We're here to tell you why region coding sucks for the movie industry.
Let’s say you’re in Europe visiting a friend or sight seeing. On your journey, you take a stroll inside a shopping mall and happen upon a video store. Resting on the shelf is your friend’s favorite movie, and their birthday is coming up. Naturally a great gift idea, you purchase it and return to the United States. Upon meeting with your friend, you give them the disc much to their delight. However that elation is short-lived when your friend’s DVD player promptly ejects the disc with the onscreen message reading “Wrong Region Code” or “You cannot play this disc”. Welcome to the wonderful world of Region Coding, an inexplicable detriment to the filmgoing community designed to control trade and thwart people from seeing movies still unavailable in North America.
Devised initially by Digital Rights Management before the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed in 1998 with the intent to prevent copyright infringement, with the advent of DVD came a catch to distribution known as Region Coding. Regarding the encryption process: Region Coding is divided into eight regions, ranging from Region 1 for North America, Regions 2, 4 and 5 for Europe, 3 and 6 for Asia and even Region 8 primarily for cruise ships and airlines. The padlock imposed on DVDs by Region Coding forces the consumer to rent or purchase content in their country of residence and nowhere else. Due to the varied release dates a film can face upon international distribution, this restricts viewers from purchasing and viewing a film already available on video internationally that has yet to receive an official release stateside—which it sometimes never does. What’s more, why leave the competition open to viewers who would rather pay $10 for an international DVD instead of $20 for a domestic disc when Region Coding can eliminate that debate from the equation?
While a sound business move from a financial standpoint for studios and filmmakers, the restrictions imposed on consumers is also preventative in allowing cinephiles access to films still unavailable here. For instance, Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s novel Barfly is long out of print on DVD in the US and is going on eBay for exorbitant costs. Recently a Blu-Ray edition with a brand new transfer was released in Germany. While a generous gift to filmgoers around the world, only those outside of Germany who have purchased a DVD/Blu-Ray player custom built to bypass the Region Coding will actually be able to view the disc. In other words, most people still cannot watch Barfly in the United States, unless you want to put someone through college on eBay or suffer through a low resolution VHS transfer on YouTube. Don’t forget to adjust the tracking. Oh wait…
Ultimately, Region Coding is designed entirely for the benefit of greedy studio executives trying to squeeze as much money out of a film’s theatrical and eventual home video release as possible, irrespective of how many films get stuck in the machinery. To make matters worse, once the alternatives to bypass Region Coding became prominent among devoted filmgoers not wanting to be hamstrung by this silly padlock, Hollywood instituted yet another Region Code on DVDs made for US consumers known as Regional Coding Enhancement. What this means is certain Region 1 DVDs won’t even play on Region Free players. It’s almost like an impish joke Hollywood is playing on us. As of now, the only beneficiaries to Region Coding are the studios releasing films and the manufacturers of Region Free players.
You might ask why anyone would own two Blu-Ray players and have both of them connected to the same home theater setup, or why I would prefer to own an international copy of a film when I can simply get it here? Well, there’s a multitude of reasons behind it. In the United States, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was released in its original theatrical R-rated release version, while Japan offers an exclusive uncut version including shots originally cut out to avoid the NC-17 rating. Likewise, in the infamous orgy sequence in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the American R-rated release version was optically censored to obscure more graphic sexual content while the rest of the world was granted an uncut release (though the film was eventually released uncut in the US).
Technical quality itself can factor into the purchase of an international DVD over its US counterpart. One of the best examples is the director’s cut of Army of Darkness released by Anchor Bay in the United States using VHS tape footage and 2.0 stereo sound to recreate the original cut, with jarring shifts in image and sound clarity. It looked horrible and was difficult to sit through. In China, however, an even longer version of the director’s cut was assembled from restored film elements as well as an exciting Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack, resulting in a pristine version of the movie. Because these infinitely better international releases of American movies are under the lock and key of Region Coding, you cannot watch these films without either investing in a Region Free player or turning to computers and DVD/Blu-Ray writing drives to get around the lockout.
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Then there’s the inevitable final option: Piracy. Bootlegged copies of films were cited as one of the main reasons for the institution of Region Coding in the first place, and this was back when going on the internet was precluded by an annoying dial-up tone. Yet it flies in the face of common sense when you take into account the existence of goldmine distribution companies overseas like Arrow, and other labels that bestow countless treasures upon filmgoers that we cannot enjoy here in the States without a significant investment. When you lock the greater portion of the world’s population out of the treasure chest, someone will find a key, even if they have to whittle one out of binary code so they can download the treasure without even cracking the lock. When periodicals are publishing lists of the most pirated films and television shows every year, it seems that Region Coding has done everything but prevent piracy. In fact, it seems to have made it a more attractive option. Why would someone invest in an All-Region player—not to mention the copious shipping costs of purchasing films from outside the country—when they can just torrent the uncut version of Ken Russell’s The Devils for a double-E discount?
None of this even takes into account the North American companies like Disney, that not only keep portions of their catalog under lock and key at all times, but offer their available films for prices that make you question whether or not Michael Eisner and Bob Iger ever heard of the term “on sale.” When you can boil a majority of this down to simple economics, a heaping helping of greed is certainly never going to help the piracy situation. The more expensive and more difficult to obtain you make something, the more dedicated the population will become to getting it with the least amount of money and fuss. If the “war on drugs” and the legal drinking age of 21 have taught us anything, it’s that telling someone they can’t have something means it’s about thrice as likely you’ll find a vomit-covered teenager on your bathroom floor with a joint stuck behind their ear. Or in this case, hunkered next to their computer with a blanket over their lap watching a prolifically pornographic torrent of Ken Park.
To the film and distribution companies out there, and most especially to the MPAA and other copyright Nazis: If you want what’s coming to you—what’s fair—stop treating the filmgoing population like children, and they won’t keep stealing your candy.
- Andrew Kotwicki and Blake O. Kleiner