of $2000. In addition to playing back pre-recorded titles, thesemachines can also tape shows off the air. Up to four hours of HDTV programming canbe recorded on a single videocassette, or more than 50 hours of standarddefinition television. Regular and super VHS tapes also work with the sameplayer.

Both JVC and its four studiosuppliers were at pains during yesterday's announcement to stress thatD-Theatre was not attempt to compete with the fast-growing DVD format nowenjoyed in as many as 32m households across the US. DVD players can now bebought in the US for as little as $150.

With a picture quality morethan twice as vivid as DVDs, D-Theatre is expressly designed for those 2mhigh-end movie enthusiasts who boast elaborate high-definition viewing systemsat home but very little to show off on their large screens while USbroadcasters continue to drag their feet on HDTV. That number is expected toswell to perhaps 4 million over the next year or so given the current vogue forhome theatre systems.

"D-VHS is in a uniqueclass different from DVD," insisted Universal Studios Home Video presidentCraig Kornblau. "This meets the videophiles' highest quality expectationsfor an in-home experience. JVC's D-VHS D-Theatre video recorder will allowconsumers to play hi-def content which clearly differentiates it from a DVDplayers. It is the only hi-def option."

But, wary of yet anotherdigital home entertainment platform confusing the audio-visual marketplace,rival studios were quick to denounce the prospect of pre-recorded Hollywoodtapes appearing on high-resolution video tapes just at a time when DVDs are reallytaking off. "It's a really dumb idea,'" Columbia TriStar HomeEntertainment president Ben Feingold told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

Although DVD developers areworking on their own high-definition version, such super-resolution digitalvideo discs are not expected to hit the marketplace for another five to sevenyears - a window deemed long enough for D-Theatre to be attractive to Fox,Universal, Artisan and DreamWorks (which has yet to reveal its first titles inthis format).

Helping them in theirdecision is the anti-piracy protection system that has been built into theformat by JVC. Under this proprietary encryption method, tapes with genuinedata can only be created on duplication equipment licensed and approved by JVC.And only D-VHS players engineered with the new D-Theater circuitry will be ableto play movies issued in this high-definition format.

D-VHS's enormous 44 GigaBytecapacity per cassette makes it possible for software content providers to fitan entire feature-length HDTV movie on a single cassette. These are willrecorded at an impressive 28 Mbps data rate, surpassing even the 19 Mbps ATSCstandard for HDTV broadcasts. With the market to itself for the time being, JVCis gunning for sales of 100,000 D-Theatre players by 2003.