On April 4, George Lucas disappointed millions of Star Wars fans by releasing The Phantom Menace only on VHS in the United States. But one day earlier, on April 3, I was sitting in a friend‘s living room in Santa Monica watching a video disc of the very movie — a legal, authorized copy. My friend, it seems, had just come back from a trip to China, where ”VCD“ video discs recorded in the NTSC (American) television system — with no regional coding to block viewing on U.S. DVD players — are the most common format for home-movie distribution. Oddly, this Chinese version of the movie had been released several days before the U.S. release date. Equally strange, Japanese fans were treated to a high-quality laser disc version of the movie, with AC-3 (six-channel Dolby digital) sound, while here in California, where Star Wars was created, we are offered only a lowest-common-denominator VHS version. Would Luke Skywalker have stood for it?

I know Han Solo wouldn’t have. It turns out there are pirate DVD versions of all four Star Wars movies. Remastered from laser disc, these DVDs, offering wide-screen format and AC-3 sound, are pressed in Chinese factories and available at select stores in Shanghai, as well as all over eBay (search for ”Star Wars DVD“).

Why isn‘t the corner video store selling the legit American DVD for 24 bucks? The answer is that the Star Wars quartet is part of a list of movies that have been deliberately withheld from DVD release. Along with the blockbuster Spielberg films E.T., Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park and The Lost World, the LucasSpielberg collaborations Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones, and some of Disney’s classic cartoon films, many of the most popular movies of all time are available on videotape only.

What could these great filmmakers be thinking, preventing us from watching their movies in the highest-quality and easiest-to-use format? Oddly, all of these movies were previously released on Laserdisc, mostly with AC-3 sound. (Laserdisc, you may recall, was the 12-inch video-disc format promoted by Pioneer in the ‘80s and ’90s as the ”videophile“ movie medium, but which largely has been supplanted by DVD.)

The Phantom Menace Collector‘s Edition at my local retail store says ”digitally mastered“ in four places, but it doesn’t mention ”VHS“ anywhere. But that‘s what you get inside the box — a VHS copy of the movie. Originally, Lucas hadn’t planned to release any of the Star Wars movies on DVD until he completed all three installments of the first trilogy — in 2005, or thereabouts. The official reason: He wanted to personally ensure that the DVDs were really special, and just wouldn‘t have time to do so while making the two remaining theatrical movies. But why not let the distributor, 20th Century Fox, release a basic DVD version now, as the studio would have done automatically with any other new, high-profile release? Then Lucas could release his collector’s version in a few years — after all, there were no fewer than five different versions of the original Star Wars movies released on laser disc, each one more ”deluxe“ than the one before.

I asked a spokeswoman at Lucasfilm why the director didn‘t authorize Fox to release Star Wars on DVD. While she wouldn’t address my question directly, Jeannie Cole did say that Lucas has given in to the heavy backlash from his fans and will release DVDs of The Phantom Menace and the original Star Wars movies. Not this year, but before 2005. That is the official word. Unofficially, Web sites are abuzz with a rumor that new scenes, still to be prepared by Industrial Light and Magic (Lucasfilm‘s special-effects company), will be added to all four movies. Lucasfilm flatly denies this.

Over at DreamWorks, I spoke to ”Steven’s personal spokesperson,“ who said that plans were in the works to release Jurassic Park and other Spielberg movies on DVD, but that E.T. was being held back. We went round and round on possible reasons for this without arriving at any clear answer, but finally spokesman Marvin Levy conceded, ”The goal is to maximize the inherent value in each one of these properties.“ In plain English, this means Spielberg believes he can make more money by not selling what so many people want to buy. This could leave him room for a theatrical re-release, another VHS ”special edition,“ and perhaps a TV special, a computer game and an audio CD, all before the DVD version comes out. Net result? Bigger profits.

Meanwhile, import copies of the Phantom Menace laser disc are being snapped up for $110 each at Los Angeles stores like Laser Blazer in West L.A. and Dave‘s Video in Studio City. And while most U.S. distributors won’t touch the bootleg DVDs of Star Wars, they‘re bound to be hot items on the Net as long as official versions remain unavailable.

The foreign DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s sexy Eyes Wide Shut is also a hot item on the Net — for a different reason. The DVD Warner Bros. released in the U.S. includes the censored orgy scene from the domestic theatrical release, with silhouettes of other actors blocking Tom Cruise‘s view of the action. The uncensored European DVD is available here via mail order, but it’s encoded for the PAL (European) television system. There‘s a Japanese version in NTSC, but the Japanese are known for censoring frontal nudity in all movies (such as the bathroom scene in the classic Japanese laser disc of The Shining). Finally, there’s a Hong Kong version on DVD, and even though China is a PAL country, most of their discs are in NTSC, as is their uncensored version of Eyes Wide Shut. But to play it in the U.S., you‘d need a hacked DVD player with the regional coding shut off.

Of course, that’s no problem with the easily hackable Apex player (subject of my ”Hidden Menus“ story, available online at www.laweekly.com). Circuit City, which for months had been informing prospective buyers that the secret menu had been removed, even though it hadn‘t, this week finally recalled the hackable Apex machines and plans to put a new, more secure model on the shelves. Of course, the original version is widely hawked on eBay, and other brands of DVD players, including certain Toshiba, Pioneer and Sony models, can be hacked by your local independent service shop (ask discreetly).

Now, laser discs and VCDs never had regional coding, so they can be played on any compatible machine, domestic or foreign. Most foreign wide-screen Laser discs (and bootleg DVDs made from them) have subtitles ”burned in“ — as did the Phantom Menace VCD, which had Chinese-language titles right on the picture. It’s not really too annoying, mainly because I can‘t read Chinese (ditto for those Japanese laser discs), but sometimes I wish there were English subtitles for Jar Jar Binks! (Actually, I wish there was a mute button for Jar Jar Binks.) Foreign-language subtitles aren’t an issue on DVDs, because the subtitles are digitally re-created as part of the playback and, like closed captions, can easily be switched off.

For more information on foreign DVDs, VCDs and laser discs, see: www.nerdout.comapex, www.dvdshippers.com, www.sazma.com, www.r2-dvd.org or www.dvdupdate.com.

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