November 12, 2015
On the Lasting Legacy of Region Coding
The other day I made one of my regular pilgrimages to Molly’s Books, a local chain of secondhand bookstores that some time ago expanded to include CDs, DVDs, and magazines. My experiences there have always been hit and miss. Sometimes I find a rare film that was only released on DVD in one part of the world, and I wonder just who it was that brought it in. Other times, the selection is comprised of one-time popular films that sold well initially and that are now more likely to be part of a person’s great purge as they get older or decide to go digital. There are always copies of Legally Blonde and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Adam Sandler’s films are regular sights, as are the recent works of Nicholas Cage and Jean-Claude Van Damme. There is also a smaller selection of local Taiwanese films, probably due to their having sold less than Hollywood offerings.
This last trip, I came across what I thought was a real find – a Region 2 PAL DVD of a 1988 Scottish television show called The Steamie. The cover was in black and white, and the description of the show made it seem as if it was quite legendary in the United Kingdom. I bought it with every intent of returning home that very evening and watching it. I even decided it was something I wanted to review. Instead, I’m writing this.
This is not to suggest that I haven’t watched it, for I did sit down and view it from start to finish. I even did so with my trusty notepad next to me just in case there was something I wanted to jot down and write about later. Alas, that page remained a complete blank. As the series began, I was immediately aware of a possibly insurmountable obstacle. The characters in the show were speaking a dialect of British English that I was not familiar enough with to understand, a problem that was compounded by what may have been a questionable audio transfer. I immediately reached for the remote and pressed the button I thought would activate the subtitles. Luck was not on my side, however, for none were available. And so I sat through the program’s almost 80- minute running time, catching snippets here and there, but not nearly enough to be able to say what the show was about beyond extremely superficial explanations of there being four women washing their clothes in a washhouse, and I confess that in the beginning I thought they were at work.
I can almost understand the lack of English subtitles. The show was after all a Scottish production, and I have no doubt that people in the UK are much more familiar with the various accents and dialects of that part of the world. However, the lack of subtitles in other languages was a bit of a head scratcher, for it must have severely limited the show’s reach, as well as its DVD sales.
And this is one of the lasting legacies of region coding. All over the world, there are films that someone wants to watch, but can’t. Either the film won’t work in their DVD player – a situation rather easily remedied these days – or their viewing of the film is obstructed by the short-term thinking of those who insisted on region codes in the first place and those companies unable to see that there would eventually be a day when DVD players were region zero and customers in one part of the world would be curious about movies from another part. And so the world was divided into six regions, and each region concerned itself with its own immediate market. Most Japanese DVDs would be for the Japanese market, and there would be no consideration of subtitles in other languages. Over in Europe, DVDs would be produced that lacked English subtitles, and here in Taiwan, a vast number of the country’s cinematic history would be released in a form that continues to prevent much of the world from discovering its rich cinematic treasures. This was truly a film enthusiast’s nightmare. DVD, which was meant to usher in a new era of movie-watching, had failed to break the language barrier that had long prevented countries from being able to share in the cinematic experiences of other countries.
This brings us to the present day, to a time when studios are rapidly shifting their focus to creating vast platforms for streaming and moving away from physical media. With physical media will go the higher prices that people paid for physical DVDs, for who wants to pay full price for a digital copy of a film? Will there be any incentive for companies to go back and add subtitles to films that should have received them in the first place? Probably not. What we are left with then is a divided cinematic world with fewer collective experiences than it should have. Entire careers will remain undiscovered by most of the world, and masterpieces that should have been universally acclaimed will remain local secrets. This is the lasting legacy of region coding, and it is what prevents a show like The Steamie from reaching as wide an audience as it might otherwise have. It’s a shame, too. The show looked rather interesting.