Wednesday, April 1, 2015

New Source- The Epic VCD

I received an interesting email the other day from a fellow GF fan who lives on the other side of the world.

We get a lot of responses, which we all appreciate, from fans all over who have a version of the Godfather that they think may be of use to us. In most cases, we already have that particular version of the films or we've reviewed them and found that they didn't contain anything that we didn't already have. But this was a new source, one that we'd never even heard of.

I figured that we've seen or made note of every commercial release that existed, but this fan claimed to have something new: a Japanese VCD set of The Epic. I was incredulous to say the least, because in all the research we've done in the last few years, we've only come across two Japanese chronological cuts: The Complete Epic on Betamax and The Trilogy on Laserdisc. But this was that elusive re-issued version of The Complete Epic with Part III tacked on at the end. And it was Japanese. And it was on VCD. And it's a legitimate Paramount release. Yeah right...

A quick note about VCD. The video compact disc was a popular Asian video format that never quite took off in the West. It never gained traction in the US like laserdisc, and later DVD did. But in Asian countries like China and Thailand a cottage industry sprang up almost overnight. You see, the VCD didn't have any kind of copy protection. For a little more than the cost of a VCR, you could buy a VCD deck that both played and burned discs. Plug in another VCD player and boom: instant transfer.

American companies like MCA, Paramount and Fox were leasing their films to Asian VCD manufacturers. But when pirating and bootlegging became so prevalent, most of the major studios packed up and got the hell out of town. Asia went on producing VCDs, they just did it without any permission from the copyright holders. So for around 3 or 4 dollars US, you could own your very own bootlegged film.

When I say that Asia fostered a bootleg industry, I mean that it was a real industry. When we think of the typical bootleg DVD in America, we picture a blank disc with the movie's title hastily scrawled out in Sharpie ink, usually misspelled. If you're lucky to get a wrapper or container with your bootleg, it's usually a blank white ordeal or a xeroxed copy of the film's movie poster. When you pop in your disc, it's a safe bet that it's a crappy cam rip that somebody filmed in the theater with their smartphone.

These types of bootlegs are also found in Asia. But there also exists the more attractive grey-area bootleg- a professionally duped disc (or in the case of VCD, discs plural, as the highest quality VCD can only hold roughly an hour of footage) along with a printed, full color slipcase and booklet. They may not be up to par with the typical studio-released DVD or BD, but they're a damn sight better than the average burn and churn street corner bootleg.

I say that these releases are grey-market, and not quite black market, because most of the factories that are producing these bootlegs have approval from their governments. As long as they're splitting the proceeds with their leaders, they can produce whatever the hell they want. And with that government approval comes government protection. Every now and then you hear about a large raid that lands a lot of these bootleggers in prison. More often than not, it's because a rival bootlegger "donates" more money to the government and decides he wants to put the competition out of business. In come the feds, and out goes the business rival.

I don't want to potentially badmouth any legitimate companies out there. But I will go on record as saying that to the best of my knowledge, there doesn't exist any legitimate VCD copy of any Godfather film or films manufactured legally after 1993. I could be wrong, but I'm probably not. Before you are tempted to buy a Coppola Restoration set on VCD because it's supposedly rare, do some research. Don't be fooled by the professional-looking packaging.

Another thing that had me questioning the authenticity of this set was the fact that it was Japanese. Now, unlike the rest of Asia, Japan didn't quite take to VCD. The Japanese were all about laserdisc. They very reluctantly made the transition to DVD only after Sony made that format the Playstation 2 standard. But VCD fared about as well as the laserdisc did in America- it had its (very enthusiastic) supporters who considered it to be a superior format, but for the most part it got lost in the shuffle.

So while it's not uncommon to find Japanese VCDs, they're not exactly falling out of the sky. Especially non-Anime films. And the upshot is that if it's a Japanese VCD, it's probably not a bootleg. So I worked out a deal with the owner of this set and in a few short days received the discs in my mailbox.

According to the owner, the original slipcase has long since disappeared, along with one of the jewel cases. If you remember the old, fat two-CD jewelcases that we used to have (not the newer 2-disc case that's the same width as a typical CD case but has a popout tray inside), this set had three of them, each holding two discs. The front cover of each jewelcase has the standard white-on-black Godfather marionette logo in English with Japanese characters on the side, and underneath that, in English, the words "The Epic, 1901-1980". On the reverse side, there's more Japanese writing along with the numbers 1 and 2. (The other case is the same except that it indicates 5 and 6. Apparently the missing case held discs 3 and 4). And underneath that, the Paramount logo with the letters "PMJ".

My source at Paramount confirmed that PMJ stood for Paramount Japan and was a licensed manufacturer of Paramount VCD titles. It was manufactured shortly before Paramount pulled out of the VCD market and the estimated date of purchase roughly coincides with the period that these units would have been marked down for clearance. It was indeed purchased on sale at Tower Records in Tokyo according to the owner, for around ¥3,000 (about 20 dollars USD.)

The reason that I'm describing the packaging instead of just posting some pictures is because I promised the owner that I wouldn't upload any pics, as he's afraid that someone would attempt to bootleg this title and it could possibly effect the value of such a rare set. I understand and respect that, and I am grateful that he trusted me enough to send me, a complete stranger, such a prized valuable. I thank you again, and I'm sure I speak for the fan community when I say that we appreciate your commitment towards sharing these wonderful films with the entire world.

So does this set hold any new secrets? I don't know. I've only played the opening for disc 1 to verify that my DVD player can actually play VCD. When I saw the old "Paramount, A Gulf+Western Company" trademark, I knew I was good to go.

I'm going to set some time aside this week so that I can go over it with a fine-toothed comb. I'll let you all know if I turn anything up. If there's nothing new, I'm just going to go ahead and upload the project to torrent. But if we have to go back and edit anything, we'll update you with an approximate time frame.

Till next time...