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Public Classics

September 14th, 2006

DVDs in Japan cost considerably more than in the U.S. New releases of DVDs in America generally cost around $20; in Japan, the same movies go for $30. For example, current releases of V for Vendetta, Poseidon, and The Da Vinci Code all sell for about $30 at Amazon Japan, while the same titles sell for $20 at Amazon U.S.–except for The Da Vinci Code, which sells for $15.

This is one of the main reasons why I buy my DVDs from the U.S., and use a region-free player (or the Region 1 player I lugged here from the U.S.)–because U.S. releases are so much cheaper, in addition to having earlier release dates. Generally, much earlier–the latest X-Men movie is just out in Japanese theaters, while the U.S. DVD is on sale soon. Often, summer Disney titles go on sale by Christmas, just as they are opening in Japan.

This of course, is why they have region encoding in the first place: to keep people from benefitting from different marketing plans.

500Dvd2But there is a strange hole in this: if you want to buy the DVD for Gone with the Wind in the U.S., it costs $20. In Japan, the same movie costs $5–or more precisely, ¥500.

Same with Casablanca–$20 in America, the same movie is $5 in Japan. The same deal applies to movies like King Kong, The African Queen, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, and more. The DVDs are “all-region,” and come with English and Japanese subtitles (which can be turned off).

So how did that happen? Well, it has to do with copyright law and a court case. As part of corporations’ quest to become legally immortal super-human beings with endless ownership rights, they have been lobbying to indefinitely extend copyright protections. Previously, copyright protection for films was 50 years; in 2004, it was extended another 20 years. However, a recent court case decided that, in Japan at least, the 20-year extension was not retroactive. So a movie made in 1954 will stay protected until 2024. But a movie made in 1953 is now in the public domain.

500Dvd1I reported on this a few months back when I heard about the case, but it was just last week when I finally saw the DVDs on sale. I picked up Gone with the Wind, Notorious, Roman Holiday, Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird for ¥3000, sales tax included–about $26, actually, at today’s rates. Six movies for less than any one of them would cost “legitimately.”

This in part reveals the actual production costs for DVDs–or even more sharply, the recent decision by Warner Home Video to start selling their movie titles in China for just $2.65. Although that is to compete with the widespread $1 pirate DVD market, you know that Warner wouldn’t be selling at that price unless they were making even a small amount of money from them.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, we can enjoy some good classics for a still comfortable price. You can see the on-line catalog here; to see categories of specific movies, click the links after the English words “PICK UP” near the top left. (By the way, you can see they made the web page using Adobe GoLive 6–check out the web page title. Think it was a pirated version?)

They’re only selling 140 titles now, but there should be more than 140 good ones made before ’54. Alas, movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much (the Jimmy Stewart/Doris Day version) won’t go on sale for another two decades.

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  1. September 15th, 2006 at 01:52 | #1

    I’m guessing these things have no special features?

  2. Luis
    September 15th, 2006 at 02:01 | #2

    Good question. I only checked one or two, but I’d say it’s pretty much a given that there are no special features. After all, what could there be that’s more than 50 years old? Also, these are on the cheap, so… aside from the subtitle options, I’m guessing that none have anything but the basic movie. And when I watched a bit of “Gone with the Wind,” it looked like they used a fair amount of compression to cram it into one DVD; the sound was a little distorted in places, and the picture was a bit imperfect (some color fringing, a little bit of artifaction). It was more than watchable, though.

  3. September 15th, 2006 at 12:40 | #3

    I checked out the site you linked to and one of the titles is Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. This particular title answers the question of how many special features can you have for an over 50-year-old movie. The version on Amazon, which I bought, comes on two discs. The second disc is all bonus material. The niftiest of this material is some Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck Robin-Hood-related cartoons but there’s a lot of other good stuff as well.

    However, this version is $20 so I guess it’s a question of how valuable such extras and much better quality is for the individual buying the movie. As a serious fan of classic old movies, I’d pay more but my feelings about them are similar to those most people have about Star Wars. Most people aren’t as into the history and understanding the zeitgeist of the times the movies were made in.

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