As the holidays wrap up and we move into the new year, many film fans who partake in the collection of physical media no doubt probably find themselves with a handful of Blu-rays to unwrap. For fans of the media format, it’s been interesting to watch the industry evolve over time, while also carrying over many mainstays of previous generations of electronics. A lot of people will obviously be content with their home country’s releases, but for many, they make it a point to seek out and receive the best possible edition of a film. Because of the way film rights are handled, oftentimes collectors will find themselves having to scour the internet for a copy of a film they might enjoy, only to find it unreleased in their territory. This leaves one with a somewhat frustrating realization, but also with a solution that opens you up to a vast world of physical media greatness: the region-free Blu-ray player.
If you’ve been collecting physical formats of media for a long time, chances are you’re well aware of how regions work, and how they’re usually split up between various areas of the world. For example, when it comes to Blu-ray, there are 3 regions: A, B, and C. The heavy hitters for Blu-ray largely fall in Region A and B. Region A houses North and South America, as well as Japan and some other areas. Then there’s Region B, which has Europe and Australia, as well as a handful of other territories. Where you buy your Blu-ray player will correspond to where your default region is set to. However, there are certain mods and players that you can buy from retailers that open up the possibilities of your viewing habits, and these region-free Blu-ray players will allow for ease of access to all the world’s discs.
Movie rights oftentimes become incredibly hard to decipher, especially if they land outside of the major studios that operate internationally as well as domestically. When that happens, it leaves some films unreleased for years in certain countries. Just one example of this is Andrea Arnold’s debut feature Red Road, which was released in the UK and still only has that one version that came out on the format in 2010. Many other directors, such as Sion Sono from Japan, have English-friendly releases for a number of his films only in the UK and nowhere else thanks to the continued work of Third Window Films. These include movies like The Whispering Star, Cold Fish, and Antiporno.
It’s this fact, along with the near extinction of video stores, that has left huge portions of films largely absent from streaming services. This is doubly true if you want to find the works of more niche directors and worse if they happen to be from a country that isn’t English-speaking. Having a region-free Blu-ray player is one of the few legal avenues that film fans can take when it comes to supporting directors of foreign cinema. That’s not to say that the status quo of region-locked practices has stayed the same, however.
Things have begun to change for the better, as 4K Blu-rays – which many people believe might be the last physical media format for film – is almost entirely region-free. Outside of a few select titles, if you pick up a 4K release from anywhere in the world, 99% of the time it’ll be region-free. There’s also the fact that many of these boutique Blu-ray labels make it a point to keep their releases region-free whenever possible, and they almost always only lock their content when it’s made a requirement by the film’s rights holder.
An example of the benefits that have come out of the tearing down of the region lock via 4K could be seen last year when Second Sight Films put out their excellent edition of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead on 4K and Blu-ray. In that case, you saw the Blu-ray region locked to the B territory, while the 4K release was region-free, allowing for movie fans all over the world the ability to grab the release without problems.
There is also the continued case that many movie fans have to deal with where certain releases that come out in their home territory simply aren’t that good. This can be due to a number of technical faults that are either out of the publisher’s hands or not, such as having to use old masters they’ve been provided with by the studio or their own bad encoding. There’s also the other major reason to own movies: the bonus features. A lot of the time you’ll have companies like Indicator in the UK, who go out of their way to pack their releases with special features, and you’ll only be able to find them on their version of the film. On top of all that, there’s also the fact that you just might not like the packaging of a certain release in your home territory.
While video stores have become basically extinct right in front of our eyes, it oftentimes becomes increasingly difficult for movie fans to find specific titles. This is becoming even more evident as multiple streaming services began to emerge after companies started to see the viability that they offered. Even if one still has the Netflix DVD plan – the one many people forget still exists – chances are if they do have an obscure title on the service, you’d have to end up waiting months for it to even become available. You’d be lucky to find a Blu-ray copy of said film on the service even if it was available.
That’s why region-free Blu-ray players are becoming increasingly valuable investments. It’s why, when the Nintendo Switch was first announced, the bullet point of it being region-free made many gamers ecstatic. It tore down the arbitrary gate that kept gamers in other countries away from physical versions of titles that might be unavailable in their region. That same thought process is also the reasoning behind getting a region-free Blu-ray player, and why anyone who’s a fan of movies should try and seek one out. Physical media for movies is in an odd place, one could say it’s the best it’s ever been as far as the actual content is concerned, but the continued looming dark cloud of streamers is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. In any case, now is the best time to open up one’s “borders” and collections to the vast catalog that foreign countries have to offer.