French try to turn back tide of American DVDs

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The Independent Online

The French customs will be searching for a new form of contraband from New Year's Day - recent Hollywood movies. The struggle of the French state to maintain its cultural boundaries against the tide of globalism will enter a new phase in 2001, with a ban on imports of video discs, or Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs), from North America.

The French customs will be searching for a new form of contraband from New Year's Day - recent Hollywood movies. The struggle of the French state to maintain its cultural boundaries against the tide of globalism will enter a new phase in 2001, with a ban on imports of video discs, or Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs), from North America.

The measure, intended to protect cinema as a public spectacle, may prove as doomed as other efforts to defend French exceptionalism from the information revolution.

French movie buffs say they will still be able to order new films, illegally, in DVD directly from America, long before they appear in French cinemas. And, from the end of next year, they can download movies over the internet.

French regulations block the sale of films in video or DVD, until nine months after the title is released to cinemas. The new edict from the Culture Ministry reduces the waiting period to six months but bans DVDs from North America.

France has gone DVD-crazy. DVD sales in new Hollywood movies flourish in France. Since people are supposed to wait many months for a new Hollywood release, the ultimate in movie one-upmanship here is to own the DVD weeks or months before.

Movies imported from the US are not dubbed or subtitled in French but so many young people speak English these days that this is no longer a barrier. If anything, it adds to the status symbolism of owning a transatlantic DVD.

Chains of small shops - and larger stores such as FNAC and Virgin - have begun to import American DVDs and offer movies to the French public, many months before the film appears on general release. There is also a trade in direct sales of DVDs from America over the internet.

For instance, the Woody Allen movie, Small Time Crooks, released in America in the spring, has only just appeared in cinemas in France. It has been available on DVD in Paris for several months.

In the past year, sales of DVD-players (at £200 a time) have tripled, making France more plugged into the new form of video entertainment any other European country.

Technically, it should be impossible to view American video discs on a French-bought DVD player. The discs are encrypted to be played in only one of the six DVD "zones" established by the audio-visual industry. America and Canada are in Zone One. France, Britain and the rest of Europe are in Zone Two.

But beating the encryption system is easy. On some DVD players, the code can be changed with the zapper. Other disc players can be switched from one zone to another with computer chips (available in specialist shops) or by down-loading codes from several sites on the internet.

The French ban on DVD imports from America is intended to protect, not so much the French movie-making industry, as the movie-going industry. There is no evidence that the transatlantic flood of DVDs has reduced the cinema audience in France, but the film distribution and cinema-owning industry (including American-owned chains) has pressed for the loophole to be closed.

The centre-left newspaper Libération accuses the government of setting up a commercial "Maginot Line". It said: "Banning French consumers from buying products available across increasingly virtual borders at the click of a mouse risks making pirates of us all."

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