From widescreen issues to turning the disc over, 9 problems that early adopters of DVD did battle with.

Over 20 years since it first launched, DVD is still the best-selling of all physical media formats. Notwithstanding competition from Blu-ray and Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray, it’s still the digital versatile disc version of films and TV shows that shift the most copies, even to this day.

DVD is very much a taken-for-granted format now, and it’s easy to overlook just what a seismic shift it offered in home movie viewing when it first was released. An upgrade in quality over VHS certainly, but also bringing across from Laserdisc a raft of extra features and behind the scenes material, as well as taking up far less space on the shelf. And you didn’t have to rewind them. Madness.

For those of us who were early adopted of the format, though, rest assured that we rode out some of its worst early features on your behalf. If you were one of those people there in the back end of the 90s, importing discs from across the channel and punching codes into players

The flipper disc

The DVDs that you buy today tend to be DVD9 discs. In short, it means there’s two layers to them, and thus your player, around half way through, will re-adjust its laser and switch to the second layer. The more expensive your player, the less likely you are to notice the layer transition.

But in the early days of DVD, it was Buena Vista in the UK who quickly garnered an unwelcome reputation for using double-sided DVD5 discs. These could store around an hour of a film and its soundtrack, and then half way through the movie, you had to eject the disc and turn it over. You got a big graphic on the screen to tell you to do it, too. Think of it as the DVD equivalent of the era when cinemas would draw the curtains half-way through a movie to try and flog you a King Cone.

These were full price discs, with no extras too. Fun times.

Quickly given the name ‘flippers’, these discs were quickly despised, not least because they were so avoidable. The excuse of the era was that manufacturing plants for DVD9 discs were fully booked, but none of us were buying it. These demon flipper discs were soon reissued with the film all in one go.

Variable packaging

Warner Bros was one of the big early adopters of DVD, and without the studio’s passionate support for the format, there’s an argument it wouldn’t have taken off so quickly. How many people bought their first DVD player when they saw the follow-the-white-rabbit feature advertised on The Matrix DVD?

But Warner Bros also had a subsidiary that had patented what became name as ‘snapper’ cases. Warner Bros adopted this case for its DVD release, with it being predominantly printed cardboard, with a plastic strip closure on the right-hand side.

They looked half-decent on a DVD shelf, but most other companies defaulted to a keepcase as we get today. And the problem with the snapper case became clear over time: it was rubbish. They were notorious for being easy to damage, the snapper mechanism wasn’t always reliable, and if you didn’t store your discs in a half-decent place, the cardboard was soon privy to the elements.

Warner Bros bowed to market demands in 2003, and finally started phasing said cases out.

Mind you, in the UK at least, Polygram (prior to being bought up by Universal) and Columbia originally started releasing their DVDs in super jewel cases. And they were even worse…

Here’s a snapper on the left, and a super jewel case on the right…

Region coding

It’s only in recent years really that the issue of region coding of discs feels like it’s melted away. There are still some Blu-rays that come with region protection, and the odd DVD. Notably, the more recent Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray format has no such coding at all.

But in the late 90s? It was all over the place. Region coding is at its sounds: each part of the world gets its own code (the UK got Region 2 for DVD, the US Region 1), and lots of films were region locked. If you legally imported a DVD from the US to play on your UK player, there was a sporting chance it wouldn’t work due to the region lock in place.

This led to a small cottage industry in modified DVD hardware players which got around region coding and rendered said device region free. But the revelation was an early Samsung player, the Samsung 709 if memory serves, that was being sold for under £200 and could be modified using its remote control only. It was a mini-internet sensation at the time, and made region free DVD players accessible to more people at a much lower price. There was a low-cost Wharfedale DVD player that Tesco stocked too with an easy hack that sold out in double quick time. It was very exciting to those of us at the time.

Customs

The UK was lagging some way behind the US with DVD releases, and the late 90s was still a period of staggered release dates around the world. Thus, films were arriving on DVD to buy in the US at the point they weren’t even in UK cinemas. With the emergence of internet shopping around the same time, many went online and imported the discs to get a head start on their local Odeon.

And boy, did lots of us get a harsh lesson in customs import charges as a consequence. Long-gone e-tailers such as Reel.com, DVDBoxOffice (free shipping worldwide, chums!), DVD Express, CDNow and MusicBoulevard were shipping discs en masse to UK customers, but if they went above an £18 import limit, a dreaded card through the post box was likely.

These were heavily enforced at the time (the import limit has been relaxed a little since), and you’d end up with a card reporting you had a fee to pay before you could get hold of your DVDs. Lots of us learned at the time that an online bargain wasn’t all it seemed (and heck, there were some ridiculous discounts in the early years of online shopping and DVDs). And lots of us got on first name terms with our local post offices…

Format wars

As with any emerging format, there was competition on the horizon. We didn’t get that fight in the UK really, but in the US, some studios – Disney and Fox, notably – were pushing for a physical disc format called DivX (a name that’s since gone on to be used elsewhere).

The idea was preserving the lucrative rental window for movies. You’d buy a disc for a modest price, and have 48 hours to watch it once you’d popped it in your player. Then, it’d stop working and you’re throw it away, else pay full price to ‘silver’ the disc and make it yours permanently.

This plan did not go well. It temporarily caused confusion, held back the format a little, and online reaction to the Divx format was not on the positive side. Eventually, it died a death, and the studios that had held out from DVD finally started releasing titles on the format.

Image: eBay

Separately, a format battle broke out over DVD rewriteable technology between DVD+R and DVD-R. That was as much fun as it sounded.

DVD rot

It’s not an uncommon problem to optical discs, but early DVDs were seemingly more vulnerable than most to disc rot. It’s caused by physical or chemical deterioration, and the bottom line is unreadable discs. It affected DVD notably early in its life, although has become a lesser problem since, thankfully.

Rubbish transfers

Finally, this. In the early years of DVD, studios were often guilty of bilging titles out onto the format, and counting their fresh collection of unexpected cash. That led to some video and audio transfers that were, bluntly, terrible. The original release of Lawrence Of Arabia, for instance, was plagued by colour problems. Unforgiven looked shocking first time around. Films such as Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner, The Ring and Zulu attracted no shortage of ire. Re-releases followed that remastered the films properly, but no refunds for those who’d bought the shoddy versions of course. Which brings us to…

The double dip

There are still elements of this around today, but for the first five years of the DVD land rush, studios worked out that they could release a bog standard version that fans would buy, then a special edition version that fans could buy too. Check out how many different releases of the original Halloween there have been if you want proof…

The widescreen problem

If you’re looking to pick up a DVD of, say, Kenneth Branagh’s Peter’s Friends, then you might want to brace yourself. Not only is the UK release of the movie sparse, with a poor transfer. But it’s only available in 4:3 format. The old enemy of pan and scan, when films used to be reframed for their video release, a habit that some studios brought across to their DVD release. There are still films only available on DVD in this format, that have not been revisited. They stand there as a testament to how badly films used to be treated on disc.

Even films in the early days of DVD that were available in widescreen weren’t guaranteed good treatment. Because some titles were release in standard, rather than anamorphic widescreen. To the naked eye, this meant that even if you were watching on a widescreen television, you got massive black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. But also, anamorphic widescreen transfers, which expanded to fill that gap, had more vertical resolution. Film fans were shortchanged with cheaper, non-anamorphic transfers, and it took a lot of pushback before things changed.

Trying to pass off a menu as an extra feature

Those early days of DVD brought with it some tremendous behind the scenes features, that dug into the movies concerned. However, those companies that didn’t have an armful of supplements to offer would still try and blag it. Notably, the back of boxes that proclaimed that ‘interactive menus’ – so, menus then – were a feature in themselves. Thankfully, that nonsense is long gone…

Over 20 years on, some of these problems still exist. But thankfully, to nowhere near the degree they once did. On the flip side, we also had physical shops we could go in and browse through a large range of the things. Swings and roundabouts…

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