Tuesday, February 24, 2009

DVD region codes are a pain in the bloody bum

I will end this piece of writing by tellin' y'all about a relatively easy way to get a decent region-free DVD player. Feel free to scroll to the bottom to get at it; the rest is just me giving some background and venting an opinion or two.

First off, do y'all understand what I mean by "regional coding" of DVDs? Skip this paragraph, if so - I figure I need to set up some sort of explanation. DVD distributors (or whomever the exact capitalist culprit is here) want to be able to control what you can see. If a big American film that has played here and made it onto DVD has not yet been theatrically distributed in Europe, or Japan, or Australia, for instance, they don't want Europeans, or Japanese, or Australians, etc., to be able to just buy the American DVD for the film online and watch it, since that could cut into the profits for the theatrical distribution of the film in that region, and undercut local DVD distribution deals; they want Japanese to buy Japanese DVDs, Europeans to buy European DVDs, Australians to buy Australian, and Americans to buy American, when the film gets its official release in that country, and not before. So regional coding has been introduced to most DVDs; almost every DVD you rent or buy has been coded for the region that it is bought and sold in, and can only be played on DVD players that have that same regional code (which, in North America, is "region 1"). All DVD players are technically capable of playing any DVD - the coding is something that is programmed into the player after it is manufactured, to correspond with the area where it will be sold, and can thus be also removed, if you know how to do it; but this information is not made "officially available," and it appears that when hacks that do unlock certain DVD players make their way online, some companies actually go so far as to alter the way the coding is programmed in, so the hack no longer works. There are cheapie DVD companies that circumvent the entire process and offer region-free DVD players, like VJ Tech (the best price for which I've found is Konbiniya, the Japanese convenience store/ video rental shop on Robson near Bute - though you have to be a member to get the best price, which is around $75); but players like these are made in China by small companies without much of a reputation to maintain, and seem like a dodgy product at best. My one experience with VJ Tech soured me on the idea of using any such equipment, since the machine "swallowed" the DVD I put into it, due to shoddy manufacturing; the DVD tray took the DVD in, refused to play it, and when I pressed "eject," the tray came back out empty again, the DVD being stuck so firmly in the guts of the machine it couldn't be removed without opening the machine up and forcing it out, ultimately destroying the disc (which, thank God, was cheap and easy to replace). A friend whose VJ Tech did work had it die after about a year, so they hardly seem built to last. I have heard that many European DVD players are now programmed to be region-free, since the European market for DVDs made in the USA is sizeable, but in North America - where consumers are ignorant and mostly content to choose between the products that are easily available to them, regional coding remains the rule.

None of this would be an issue if it weren't for the fact that many movies that I care about have never been distributed in North America, and may never be. I currently own about five non-region-1 DVDs: an English DVD of Sir Peter Brook's King Lear (with Paul Scofield as Lear); a French DVD of Bertrand Tavernier's terrific La Mort En Direct (aka Death Watch), with Harvey Keitel, Romy Schneider, Harry Dean Stanton, and Max von Sydow -- the European cut of which is substantially different from (and far superior to) the old American VHS/laserdisc release; an Australian DVD of Gregg Araki's Nowhere; a French DVD of the Italian film Gli Intoccabili, also known as Machine Gun McCain, a gritty, violent romance that John Cassavetes got Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands co-starring roles in when seeking financing for Husbands. (I also have a Japanese version of Brian de Palma's The Phantom of the Paradise, but that is available here; I bought the Japanese version because it was cheap!). There are various other DVDs that tempt me from other regions that I have not yet bought - there have been European DVD releases of Cassavetes' Husbands, Love Streams, A Child is Waiting, and the out-of-print-in-North-America Minnie and Moskowitz, none of which I have as yet, and a release of an intriguing-sounding Billy Wilder film with Marlene Dietrich called, if I recall, A Foreign Affair. There's even been a (possibly illegitimate) Euro release of the Canadian horror film Rituals, with Hal Holbrook, which is a film I'm very fond of, tho' last I checked it was out of print and pricy; that film is only available in North America in a hacked up "public domain" version that is best avoided. Some of these films I've held off on buying - I'm convinced that eventually the Cassavetes films will see release here, for instance, and have VHS editions and such to tide me over in the meantime - but in the cases of the ones I have bought (through international sellers on eBay or via Amazon France), I'm simply not willing to wait however many years it will take for a proper region 1 release. I mean, why the hell should I? - so an American company will get my money, rather than a European one? Why would this matter to me at all - particularly when it's often the American company that has decided not to bother with the local distribution of the film?

Since I don't want to gamble with cheap region-free players, when my previous DVD player died a few weeks ago, I was left with the option of finding brand name players that have hacks available online. The best site to look for player hacks is probably this one, DVD Video Help; however, there are tons of machines out there that have no hacks available, and of the hacks posted, it turns out many won't work - perhaps because the hack only applies to a certain region where the machine is bought, perhaps because the manufacturers have changed the leaked codes to protect their product, or perhaps because some of the hacks provided are untested and wrong, or flat-out disinformation posted by someone who wants you to buy the machine, but doesn't *really* want to tell you how to hack it. I attemped to hack a Samsung DVD-6800 that I'd bought at London Drugs because I'd found a supposed hack on the DVD Video Help site. It didn't work. I got on the phone with Samsung - their 1-800 help line -and found them utterly unwilling to help me; I talked to two different operators, and was treated like I was trying to do something illegitimate or immoral. Both refused to give me any other phone number I could call; there are surely people in Samsung who know the hacks, but they will not share, since "it is not something we support." (Such care for customer satisfaction was truly touching). For two past DVD players I've used - a Curtis and an Akai, both now defunct - I was able to piece together the hacks by following those for similar models and brands, but not the Samsung. Two hours of frustrated attempts to unlock the machine left me fuming, and I had no choice but to return the player to the store, vowing never to buy Samsung products again.

Today at Future Shop, I picked up an LG player (the DV380H-N), having been assured that it would be hackable. Unfortunately, the hack for this one was a little more complicated. There are several people who suggest for this and similar models that you can reprogram the player by entering various combinations of numbers on your remote control, but none work; the hack that does work requires the downloading of a file from the Internet, which you have to burn onto a CDR. The file is identified as KPCJ-19_1.dvd; you can find it here or here, at least until those sites go down (in which case I'd just do a search for the file name, since I imagine, given how useful it is, it will continue to surface online). Download the file, unzip it as necessary, and burn it onto a CDR (not a DVD-R) using Nero or other burning software; Windows will apparently not burn it correctly. I asked a buddy with more IT experience than I have to do all this for me, since I lacked a CDR and was having trouble opening the file, but the remaining steps are apparently as follows:

- place file "kpjc19_1.dvd" in folder "SCARLET" (case sensitive)

- place folder "SCARLET" into folder "RMTM0000"

- write the CD-R in ISO format (again, using Nero or such).

- put the CD-R in the DVD player

- when the menu appears, select '0' for region free code (it will ask you the 'new region' you are switching it to)

- finally, as you will be instructed, press PAUSE to save the new region coding

This seems to work just fine - I tested one of my Region 2 DVDs and it played (which it hadn't done before I applied the hack), as did the Region 1 DVD I tried thereafter. It seems ridiculous to me that I should have to go through all this subterfuge to be able to watch the movies I want to watch - regional coding really makes no sense at all, unless perhaps one is talking about some blockbuster film that a given distributor could stand to lose millions on if it leaked to an overseas market ahead of its release; these are hardly the sort of films that cinephiles are seeking out from other regions, however. One hopes that companies like Samsung (or Sony or Toshiba or whomever you wish to name) will eventually realize that they are only hurting themselves by not meeting consumer demands. And if you want to offer them a little fuck-you, next time you're shopping for a DVD player, make sure you CAN find a workable hack for it to make it region free, so if there ever is a European or Japanese or Australian DVD release that you care about, you can watch it without any corporate asshole interfering. If the player has no hack, or if the hacks don't work - take it back to the store, and make sure the sales clerk and the product support people at the company who made the machine KNOW that that's what you're doing.

The LG player seems pretty nice, actually, if you're in the market for a player you can easily make region free. They're at Future Shop for $75. The product support guys at LG didn't actually help me unlock the player, but at least they didn't register their disapproval that I was trying to do so! (The guy I talked to had a region-free player himself, apparently...).

(Oh, by the way, there is also the possibility that your TV will reject a PAL-formatted disc - your DVD player may play it, but the picture could roll. There isn't much that can be done about this, alas! Some TV's just don't like PAL formatting, which is standard in Europe. I don't have the wherewithal to explain all that, tho'; there's nothing that can be done, in that case. I'm lucky to have a TV that's both PAL and NTSC friendly).


Anonymous said...

any chance you could post me a copy of the cd to unlock my lg dvd player?

ammacinn said...

Sorry, no. I want to hang onto it - if I end up having to replace the LG player, or if I buy a backup, I'll need it, and won't want to bug my IT friend to set up a new one. My own CD burner is a little faulty, so I don't want to try to copy it myself.

Plus I've had some "problem commenters" on this blog and do not want to give out my address, AND I'm not 100% sure of the legalities here, posting this file (since I don't know whose property it is). You should be able to get this done by some other means - just get a friend who is deft with computers - or someone at a computer shop - to download the file and set it up to the specifications mentioned. It's easy enough to find, since it's been posted on a couple of sites. Have him or her burn it onto a CDR for you, and you'll be set.