Thursday, June 28, 2018

Miscellaneous Musings

On an Idea Whose Time Is Long Overdue

June 28, 2018

It is becoming increasingly clear that the major studios have effectively given up on physical media. Oh, there continue to be new releases every week, but more and more, these are films that have played in theaters recently or re-releases of catalog films because some important anniversary has arrived, i.e. the fortieth anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Catalog films had mostly been relegated to MOD discs or licensed to smaller, independent companies, many of which release limited pressings that are promptly declared out of print. Those catalog films deemed to have continued popularity and sales potential are being updated to 4K Ultra HD, a format that I have yet to buy into. After all, just how many copies of the same film should people be expected to buy?

Years ago, the now-defunct web site DVD Journal put up a list of movies that had yet to be released on DVD. The list is still up, and for fun, I went to Amazon and looked up a few of the titles on the list: Belles of St. Trinians, Celine and Julie Go Boating, John Huston’s The Dead, and Eight Iron Men. The first appears to only be available in Region 2; the second is available as part of a box set in Region 1, but sold separately in Region 2; the third is on DVD in both regions, and the fourth is available as a DVD-R in Region 1 and as a standard DVD in Region 2. However, it only has German subtitles, rendering it unwatchable for far too many people. I further check on a Glenn Ford film called Fate Is a Hunter, and discovered that while it had been released in the U.S., both the DVD and the Blu-ray, of which only 3,000 copies were printed, are out of print. Those outside are U.S. are in luck, though, for the film was released on DVD in Spain. Alas, the film is only subtitled in Castilian and is PAL. I should also mention that none of these films are available in Taiwan.

So, just what is a film fanatic to do is you want to watch all of these films. Well, presently you have to have two Blu-ray players – one from the U.S. and one from the U.K. (and this would still not enable you to view releases from India, China, and Russia, which are all part of Zone C) – or an all-region Blu-ray player, and these require you to essentially hack into the system and input a code to bypass the player’s pre-selected settings. Such players are already available on Amazon, started at around $150. Such players, I suspect, are likely to remain the possessions of passionate film collectors, however, for the majority of people may not feel to need to go beyond the films already available in their home countries.

Now, the reasoning behind television display systems, region coding, and Blu-ray zones is not hard to explain. There has also been piracy of intellectual property across oceans. One of the earliest and most glaring examples of this was Thomas Edison’s actions concerning Georges Melies’s groundbreaking 1902 short Le Voyage Dans la Lun. In addition, there were different laws regarding copyrights and distribution rights that got in the way of one country’s release of a film being available in another country, not to mention strict rules in some countries over where a film’s subtitles or dubbing had to be completed for it to be eligible for release.    

The result of this is a scattered world, where films can be available in one market but not in another, subtitled in one language only, or released in a subpar form because those releasing it view its market as being extremely limited. But what if the market for any release was suddenly global? What if there was an incentive to create subtitles in a variety of languages? What if people in Australia, a country that once sued because so few movies were being released on DVD there, instantly found the world’s cinema open to them on a massive scale? This is possible if we simply do one of two things: make all physical media region and zone free, or eliminate region and zone locks on players altogether.

Such a move would open up a world of possibilities. Companies would now have an incentive to make subtitles for different countries because their product could suddenly be seen by everyone. Hundreds of lesser-known movies would have a real possibility of additional sales, and film historians would suddenly put out lists of movies from foreign countries that were deserving of both an expanded audience, as well as subtitles. Audiences would then have their choice of any company’s release of a particular film, and they would be able to choose which one they purchased based on the quality and cost of the release, not on their ability to play it in their current player.

I do not pretend that this would bring back the video stores of yesteryear, yet it would provide an immediate boost in sales and excitement, similar to that experienced by film aficionados back in the early days of DVDs, when it appeared the world was suddenly their oyster. We need that.

Years ago I went to Tower Records in Tokyo in search of some of Juzo Itami’s films. A number of them had been released on VHS, but for some reason, none had found their way to DVD. Fortunately, the one I was looking for, Minbo: The Art of Japanese Extortion, was available with English subtitles (it is still unavailable in the US), but many of his other films were not. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Here is Taiwan hundreds of films, including the majority of classic Taiwanese films, exist without subtitles that would expand the films beyond the Chinese and Taiwanese markets. In some cases, international companies have tried to rectify this, creating exciting releases of films by such acclaimed directors as Hsiao-hsien Hou and Mikio Naruse. Alas, too many of these have been cursed with region codes and locks. It’s no wonder many of them have gone out of print.

Fortunately, we can change this. In truth, we should have done so a long time ago.

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