DVD Coding: Bullshit in
story begins over 50 years ago, in the years 1948 and ’61, to be exact,
when the NTSC (National Television System Committee) and PAL (Phase
Alternating Line) television systems were respectively introduced. NTSC
was the standard for North America and PAL for much of the rest of the
world (a third system, SECAM, was introduced in 1957 for use in France
and a handful of other countries, but its use was and is sparing, and so
doesn’t figure into the following article). So it was ordained and so
it will be until, apparently, the end of time.
Fast-forward 20-30 years, when the videotape was introduced. Video
cassette players and the tapes themselves were outfitted with PAL and
NTSC capabilities, as NTSC equipped TV’s could only play NTSC videos and
PAL TV’s could only play PAL videos.
With that in mind, let’s move on to main point of this essay...
Movie Distribution and “Three Times” System
Jumping forward a few more years, we find that Hollywood, in
distributing its product, had by the early nineties perfected the “three
times” system. In other words, we the consumers were expected to pay to
see a movie three times: once in the theater, after which we rent and
then buy it.
Hollywood’s release pattern decrees that after a
movie’s theatrical run it’s released on VHS approximately half a year
later, with a retail price of $70-$100, for sale to video rental
stores. Several months later the price is dropped to around $20 and the
movie is offered for sale to the general public. Hollywood’s devotion
to this system is reflected in the 1997 profit sharing deal the major
studios made with Blockbuster Video (who further propagate the
three-times system with their “Rent it-Like it-Buy it” program, which
allows customers to purchase previously viewed movies after they’ve
rented them once).
Under the three-time system, theater and video store owners get a
fair share of a movie’s profits, while the studios themselves reap the
benefits of having us pay for movies three times. Were we to skip one
part of the cycle there’s still a good chance we’d hit another (in other
words, we might miss seeing a movie in theaters but still catch it on
video), making it nearly impossible for the studios to lose money (and
that’s not even taking into account the revenue generated from cable and
network TV sales).
Understand that this system is essentially repeated in every
country any given film plays in (after its US run has finished, of
course) and you’ll see why Hollywood in the mid nineties had more money
than it knew what to do with...and why there was such widespread outrage
in 1996, when Tri Star allotted Tom Cruise a portion of JERRY MAGUIRE’S
foreign video revenue, thus opening up what many studio executives
viewed as their private goldmine.
But there was an even more momentous change on the
horizon. In the late 90’s, DVDs entered the picture...
DVDs and Region Codes
From the start,
DVDs were primarily “sell-through” products, which turned the three-time
into a two-time system: movies were seen once in the theater and then
purchased on DVD, which has in recent years proved far more lucrative
than the old way (despite repeated pleas by Blockbuster to utilize the
$70-$100 pricing scheme on DVDs, which have thus far fallen on deaf
ears). With DVDs, there’s a far better chance that people will actually
shell out $20-$30 bucks to buy the things than with videos, which always
did better as rental items.
The problem with DVD proliferation, from Hollywood’s point of view, is the
issue of theatrical distribution in different countries. It just
wouldn’t do to release a movie theatrically in Europe when it was
already out on DVD in the US. European customers might shell out for
the American DVD and not pay to see the film in theaters.
Diverging a moment from the topic at hand, let’s take a look at
Hollywood’s worldwide theatrical distribution practices. In the old
(i.e. pre-internet) days, staggered release dates were an economic way
for studios to screen their movies in different countries. The US,
being the apparent center of the universe, always came first, followed
months (if not years) later by the rest of the world. In this way the
suits could personalize their publicity schemes for each country, or
retool them altogether if a film did poorly at the US box office.
Another asset of the staggered release system is that it allows
tightwad studios to reuse movie prints, simply shipping them abroad
after their US runs are finished. This, of course, saves ‘em money on
making new ones (but then again, film prints cost around $50-70 grand, a
pittance for an industry that regularly shells out an average of $80
million to make a single movie).
Getting back to the issue of DVDs, it seems that Hollywood
discovered an apparently surefire way to protect its interests (though
not necessarily ours): region codes specific to various
countries, installed in DVD players and the disks themselves (and shown
in pukey little boxes found at the bottom of the case’s back cover).
This allows movie studios to divide the world up into 8 handy regions:
Region 1: US, Canada, US Territories
Region 2: Japan, Europe, South Africa, Middle East
Region 3: Southeast Asia, East Asia
Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Central America, Mexico, South
America, the Caribbean
Former Soviet Union, Indian Subcontinent, Africa, North Korea, Mongolia
Special International Venues: Airplanes, Cruise Ships, etc.
There’s also Region Zero, which renders DVDs playable in all
regions; otherwise, though, DVDs are designed to play ONLY in the region
they’re coded for. In this way, non-US moviegoers won’t upset the
studios’ release plans for different “regions” by importing American
made DVDs...that’s the hope, anyway.
Region Coding: A Success?
For those who buy
into the argument that DVD codes are a good idea, consider the following
First and foremost
among the obstacles facing region coding is the Internet, an instrument
Hollywood has never understood, and, it seems, never will. The
industry, after all, still relies on the tired old test screening
process to market its product. This is despite the fact that viewers
now regularly post their reactions on web sites like Ain’t it Cool News
in the days following test screenings, thus throwing a wrench into
studios’ multi-million dollar publicity schemes (particularly if the
posters don’t like the movie!).
Similarly, overseas moviegoers can easily gauge a
movie’s “buzz” by logging onto the Internet during its US release. This
explains why THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT did poorly outside the US (they
knew), and why BATTLEFIELD EARTH, despite the fact that Warner Bros.
delayed its international release for several months after it bombed
here, was a disaster everywhere.
And then there are players capable of
playing DVDs from all 8 regions. Likewise, information on how to
reconfigure standard players to make ‘em region free abounds (don’t ask
me about it, though!), most of it downloadable from the ‘net.
Although such technology has yet to really catch on here, it’s
extremely prevalent in other countries, and its popularity in those
regions shows no signs of ebbing.
For viewers outside the US, Hollywood’s staggered movie distribution
practices have fostered widespread resentment (I base this claim on the
copious emails I receive from moviegoers around the world, from whom I
haven’t heard a single remotely positive thing about it).
By the time the average movie is theatrically
released in, say, England, it’s already out on DVD in the US...and then
it takes another six months for the English DVD to come out, by which
time it will have been available here for over a year. Seen in this
light, foreign viewers’ collective investment in multi-region players is
understandable, and bolstered by the fact that region 1 DVDs are better
constructed than most others, and that there are quite a few titles
available exclusively in the US (although this is not always the
case, as part 7 of this article will make clear).
It seems to me that releasing movies around the world at the same
time might save us and the movie studios quite a few headaches; if
you haven’t figured it out from the above information, the old
distribution system is pretty much kaput. Nevertheless, Hollywood is
doing its best to propagate it with a completely bone-headed
response to the “problem” posed by region-free DVD players: the Region
Coding Enhancement (RCE) program, which reinforces DVD region codes,
specifically region 1.
To date, about sixteen DVDs, including such high-profile releases
as SPIDER MAN and PANIC ROOM, have been outfitted with RCE technology,
which is supposed to make it impossible for multi-region or region free
players to play region 1 DVDs. HA!!!
Many players have a screen from which you can select
the region you want to play, so all one needs do is choose region 1 and
voila! you’ve circumvented Hollywood’s multi-million dollar RCE
scheme. I’ve also heard that many region free players have the
capability to simply ignore RCE technology altogether.
In other words, the RCE scheme is pretty much a bust, and the
importing of region 1 DVDs into countries outside the US continues
It could be argued that the failure of RCE technology is a good
thing, presenting a far more positive result than if it were
successful. Such a possibility would encourage piracy, and we need only
look at the music industry to gauge the toll of that insidious
7. Piracy and
the Music Industry
Yes, Napster, the notorious internet site that allowed its users to
download copyrighted music for free, has been taken out of commission,
but the industry still has Morpheus and a bunch more downloadable song
sites to contend with...and they are taking a bite out of CD
sales. A big one.
To be sure, I’m NOT a fan of the copyright infringement practiced
by Napster and its offspring (a close friend of mine recently lost his
CD retail business as a result of their insidious spread). A part of
me, however, does recognize the undeniable Karmic underpinnings of this
drama (the music industry, having screwed over its customers for years
with vastly inferior product, has finally received its long-overdue
In any event, the CD companies have after years of hand wringing
finally reacted to the crisis by offering songs downloadable Napster
style from the web--the difference is that you have to pay for
these songs (which if you ask me is far more cost-efficient than
shelling out for an overpriced CD cluttered with a dozen more shitty
tracks). I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that this particular
demon is not to be wrestled back into Pandora’s box any time soon, and
that this solution might be a case of too little, far too late.
For movie execs, I hope this imparts a stern lesson: that they
should put consumers’ interests before their own. Piracy is an already
grievous factor facing the movie industry (in countries like Malaysia
you can buy VCD copies of all the big Hollywood releases off the street
for around $3.00 each), and codifying what we see will only make it
Busting in the USA
Please understand: I’m NOT advocating movie piracy. A revolution is
not what is needed here; as suggested by the music industry anecdote,
the market has a sneaky way of balancing the scales on its own (with,
alas, little regard to legality). One thing I do cheerfully advocate,
though, is the use of region free/multi-region DVD players, a “secret”
people overseas have known about since day one, but one which we here in
the US have been slow in catching onto.
In our defense, we simply can’t buy region
free players over here, in “legitimate” venues like Circuit City, Fry’s,
The Good Guys or what have you. Nearly all such machinery has to be
imported from other regions, mostly Asia. The reason? American
electronics companies are all owned by the same corporations who run the
movie studios, ensuring that Hollywood’s party line will continue to be
Many American viewers, I imagine, have also been
dissuaded by pressure from Hollywood, which has gone out of its way to
convince people that importing non-region 1 DVDs somehow violates the
studios’ copyrights. Oh yeah? Many foreign countries have
declared region-coding ILLEGAL (which helps explain the overwhelming
accumulation of region free players abroad), but of course you
won’t hear about that from the studio goons.
But seriously: why should we here in the US bother with importing
DVDs, as we’re the “center of the universe?”
Answer: because many must-have DVDs can only be
EL TOPO is an essential addition to any true horror
fan’s DVD collection, as are
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, SALO: THE 120
DAYS OF SODOM, THE NAMELESS,
THE STONE TAPE,
THE HOUSE WITH THE WINDOWS
THAT LAUGH and countless others, all of which are unavailable in the
US. Likewise, while a film like ANGEL HEART was released here in
chopped R-rated form with NO special features, the European version
boasts a wealth of extras, and is uncut to boot.
Clearly, Hollywood isn’t the only culprit in the
DVD coding debacle; the British outfit BFI Video, which offers quite a
few great titles, imparts this stern proclamation regarding their
products: “(Our) DVD’s are designed for Region 2 PAL.” To that I say:
“EAT MY ARSE!!!” Why should Europeans get to have all the fun?
to see what you’re missing. Their wares, consisting of hundreds of
amazing DVD imports from around the world and the machinery needed to
play them, are legitimately released, factory products. NOBODY’S
copyright is being violated.
9. In Summation...
DVD coding is
bullshit in any region, useful only in propagating an obsolete
distribution system that long ago stopped serving the needs of
consumers. The accumulation of region busting technology overseas and
here in the US should send a clear message that we are NOT happy with
the way things are.
Maybe it’s time for