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DVD Coding: Bullshit in any Region

1. In The Beginning...
Our 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...

2. 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...

3. 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

    
Region 4: Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Central America, Mexico, South America, the Caribbean

    
Region 5: Former Soviet Union, Indian Subcontinent, Africa, North Korea, Mongolia

    
Region 6: China

    
Region 7: Reserved(?)

    
Region 8: 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.

4. Region Coding: A Success? 
     For those who buy into the argument that DVD codes are a good idea, consider the following realities.

    
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.   

5. Widespread Resentment 
    
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).  

6. “Region Coding Enhancement”?
    
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 unabated.

     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 practice.

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 comeuppance).

     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 worse.  

8. Region 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 slavishly towed. 

     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 purchased overseas! 


     EL TOPO is an essential addition to any true horror fan’s DVD collection, as are ALCURADA, 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?

     Go to www.diabolikdvd.com or www.lfvw.com 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 a change.


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