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The Criterion Criteria: Why Are Criterion Blu Rays Region Coded?

The Criterion Collection is incredible – it really is the ideal back-catalogue for anybody who considers themselves a fan of good cinema well-presented. The company basically releases top-of-the-line DVD and blu ray collections of old and new films, each presented with the greatest of care, and with a wealth of special features, often including director’s cuts, in-depth documentaries, essays and other treasures. Hell, the company’s laser-disc division invented the notion of a “commentary”, producing one over their release of the classic King Kong. I am a fan, as I think that any cinephile is a fan. That said, I was shocked to read of a rather disturbing development: Criterionhave region-coded their blu ray releases. I understand the idea of region-coding, but this really seems like a strange case.

It's a monstrous injustice... (Godzilla, #594)

The idea of region-coding is to impede the importing of movies from one geographical region from another, to allow the film companies to better regulate the timing, price, packaging and content of a given release. For example, some major motion pictures may be released in different countries over a period of month – Oscar contenders are typically released into Irish cinemas months behind their American release dates. It undermines the cinematic run of the movie if a viewer could just import an American copy of the DVD to watch at their leisure. After all, finding a particular film on the web and shipping it to a different country might be considerably cheaper than a family trip to the cinema.

So various forms of media are “region coded.” This means, in theory, that you can’t buy a disc in America and expect to play it in Russia, or that your Australian friend can’t ship a movie to play on an African player. This was one of the major advantages of DVD for distributors, who carved the world into six regions. Of course, you might argue that this is great for the major companies who can afford to brand and ship their releases in eight different markets, but it was also possible to make the discs “region free”, something you’d see from smaller movies from smaller studios hoping for imports around the world – Japanese horror, for example, or a Chinese historical epic. The major studios seemed remarkable comfortable with this manner of regulating the market.

Why can't we have the best of both worlds? (Dead Ringers, #21)

However, times change. Jump to the present, where the studios are trying to push blu ray as the new format. From the outset, it seems like there’s been an attempt to pull back on this regulation – perhaps reflecting the harsher economic times. Studios want film fans to buy the discs, without having to release multiple versions for multiple markets. There are, for example, only three blu ray regions, half as many as existed for DVDs – a sign of diminishing interest.

Also, it seems that the studios themselves are adapting a softer attitude toward encoding the discs within these regions. I know, for example, that Warner Brothers rarely region-code their blu ray discs, which has allowed me to import the spectacular five-disc edition of Blade Runner, recommended for all film fans. While some studios, like Fox and MGM, are known to encode their titles, they seem to be among the minority. I’d argue that the general trend is towards a region-free world, which is great from a conceptual point of view – the free market and the global village in action, the notion of a global film community becoming closer to a reality. If you are considering importing a film, there’s a great index of tried-and-tested region-free titles here.

Will Criterion do the right thing? (Do The Right Thing, #97)

Anyway, back to The Criterion Collection. I was young when they started releasing DVD titles, so I have very few, as they tend to go out of stock quite quickly. I have Brazil on DVD, which is one of my favourite DVDs – fitting as it’s one of my favourite films. Terry Gilliam’s film is included with an essay, behind-the-scenes features and three different versions. That’s really something, and it’s a respectful way to treat a beloved film. I can’t express the care that goes into these releases. Anyway, there are several reasons, beyond the trend away from region-coding, that I’m surprised that the team’s blu ray discs are region-coded.

The most obvious reason for my surprise is the fact that none of their DVDs were region-coded. Every single on of their DVD releases, including the ones being released concurrently with the blu ray editions, is region-free. You can import them and play them absolutely anywhere, which is fantastic. Great cinema shouldn’t be confined by border. It seems strange that the team would suddenly start region-coding on only half their line, while other distributors seem to be phasing it out.

This makes me feel rather blue... (Trois Couleurs, #587)

The second reason is the fact that these are classic films. I’m dying to get my greasy little hands on The Man Who Fell To Earth or Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence or Broadcast News or Cronos or Trois Couleurs, among countless others. There’s no competition with these releases, no reason for distributors to strangle the releases. In fact, many of these films are new to blu ray, so you’d imagine people would welcome diversity. Even the handful of recent or pre-existing releases, like Fish Tank, aren’t impacted by the line – most are already long out by the time Criterion work their magic. The Criterion Collection are the high-end of the market, costing fare more than the normal DVD releases. Most of these films have either already been released or are not on anybody’s blu ray schedule – it’s not like people are importing the blu rays as the films open in cinemas.

More than that, there’s something fundamentally wrong with The Criterion Collection ending up as an exclusively American endeavour, because the series has always prided itself on recognising global contributions to cinema. The films are selected from around the world, reflecting different eras and perspectives, and they represent the whole world. These films are an encapsulated example of world-wide cinema at its very best, so it’s hypocritical to restrict access like this. Why can’t Spanish fans have access to Guillermo del Toro’s debut? Surely everybody should share in that experience, not just Americans?

There's even room for light entertainment... (The Rock, #108)

Hm. Between this and my attack on the Disney Vault, I’m turning into a cinematic socialist, a crazed, film-loving radical who demands that good cinema be made available to the people, regardless of their geographical location. I guess it’s a good sign that these films still get me so excited and energised after all this time.

6 Responses

  1. That decision makes no sense at all.

  2. I have Brazil, Seven Samurai, and the America: Lost and Found box set on Criterion DVD – all are Region 1 encoded, it’s not a new issue. You’re right, it absolutely goes against what Criterion are about.

  3. Even though I agree with the sentiment, I believe your info about Criterion DVD being region free is incorrect. According to the Criterion website:

    11. Does Criterion sell its DVDs and Blu-ray discs outside the United States? And what regions do they play in?

    We only publish DVDs for the North American market, and our DVDs and Blu-ray discs are encoded region 1.


  4. I just bought the beautiful Eraserhead Blu-ray and I just discovered that, here in Italy, I can’t watch it.
    You can easy imagine my happiness…

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