This spring, Lions Gate Entertainment will release writer-director Lars von Trier's Dogville, a brutal, audacious, brilliant and occasionally interminable variation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The film stars Nicole Kidman as a stranger who wanders into a small town with gangsters on her tail; also among the cast members are Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall and the ubiquitous Patricia Clarkson. Dogville made its propitious debut at the Cannes Film Festival a year ago and, from there, went on its world tour, opening in Belgium, France, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Poland...well, get a map and look at any country other than the United States, and that's where Dogville has thus far buried its bone. It's scheduled to go into limited U.S. release March 26, with a wider opening following that.
But if you can't wait that long, or just want to impress your friends, you can simply go to www.dvdasian.com and order the special-edition, double-disc Dogville DVD for the strikingly reasonable price of $29.95. You will get not only the 178-minute film, but also its impressive extras: the trailer, a number of different interviews and press conferences with Kidman and von Trier, commentaries, several making-of featurettes and disturbing and riotous moments from the "confessional" booth von Trier set up for the cast to let off some steam. You do not even need a special DVD player to watch the film--you know, one of those region-free devices that allow you access to all manner of illicit foreign goodies. This Dogville, manufactured in South Korea, will play on that Region 1 player you got at Best Buy. Same one you use for Baby Einstein, Spider-Man and those Jenna Jameson discs under the bed.
While you're at www.dvdasian.com, or visiting any number of non-U.S. Web sites selling DVDs, pick up a copy of any of these movies, which have yet to be released in the United States: Golden Globes foreign-film nominee Good bye, Lenin!; Academy Award nominee Twilight Samurai; Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, a morbidly dark comedy from Italian for Beginners director Lone Scherfig; Israeli art-house hit Broken Wings; Larry Clark's Ken Park, damned by its critics as kiddie porn; the long-unreleased Prozac Nation, starring Christina Ricci as journalist Elizabeth Wurtzel; or the forthcoming Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger and Oscar nominee Naomi Watts. For these, you will need a region-free DVD player, but they're about 100 bucks these days, or about a third of what they cost just a couple of years ago, when they were as hard to find as a good movie in January. And this list is but a fraction of a fraction of the product available, which can be brand-new or decades old; from Amazon's U.K. site I just bought a boxed set of all the movies the Marx brothers made for Paramount, which aren't available in the United States.
By the way, did I mention this is all quite legal?
That's right--100 percent on the up-and-up, so kosher an Orthodox rabbi would have to give it his stamp of approval. This isn't the work of street-corner pirates selling movies stolen off screens with handheld video cameras, but The Real Deal--official product for which the right people were paid the right price so you could do the right thing. Jack Valenti and his litigious cronies at the Motion Picture Association of America couldn't even touch you with a 100-foot gavel. Says right here in Section 602 of the Copyright Act, which gives you and me permission to buy something overseas for "private use...and not for distribution," as long as what we bought overseas was legal and the money went to the proper copyright owner and not some dude selling cineplex product out of his trunk.
What I'm telling you is nothing new to kung-fu fetishists who've been buying Hong Kong movies online for years or Britcom enthusiasts who order their complete seasons of The Office from Amazon's U.K. site before they've even aired on BBC America. But it has gotten easier than ever to subvert the standard Hollywood distribution system that demands you watch what the studios want you to watch when they want you to watch it; the same goes for DVDs. Miramax, for example, was supposed to release the Brazilian gangster film City of God last month, but bumped it to June after it racked up a few Academy Award nominations; meanwhile, it's been available from British Amazon since last September. No longer are you subject to the whims of distributors. You can program your own theater in your own home, without getting into a car and putting up with lines and sitting next to a TB patient.
That doesn't make studios happy: A few months ago, Miramax went after a Hong Kong film fans' site just for linking to an Asian importer selling legal copies of Hero. Miramax owns the rights to distribute the Chinese hit in North America and doesn't want copies of it floating around in the United States before it releases the film, whenever that may or may not happen. But Harvey Weinstein may not have the right to go after people who can legally see a movie he's been holding hostage for two years.
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"Let's face reality," says Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Electronic Freedom Foundation, which has waged several legal battles with the Copyright Office, the MPAA and others. "When you talk to the movie studios and explain to them this isn't what the consumer wants, when you push them, they say, 'We don't care. We're gonna do it the way we want to do it,' and when they say that, I smell cartel. No vendor should say, 'I don't care what the consumer wants.' If they can behave against the wishes of the consumer, you have to ask, 'Why do they get away with it?' Maybe we don't have a good free market. This is not just about copyright. This is about the concentration among media companies and a lack of real competition. Copyright law doesn't protect a business model, especially one that's broken."
Representatives from the MPAA didn't return calls about this subject, but the organization has made its feelings quite clear: The studios want not only to eliminate sales of overseas discs but also to stop the manufacturing and distribution of region-free DVD players. The EFF is particularly concerned about the utilization of a new technology called RPC, or regional playback control, which will not allow regular DVDs, like that new copy of Seabiscuit you bought at Target, to play in region-free machines.
Of course, all this can be subverted; there are many sites that allow you to download software that turns your laptop into a region-free player, or that lets you reset the regional codes on your regular ol' DVD player. The studios, like the record labels before them, get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirrors of hackers and importers and regular old movie fans who want more than what they have to offer. And till they realize it's about what we want and not what they think we need, they'll keep alienating people who just want to see a movie when they want to see it, not when Harvey Weinstein or Jack Valenti thinks they ought to.
"All of this stuff irritates consumers," von Lohmann says. "After a while, if consumers find themselves with all these restrictions, it gives them the incentive to go to KaZaA to download this stuff. You give them a reason to seek out an unauthorized channel, which should be the last thing the movie studios want."