The Great Global DVD Divide

What changes would the movie industry have to implement to make DVD’s a language training tool?

February 10, 2002

What changes would the movie industry have to implement to make DVD's a language training tool?

Hollywood unites the world. People in every corner of the globe watch U.S. movies, all of them dubbed into their native languages. The faces of the same Hollywood stars grace the walls from Bangkok to Buenos Aires. And gossip magazines everywhere discuss their love lives — and periodic nervous breakdowns.

That fascination runs even deeper among the world’s children. Kids love watching movies, of course — and they see their favorite ones over and over again. Soon, they know them by heart.

In a globalized world, this could be a brilliant way of teaching them lots of foreign languages — and do so while they are having fun. Especially since the DVD technology allows the same film to be viewed with soundtracks — as well as subtitles in a variety of different tongues.

However, there is a snag. The truth is that the U.S. movie industry divides the world technologically — even as it unites it culturally. It splits the world into regional markets.

In each market, the movie industry wants to release its films according to local movie-going seasons — and at the convenience of the local distributor. This same “divide and rule” logic is also followed in the release of each movie on DVD. As a result, all DVD players sold around the world come with a region-coding function.

Naturally, there are semi-official hackers who can help you get around the regional code. In fact, in Europe, modified DVD players that can play disks from every region of the world are pretty common. Some 64% of DVD players in European countries have the multiregional capacity.

But in the United States, most DVD players remain locked in a single-region variety. One reason is that the “Code 1” countries get the earliest releases of all the best movies. The built-in presumption is this: Only the movie buffs that love “art-house” foreign flicks would need the multiregional function in America’s market.

Yet, the United States, the pre-eminent global power, is also a country where the native population speaks fewest foreign languages. American kids, in fact, could benefit the most if they could watch their favorite movies in foreign languages.

Of course, the film industry would be up in arms against this idea. Why? They may no longer be able to maximize their profits if they didn’t have the ability to stack up their release on DVDs. After all, the DVD market is rapidly becoming the most important money-making segment in the entertainment industry, as DVD players become both cheap and widely diffused.

However, this is surely a myopic vision. Globalization has been the secret of Hollywood’s success. It has contributed to its creativity — as directors, writers and even movie stars now hail from every corner of the globe.

It is also part of its financial success, as 25% of America’s exports are comprised of entertainment.

Worldwide receipts on blockbuster movies routinely surpass sums earned in the U.S. market alone. Many films would never be made were it not for the built-in expectations of global receipts.

As a result, anything that promotes globalization — such as better knowledge of foreign languages among kids worldwide — ultimately benefits Hollywood. Alternatively, anything that detracts from it — such as creating different technological standards for DVD players — is a long-term loss for Hollywood.

Therefore, Hollywood and the entire U.S. entertainment industry should wise up — and drop its artificial way of divvying up the world with some new kind of electronic “Iron Curtain.” Instead, it should move to a truly global product — movie, DVDs, with wide pickings in alternate language tracks — all as a part of the same package.

February 10, 2002