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Rare Finds

Where to find import DVDs of hard-to-find films - and how to play them

It can be hard to buy gifts for a movie buff. He wants a copy of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, or maybe the Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost. She’s a big Eddie Izzard fan and would love his new live DVD, and she’s been wanting to own a copy of the original Sleuth for years. Yet all the brick and mortar stores seem to sell are Family Guy and Harry Potter sets.

It’s no surprise that there are many more titles available than you’ll find on the shelf. But there are many other sought-after films that aren’t available at all on American DVD.

Why not? Sometimes it’s a legal problem: The music rights can’t be cleared, or the distribution rights may be tied up. (That includes the substantial library of titles owned by the recently defunct New Yorker Films, which includes most of the work of filmmakers like Werner Herzog, R. W. Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, and many others.) With some older films, the original elements needed to make a suitable digital transfer could be missing. Most often, the rights-holder feels there isn’t sufficient interest in a title to justify the costs of digitizing, restoring, and marketing.

But it’s a big global marketplace, with lots of movies available from foreign markets that are only a visit to away. Yes, there’s a catch: Unlike books or CDs from other countries, imported DVDs are meant to be unplayable in North American DVD players. But as obstacles go, it’s about as effective as speed limit signs are at getting people to drive 55.

A Cornucopia of Rare Titles

There are many sellers of imported DVDs on I’ve had good luck with Cinema Cornucopia, whose shipments always arrive within 2-3 days of the time I place them. They carry all the films mentioned in this article, along with the following gift suggestions. You can contact them at

Laurel & Hardy: The Collection—A 21-disk box set with virtually everything the comic masters ever did, for less than $100. Nothing on the US market comes close to this for quality or completeness.

Jean-Luc Godard: Histoire(s) du cinema and Film Socialisme—Uncle Jean’s two most recent works. They also stock Jean-Luc Godard: The Ultimate Collection, which may not be “ultimate” but contains 13 of his best films, from Breathless and Contempt through Notre Musique and Eloge De L’amour.

World on a Wire—A science fiction miniseries made by Rainer Werner Fassbinder for German television in the early 1970s.

A Foreign Affair—Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s 1946 film, shot on location in bombed-out Berlin.

The Magnificent Ambersons—Orson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane.

Mike Leigh at the BBC Collection—All of Leigh’s television films, including Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May. Most of these are available in the US, but this set is a lot cheaper than buying them individually.

Nico Icon—Documentary about the chanteuse of the Velvet Underground, for a fifth of the price of the out-of-print US edition.

Permanent Vacation—Jim Jarmusch’s first film. It’s also available as part of the German box set The Jim Jarmusch Collection, which includes everything up to Coffee and Cigarettes.

Plus lots of box sets featuring collected films by Claude Chabrol, Fassbinder, Satyajit Ray, Aki Kaurismaki, Wim Wenders, Louis Malle, Douglas Sirk, Russ Meyer, Jean-Pierre Melville, Ricky Gervais, Jacques Tati, Mikio Naruse, Tinto Brass and more.

I’ll try to guide you through with as little technical gobbledygook as possible, largely because I don’t understand the technical gobbledygook myself. (I have a degree in English, not engineering or computer sciences.)

There are two reasons why a foreign DVD won’t play on your average American DVD player. The first is called PAL. This is the broadcast standard used in most of Europe and much of Asia and South America. North America uses a system called NTSC. The two are not compatible. Yet for reasons that have never been clear to me, this doesn’t tend to be an issue with DVDs, as long as you have dealt with the second factor: region coding.

Region coding exists for no other reason than to make DVDs unplayable in parts of the world where they are not marketed, in order to keep the markets under control. DVD players are encoded with a specific region. The US and Canada are region 1. Europe and many other countries are region 2, Southeast Asia is region 3, etc. A DVD player encoded for one region will not play DVDs set to another region.

However, it is possible to buy DVD players that are region-free—lacking in region coding. They will play any kind of DVD because they have not been set not to, or because that setting has been turned off.

The simplest way to get one one these players is to go to the internet and buy one. Do a search for “Region Free DVD Players” and you’ll find options up the wazoo.

But you don’t necessarily need to go to that expense. Many of these sellers are simply taking commercially available DVD players that can easily be decoded (or “hacked”) and reselling them to you at a comfortable markup. You just might be able to hack your own player; barring that, you might save time and money buying a player that you can hack yourself.

How do you know what players can be hacked, and how? Go to This is a message board where you can enter the make and model of your player and read discussions about if and how it can be hacked. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a simple set of instructions that involves entering some codes with your remote control. You may find instructions that are considerably more complicated. Or you may find that no one has figured out a way to hack your machine. (This site is also a great source for anything you could ever want to know about DVD players.)

No luck? The next cheapest option is to buy a hackable player and then DIY. This is an affordable option because the easiest players to hack tend to be the inexpensive Chinese imports you find for less than $50 at department stores, some of which are manufactured region-free. (I have no idea if this is true, but it was once explained to me that region coding a DVD player involves a chip that the Chinese players simply don’t include.)

Shop your local stores, jot down the make and model numbers of some you would consider buying, then look them up on You’ll get a feel from the comments as to which machines can be easily hacked and which ones might be troublesome.

I’m assuming that you already have a DVD player that you’re happy with and just want an inexpensive second machine for imported disks. If you want to splurge on a new machine that plays everything, you can use the same method, but it’s harder to find top-of-the-line players that can easily be hacked. In that case, you might be better off getting one from an internet seller: just make sure (do I even need to say this?) that they guarantee their products!

If you play DVDs though a computer, this may seem easier: Put a non-region 1 DVD into an American computer and you will get a prompt asking if you want to change the region code setting. But there’s a big drawback here. Most computers will only allow you to do this a limited number of times, so if you switch back and forth between region 1 and some other region, at some point you’ll get stuck on one.

Confused yet? There are also region 0 disks, more properly called region-free because they have no region coding. These can theoretically be played on any DVD capable machine, though with these PAL formatting may give you a problem. (None of this, I must note, is guaranteed.) And you can’t always trust your labels. Some imported DVDs, like the British copy of Nico Icon I just tried out on my laptop, say they are region 2 but are actually region-free. Don’t count on this to happen very often.

My minimal technical expertise hits a brick wall when it comes to game hardware like PlayStation or Xbox, which I am told will play imported DVDs. The same goes for Blu-Rays, which use letters instead of numbers for their coding: the US is Region A, Europe Region B, etc. In general the same issues and answers apply. I believe there are presently fewer easily hackable Blu-Ray players, but it is possible to buy good quality all-region machines. Back to for info on that.

You can also get a lot of good information about player compatibility from, a site that is essential for hardcore cinema buffs. Once you’ve expanded your collecting beyond the titles available on the American market, DVDBeaver is the essential source to tell you not only what is available around the world but which are the best versions.

Availability isn’t the only reason to investigate the international DVD market. Counterintuitive as it may sound, imported DVDs can actually be less expensive than their American counterparts, even with shipping factored in. (You’re much more likely to find a box set of films by your favorite director in a foreign edition: it may contain five titles that are available in the US, but it will cost less than buying them separately.) The quality may be higher: the British “Masters of Cinema” series is comparable to Criterion in terms of restoration and extras. Or you can get a recent arthouse film months ahead of its American release—if it’s released in the US at all.

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