DVD Region Coding

I've avoided mentioning anything regarding the current rumours surrounding possible improvements in DVD region encoding mechanisms. There's a lot of speculation and a huge number of people are jumping to conclusions without any official details or confirmations coming to the fore. However, before things get out of hand, here's my take on the situation.

When DVD was first launched, region coding was developed as a way of protecting the investment of differing distributors in various areas around the world. The theory was that if DVD was going to take off as a format, it could seriously rival the cinema when it came to presenting films in the best way possible - and with staggered theatrical release dates around the world it was likely that clued up people would start looking to get their films earlier than they would usually be able to in their country. Something similar has been happening for years (on a lesser scale) with VHS, Laserdisc and VCD.

Of course, anyone with experience in the world of games consoles knows that territorial lock-outs rarely stop people importing software from abroad as modifications can easily be made to most hardware within weeks of its launch. A simple chip is all that's needed - and DVD hardware is not really that much different. OK, so it costs more to modify a DVD player but it's possible.

Before I get on to the latest developments, I'm briefly going to go over the main issues (as I see them)...

  1. As mentioned above, the primary reason for region coding is to protect studios from losing money as a result of staggered theatrical and retail video releases of their films. It protects both the large studios and smaller country-specific distributors of titles.
  2. A huge problem is caused when films are released in the US cinema far in advance of elsewhere in the world. Inevitably, earlier theatrical showings lead to earlier retail releases with some titles hitting Region 1 DVD months in advance of cinema showings in the UK.
  3. The main reasons people cite for buying from other regions are: that they want their films earlier; Region 1 and 4 releases are often superior in terms of presentation and content to domestic Region 2 discs; relatively high European prices; low availability of some titles; and to avoid censorship (in the UK and elsewhere).
Recent rumours suggest that Warner and Columbia have developed a method of preventing Region 1 DVDs playing on modified players from other regions. Many people are sceptical as to whether these 'improvements' will work while others are more worried.

Some posts on various forums (ours included) are now cropping up suggesting that tests have been carried out and that many players could be seriously affected by these changes - whether or not these reports are accurate is another matter entirely. The nature of the internet means that within a week, many people will be reporting these rumours as fact and in six months time questions and queries will still be cropping up regardless of the eventual outcome.

Interestingly, one of the first titles to feature this new form of region-coding will be The Perfect Storm which is released on 14 November - just two weeks before the equivalent Region 2 release. So here we have a potential situation where a studio hasn't implemented regional coding to protect a staggered release - but instead to make it difficult for buyers to purchase films outside of their own region. In effect, in this case it is apparent that region coding is being solely used as a method of controlling distribution and prices in the various regions.

Is this an easy way of forcing people into paying higher domestic prices for these films as opposed to importing cheaper releases from abroad?

There is some speculation as to the nature of this new method of region coding - have Warner developed a whole new mechanism, or are they simply implementing the 'handshaking' mechanism already employed by some studios such as MGM and Buena Vista? If it's the latter then for the most part this is pretty much a non-issue for most modifications...

It's hard to see how any form of region coding could cause problems with manual modifications - setting a player to a specific region should (with most mods) effectively 'make' the player that region and there shouldn't be any way for an passive piece of software such as a DVD film disc to cause problems.

I will be following this very closely in the coming weeks, and it will be very interesting to see what finally happens. One thing I must point out is that 95% of the information you read on the subject of 'enhanced region coding' is speculation and should be taken as such - don't panic just yet!

Related links:
Regional Coding Enhanced - Player Problems Expected (DVD Debate)
The DVD Forums

Colin Polonowski

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