[NOTE: I’ve put a short update in the first section based on a few interesting pieces I ran across after publishing this.]
As I write this, the viral meme above — from the Condescending Wonka strain — has just under 1,600 shares and 2,800 likes from a single source on Facebook. I did not so much run across it as have it shoved down my throat by my news feed, which has been smattered with the image all week, since The Avengers closed its record-smashing, $207 million-goddamn-dollar domestic opening. Equally distressing was that a large proportion of those sharing the image were people my age, and ones that had graduated from film school or consider themselves filmmakers- more than one of which I know have not found it easy to land a job in the industry. Meanwhile on twitter I’ve sen it RT’d with annoying frequency from all kinds of people, and even some news outlet have taken the spirit of the image and turned it into dismissive news pieces with smarmy images of their own!
So while it’s not worth yet another 4k word rant about movie piracy, I do feel it could be useful to run down and reiterate a few useful points. None of these will mean much to the random assholes who just want free shit to watch in between WOW sessions, but for those of us who have some kind of investment (emotional, professional, or otherwise) in the robustness of the movie industry, perhaps they’ll resonate or start a fun dialogue. Most of these ideas also don’t relate to the idea of an individual download, nor do they account for the (stunning self-deceptive and retarded) idea of activist piracy, in which you only download thing’s that won’t hurt anybody. Consider this all aimed at the idea of piracy in general…
And from the very start let’s make something clear: A multi-point, emphatic condemnation of piracy is NOT an endorsement of the overly litigious nonsense studios and government agencies get up to in fighting it. So no, shitting on your stupid Wonka graphic doesn’t mean I think some 15 year old kid ripping off Avatar for his iPod should spend his twenties shaving his cellmate’s ass in Chino.
Event Films Are The Outliers…
First off — just to target the most recent specific example — outliers don’t mean shit in a moral/ethical debate like the one surrounding piracy. The Avengers is a once-or-twice a year event, and it took world-shifting effort to make it happen, much less while maintaining its (relative) high quality. Even when the film skates past a billion worldwide, consider that not only is it a joint effort between two giant corporations, but there’s an old studio that’s getting bonus points, theater splits, scattered worldwide deals, points for any producers or cast that managed to wrestle them from Marvel, and plenty of other hidden siphons attached to that giant pie ON TOP of the $200 – $250m they dropped just to get the damn thing in the can. Is everybody making tons of money? Of course? Does it all go in to one Scrooge McDuck style tower that couple of dudes are going to swim in? No.
You wonder why there aren’t jobs and that Hollywood workers are shitting their pants with glee when one major blockbuster sticks around LA? Well, there are a lot of reasons that piracy is only one among, but it sure as shit doesn’t help.
That massive conglomerate forces can come together and spend hundreds of millions to make billions by smashing half-a-dozen longstanding properties together is not, in any way shape or form, indicative of the overall health of the movie industry. In fact, it’s a sign of just the opposite as it reinforces the current line of thinking in Hollywood, which is antithetic to an environment of nuanced creative empowerment: the idea that you either have to make huge tentpole flicks or no-budget found footage flicks.
Addendum: Without making this near-unwieldy piece too much longer, I wanted to acknowledge a few things I ran across yesterday. It seems I wasn’t the only one who had piracy on the brain in relation to The Avengers release, as Forbes actually hosted a small piece with the news that The Avengers actually represents another broken record: the most quickly and widely torrented cam leak in film history. You see, a poor-quality handicam version of the film made its way onto the web a week before release and apparently sparked half-a-million downloads just that fast. I can only imagine that increased twofold before better quality files made it out there. The obvious point is made that this clearly didn’t make a dent in the box office returns of the film. I would posit that this only further pushes my points covered above and below- that things like this only serve to push Hollywood in the direction of blockbusters that are inherently insulated from piracy by scale and by gimmicks. A relatively smaller film like, say, Source Code (which was among the Top 10 most pirated films last year) might have found its numbers much more harshly dented with that many downloads.
Beyond that though, it’s important to note that piracy has a much greater affect on DVD sales, which is a market that continues to spin the drain, whereas only a few years ago it was true enough to say “most any movie will make money eventually on DVD.” That’s the kind of thing that empowers risk, or at least slightly more adventurous green-lighting, and it’s something that piracy, among many other factors, has helped to destroy.
And again, even if you parse all of this specific numeric data and find that piracy isn’t significantly damaging the bottom line, there are still several other good reasons to leave it alone…
Which brings us to the next few points.
Driving Studios To The Gimmicks…
This is a point that’s become even more convoluted as the home theatrical experience has improved and forced the studios into the arms of gimmicks you can’t replicate at home or in a 700mb download. Piracy has a lot to do with that as well. It’s tough to handicam a 3D flick, which gives the format (which I know is widely hated) a buffer against piracy. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s harder and harder to catch a 2D screening even when you keep hearing about 3D not bringing in huge extra profits, keep that in mind. It ain’t demon magic making it happen.
Afraid of 48fps? It’s unlikely the format is going to catch on particularly quick or that studios will force it on filmmakers without an obvious cost-benefit, but if there’s the slightest indication that it’s another layer of protection against- watch ‘em roll with it. Or, if audiences do respond at all, watch them jump on it like lightning as another angle they can use to draw people in and away from their home systems and torrent files.
Hell, I’m intrigued by or outright like some of these “gimmicks”- doesn’t mean I want them rammed down our throats as a market imperative instead of dutifully explored by interested artists!
Empowering The Real Evil Shit…
No, this isn’t the “if you buy weed you’re funding terrorism” line of horseshit, but something scarier… the idea that the continuing, growing environment of casual piracy has provided a perfect Hollywood villain that the studios have and will continue to use as justification for rallying behind ever-more-draconian legislation. Remember the evil SOPA bill that inspired enough Facebook sharing and petition signing to actually get the thing tabled for the time being? Yep, piracy was a huge motivator, and the biggest shadowy evil they pointed to in lobbying for the legislation. And when they can point to the fact that just the top 10 torrented films on one torrenting service (granted, the most popular) counted for 75 million downloads in 2011 alone… well, their boogeyman still looks scary enough for old white dudes writing laws.
And lest you think we’ve won that battle, then you underestimate the shady shit conglomerates will do to force through their agenda. Follow-up bills like CISPA contain much of the same shady language, and even when such legislation isn’t as explicitly threatening towards internet freedom, that doesn’t mean it won’t have last-minute riders attached that effectively allow for the same frightening abuses of privacy and fair use freedom, right before it’s rammed through and passed in cover of darkness.
They pass shadier laws concerning more important things all the time, and while your Fast Five download may be an insignificant part of that storm, it still another statistic that helps them more than it helps you, considering the damn thing was available on iTunes for a couple bucks.
It’s Still Just Stealing, Asshole…
Ultimately the most compelling point should be the most obvious: it’s fucking stealing. It just is. I’ve watched a decade go by as people (especially ones my age) train for all kinds of philosophical gymnastics to justify downloading shit for free, but it all, invariably, rings hollow. Especially when such arguments that are clearly justifying entitled laziness so often reek of “punk” self-righteousness.
The fact is this: if a person or group makes a thing that would not otherwise exist, then they get to determine what one has to do to enjoy that thing. If that’s paying for a movie ticket or viewing it on a streaming service they’ve made a deal with or whatever, that’s the way it is. We all have our personal grey areas and varying degrees of sound sleep after borrowing a DVD, or sneaking into a second showing at a theater, or yanking something off Pirate Bay, and that’s just the way it is. Enforcing things with huge fines and jail time isn’t any more tenable than demanding people stop and expecting them to listen. That’s kind of the way it should be. Just never, ever mistake that for the moral high ground.
At the end of the day yeah, you can swipe what you want and the world will keep spinning. For now. But expecting everyone else to pick up the slack, will soon have us finding that things don’t work that way, and it won’t be clear until it’s already too late. The film industry is a business of resources and energy, and is slave to the same laws of sustainability that all of our other suffering systems have learned of all too harshly. Most of the stormy clouds on the horizon are the faults of executives, lazy filmmakers, and wider economic realities to be sure, but do you really want to lend even the tiniest hand to their efforts to push us off a cliff? If The Avengers and Paranormal Activity are the only movies you want to see from now on, then be my guest and send that message to Hollywood. They’re happy to have their jobs made that much simpler.