The Holiday Round-Up: Boutique Labels, Going 4K and Region Free

*Author’s note: I started writing this days before the country went up in flames. Domestic affairs have reached unthinkable lows this week and we can only have hope for our country going forward, so please know that I’m aware of how inconsequential and trivial discussing movies is when we’re witnessing the literal downfall of our society. I decided to continue writing the post because I needed to think, and write, about something that makes me happy for a spell.

I haven’t posted much lately, so I figured I’d do a write-up on how my home viewing experience has evolved over the last several months. We don’t have cinemas yet, so what else do we movie fans have except for our own personal entertainment bubbles in our homes?

At this point I think it’s safe to say we’re never going to ingest media through the same means we’ve been historically accustomed to. Streaming content is king while the population remains stuck in a 10+ month lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many smaller cinemas to close their doors permanently. And the relationship between big theater owners and movie studios is fractured, at best, after the decades-old model of film distribution was (irrevocably?) altered following the Warner Bros. bombshell that they’re releasing all of their films slated for release in 2021 into theaters and onto the struggling streaming service, HBO Max, simultaneously.

These are things to remember when considering whether to purchase a physical disc versus a digital download: money drives the business and modes of production and distribution are ever-changing. This holds especially true in the digital and streaming sphere. At the moment you can stream an innumerable amount of films and television shows right in your living room with the click of your remote, but it’s important to remember not to get too attached to a digital property. Because anything you can’t physically hold in your hand can be taken away, as Amazon has already stated.

Value your physical media.

Now: The Round-Up!

Christmas for a cinephile tends to go one of two ways: gifts of physical media or improved viewing medium. I’m a collector of sorts, so people tend to adorn me with movies for gift-giving holidays (and owning physical media is my personal testament to the capitalistic machine). I’m boring to buy presents for, but I’m also very easy to buy for: anything film related makes me happy. Discs, posters, books, artwork, clothing…all of it.

Being that my birthday occurs very close to Christmas (January 1st), and taking into consideration that New Year’s Day, 2021 was a milestone birthday for me (the big 4-0), I was graciously blessed by loved ones with gifts of both kind. A true cinephile holiday.

The meat of this post will be concerned with the physical media aspect, but I’d like to start by mentioning my upgraded equipment. A special thank you goes out to my family, as they gifted me 4K upgrades for my television and blu-ray player as a remarkable present to culminate my 40th year on this planet. Humbling gifts that melt my little movie-loving heart. The relevance of this cannot be overstated enough.

Call me a skeptic, but when 4K was introduced to the market I didn’t even pay attention. Perhaps not having the finances to explore a new medium kept me from looking closer. Perhaps blu-ray felt too new to be supplanted already. Perhaps I’m content with the image quality of a blu-ray (how much detail do you need?) Or, more likely, I’ve built a buffer between myself and new technologies. It’s my body’s equivalent to saying, “I’ll wait and see how this pans out” (looking at you, HD-DVD!)

It was only this year that I finally paid attention. I began noticing social media posts about the richness of the 4K image, the re-defining of color, the vast improvement in detail, and I became intrigued. When some of the discourse drifted toward the format’s ability to reproduce images closer to the actual filmed intent, I was officially on-board. And to say the technology has delivered on those glowing remarks is an understatement. It’s a game-changer.

Now let’s move to the selection of titles for testing out the new toys.

The holidays do bring about some wonderful consumer benefits: sales! The singular change in my collecting habits came about as the result of joining a Facebook group for people who love and collect physical media, namely boutique label films.

What is a boutique label, you ask?

If you’re familiar with a handful of the more popular specialty film distributors out there, such as The Criterion Collection or Arrow or Shout! Factory, then you know what a boutique label is. In parlance, these companies obtain the rights to a particular title that suits their brand and they put all the love and care they can muster into it, frequently boasting new 2K or 4K scans of the original film negative, corrected aspect ratios (sometimes they work in collaboration with the film’s director or cinematographer on these improvements), and loading the discs up with bonus features such as interviews, featurettes, rediscovered footage, deleted scenes, essays, postcards, booklets, and any other material they can find.

For example, Shout! Factory’s extensive Friday the 13th box-set (pictured below) stands as one of the highlights of 2020 boutique releases, featuring all 12 films on 16 discs, new 4K scans of the first four films, deleted scenes, restored audio, radio spots, and a plethora of new featurettes. My brother generously bestowed this wonderful set to me for Christmas/Halloween (he knows my black heart) and it’s a stunning presentation that really showcases the love Shout! Factory put into this release.

The labels mentioned above are primarily US companies (Arrow is UK-based, but their catalogue is pretty evenly split between UK and US titles, and Criterion has been releasing films in the UK for a little while). My main discovery through the Facebook group has been unearthing all the other boutique labels from the US as well as many more from the UK that I was unaware of. Some of these labels include Indicator (UK), Eureka! (UK), Kino Lorber (US), BFI (UK), Studio Canal (UK), Synapse (US), 88 Films (UK), Second Sight (UK), Vestron (US), 101 Films (UK), and Vinegar Syndrome (US), to name some of the most popular ones. Many of them focus on cult and genre films (horror, western, noir, action, exploitation, etc), but some of them offer true artistic classics and underseen gems that are in need of some TLC (Criterion Collection, Eureka! Masters of Cinema, Arrow Academy).

Unfortunately, the foreign labels do come with a minor, but significant, caveat: you need a region-free player to watch them. Or a region-specific player. The North and South American movie releases are coded as Region A, which is the factory setting in blu-ray players on those continents, while the European and African releases are Region B, and most of Asia is included in Region C. Players bought in these regions will only play discs coded from their region. For example, a North American blu-ray player will not play a Region B disc from the UK, it will only play Region A. (You can find the region coding on the disc case or in the website’s description of the release)

Blu-Ray Region Codes

So, how does a person with an unnatural love for this medium go about unlocking all these goodies? Go region-free!

Before I explain that, reader beware: your bank account will hate you for this if you get hooked. You’re essentially opening your wallet up to a global marketplace filled with possibilities. The Facebook group I keep mentioning is filled with posts showcasing personal collections that resemble curated library exhibits. Personally, I know my limits and prefer to live vicariously through these incredible collection photos. It’s daunting and dangerous to get started but if you’ve got self-control then you can safely enjoy the delightful perks of going region-free.

The trick is in the machine. There are online companies that offer blu-ray players with an after-market mod that allows you to select which region you’d like to play, or you can buy the mod separately and install it yourself if you’re tech savvy. I went with a player that had the mod installed for me, decreasing the possibility of user error on my part (you can get a decent unit with the mod pre-installed for around $100).

What an ad for a region free blu-ray layer looks like

The other option to enjoy foreign discs is to buy a player with the region code you desire as it’s factory setting. If you live in the US, all the blu-ray players will be Region A by default. However, if you want to watch Region B films and already own a Region A player you could order a blu-ray player from Europe that plays Region B discs. The trouble with purchasing another player is you wind up with a cluttered room with multiple units and remotes to shuffle through. And there are occasional compatibility issues with plugs and such when you import, but that can be remedied with an adapter. If those minor annoyances don’t ruffle your feathers, then going this route might be a viable option for you.

Now, how does all of this relate?

Without the influence of all these factors, I would not have wound up with the pile of films I acquired this year. And here’s a major factor to include: not only did this Facebook group introduce me to new distributors and more complete versions of the films I love, but they’re also great for keeping up on the sales!

Again, proceed with caution here. Have a long heart-to-heart talk with your finances, because it’s a slippery slope if you have the funds to indulge yourself a bit.

My first taste of this new world came back in the Fall, when one day a member in the Facebook group posted a link to Arrow’s “Shocktober” Sale. It was essentially a 50% price reduction on dozens of Region B titles ranging from their expansive Hershell Gordon Lewis box-set to Masaki Kobayashi’s humanist trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-1961). (Titles that get reduced to $19.99 in Arrow’s US sales were selling as low as £7.50 on the UK site)

I purchased the latter in that initial sale, along with Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988), because Kobayashi’s trilogy is one of my favorite pieces of cinema ever and the other company who has distributed the films (Criterion Collection), only offers the films in DVD format. Arrow’s version includes new 4K scans of all three films, and it’s only available in Region B. It was a no-brainer.

Again, going region-free can really bolster your collection and give you way more options in terms of finding the quality you want in the films you purchase.

The biggest sales for boutique collectors tend to be the aforementioned Arrow sale, the bi-annual 50% off Criterion sale at Barnes & Noble, and a spare few other occasions where the labels do 50% off flash sales (Criterion), or BOGO deals through the distributors directly. If there’s a sale, someone will post it in the Facebook group and then you’re off an running.

So now that the path to an ever-growing collection has been paved, here is a showing of the films I have procured since going region-free (starting around the end of the Summer) either by purchase or gift.

The top is the assortment of new Criterion Collection films, mostly given to me for Christmas/birthday by my wonderful lady, and some that I picked up during the B&N sales or Criterion flash sales. Criterion tends to be my favorite of all the labels because of the quality of the films they release, both media-wise and artistically. The only label that comes close is the Eureka! Masters of Cinema series, which features many of the same titles in the Criterion Collection and many more highly-regarded masterworks.

I’m very much looking forward to digging into The Battle of Algiers (1966) and the Bruce Lee box-set from those piles, in particular.

The bottom picture is a smattering of other titles I’ve gotten on deals in the last 6 months or was given as a gift. The 4K on the lower right were all gifts from the family (except Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)) to get the most out of my new equipment. So far I’ve only watched Hot Fuzz (2007) on 4K UHD, which looked great, and I’ll be diving into the Batman and Deadpool sets soon enough.

The Shout! Factory edition of Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986) was a third-party purchase because it’s been out of stock for months and appears headed for out-of-print status. This is another huge topic you’ll come across in collector circles: rare and out-of-print (or OOP) titles. If you’re a completist, you’ll be chasing films and seeing huge price tags in the secondary markets for hard to find editions.

This is all without mentioning the infatuation or apathy collectors feel toward slipcovers (the protective cardboard covering that many boutique labels offer with their releases during the first run). The labels generally limit slipcovers to pre-orders only or numbered quantities, making them the object of desire for collectors when they are no longer available (this is the very definition of exploitation, but don’t even get me started on that). Believe it or not, there’s a market just for people looking to acquire a rare slip. Thankfully, I fall into the apathetic camp: have fun with the slip, I just want the best version of the film.

The rest of the films in the second pic came from sales through the boutique labels and they really represent the range of films you find with these distributors. Plenty of cult horror mixed with world cinema masterpieces, and everything in between. And most of them were on sale for $10 or less, or on 2-for-£15 deals, so pay attention for the sales if you’re going to dip a toe into the boutique experience.

Long live physical media!

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