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Monday, October 25, 2010

A Message to Movie Pirates

It might be unfair to blame Johnny Depp for the rise in online movie piracy, but he certainly has a hand in making the whole “pirate” image cool.  Just look at the hacker geeks of Pirate Bay who try to twist profiteering and theft into Matrix-like mystique.  Just look at the whole “pirate underground” that try to fool themselves into thinking that by cracking DVDs and stealing the intellectual properties of others, they are somehow “sticking it to the man”… or whatever cool people now say.

Selective reasoning excuses most people from the “harmless” act of downloading a movie here or there.  Indeed it’s hard to find an article online that does not apologize for the vice of being too lazy and/or cheap to hit up the Blockbuster vending machine.  Even at the caveat that it is blatantly illegal they blame the industry for failing to keep up with the technology and offer the same convenience that free, instantaneous downloads offer.  This despite the fact that the home entertainment industry has now surpassed space travel in the rate of technological advancement.

But ask the Bit Torrent Bandit and they’ll tell you that the movie industry is crooked and only a fraction of the money goes to the people who actually made the movie… as though somehow giving nothing is nobler than giving too little.  They’ll argue in pretzeled logic to say that the industry is actually aided by the increased exposure to new directors and actors that illegal downloads offer… as though people who like the new director they just stole from would do any more than illegally download the rest of their movies.

Copyright laws and enforcement tactics struggle to keep up with the advancements in technology.  Vehement opposition to any efforts to further police the Internet stall progress on meaningful legislation.  Even in a tepid political climate the problem is almost unsolvable through legislation because the technology moves quicker than the legislative process.  Meanwhile the movie industries of the world are losing billions annually.

We’ve seen this play out before, of course.  Newspapers are almost fully antiquated and the news industry struggles to find a way to redefine itself.  The recording industry has seen sharp drop offs and sought new avenues of profit in the twenty-first century.  Freelance photographers find themselves in unending wars with unscrupulous bloggers who just go to Google Images and grab whatever they find.

The new market in music has been hailed as a new era of choice, demolishing once and for all the gatekeepers that stood between the fans and the bands and broke the backs of the payola promoters.  Many point to the new venues the Internet has offered for the visual arts and weigh the cost of copyright infringement a small price to pay for it.

But the same advantages don’t translate to movies.  A beautiful photograph takes one dedicated photographer who is either skilled, lucky or some combination of the two.  A good song takes an inspired songwriter, a handful of musicians and, with modern technology to assist, very little in the way of professional help in mixing.  The man-hours involved in the creation of these works of art are invisible in the shadow of the effort that goes into the making of a movie.  To craft a two hour film hundreds of people devote thousands of hours over months if not years.

Perhaps more importantly, the creation of a great film takes the convergence of at least a few brilliant minds.  A single songwriter and a great melody can overcome a bad bassist and crappy mixer, but even an ingenious script can’t shine in the hands of bad actors.  A brilliant director will always be limited by the abilities of their set decorators, make up artists and costume designers.  For a true work of art to emerge, a dozen or more artists must work together and at least as many egos must be juggled.  An incredible amount of work and resource go into the creation of even a mediocre film.

The savvy Internet Pirate has an indifferent response.  “So what?  Let the budgets of those actors and actresses drop.  Dig into the pockets of those bazillionaire producers.  It’s all a crooked institution to begin with.”

The MPAA has tried to illicit sympathy by reminding us in Nancy-Reaganesque PSAs that when you steal a movie you’re not just taking from the celebrities.  You're also stealing from the key grip and the caterer.  Somehow depicting the broken souls who were sucked into low paying jobs by an industry that promised them fame and delivered them manual labor failed to inspire the national “Aw-shucks” moment they were hoping for.

But perhaps there is a better route altogether.  Forget about the investors in the films themselves for a moment and consider what these Bit Torrent Buccaneers are stealing from you: Explosions.

Illegal downloads are on the rise, which means that movie budgets will soon be on the decline.  No reasonable argument can be made to the contrary, though the superheroes of geekdom certainly find unreasonable arguments when confronted with that fact.  Money is being lost.  When you download a movie you aren’t stealing from that film, but rather the one that the production company makes next.

This means fewer explosions, fewer space battles, fewer car chases, shorter fight scenes, less computer animation and less 3D.  Many film buffs are salivating at this, but be forewarned: The artsy Oscar pictures will lose their budgets first.  The movies that only do well with the critics are kept afloat by the big budget blockbuster.  For every Last Station there is a Snakes on a Plane to thank.  It will be harder and harder to afford an exemplary cast and at the same time budget constraints will limit the number of takes a filmmaker can afford.  The need for faster turnaround will harm every aspect of filmmaking from preproduction to post.

When people steal movies online, they are stealing them from us.  I am certainly not alone in my love for cheesy action flicks that are light on plot and heavy on post-mortem one-liners.  I want to see Terminator part 9 and the eighth remake of King Kong and I don’t want to sit around and talk about the good old days when they could afford to crash a yacht into a building for the sake of making a Keanu Reeves movie watchable.  I want to see ever bigger vehicles crashed into ever bigger stationary objects and I want to see ever more beautiful Bond cars get destroyed by ever more diabolical machines.  And explosions… glorious explosions as far as the eyes can see.

And I don’t want to lose all this to a bunch of hacker geeks and lazy consumers who have convinced themselves that copyright infringement doesn’t count if everybody does it at once.  Despite its crooked reputation, Hollywood is the leading employer of artists in this country.  Movies are a convergence of arts like no other and tens of thousands of painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and specialty performers earn their living because of the film industry.

Arts like dance, classical music and painting largely rely on government subsidy to stay viable in today’s world.  We see the cultural value of such things and choose to insulate them from the fickle tastes of consumers.  Cinema is the lone bastion of breathing, thriving art left in this country and we could already be seeing the waning edge of its golden era.

It is easy to apologize for the movie thieves.  It is easy to forgive a kid in some random dorm room uploading a movie he would otherwise never have bothered to see.  It is easy to lose sympathy for the hard-hearted media moguls that charge you $13 to see some crappy remake of an old crappy television show.  It is easy to overlook the losses as movies continue to set box-office records with movies that offer nothing but headache inducing special effects and plots that could fit on the head of a pin.

But a valid argument can be made that American cinema represents a cultural investments in art unprecedented in world history.  Each year dozens of spectacular works of art can be found sifting through the sea of drivel that makes up the annual Hollywood offerings.  They may be the minority, but movies have the power to shape our cultural values, draw our attention to the inequities of the world, challenge our preconceptions and unite us under our common humanity.

Every time a movie is stolen from the wild, wild web the potential of future film is diminished.  As the budgets shrink and the returns dwindle, you can expect whole genres to disappear and you’ll likely see them go in order of importance.  Documentary films will suffer first with experimental films right on their heels.  Proven sellers like sci-fi, comic properties and low budget romantic comedies will hold out the longest but even they will visibly suffer in a short time.

Until a radical shift is made in the way that Internet piracy is policed, all we can hope to do is plug a few holes in the ship.  We can’t stop it from sinking through grass roots activism, but we can slow it down.  The first and most obvious step is to stop downloading movies without paying for them.  A number of providers are fast at work making it easier and easier to view movies legally and pay only nominal fees or monthly service charges.  By using these legitimate services you are sending a clear message to the film industry to keep investing in ways of making legal digital transmission easier.

But the most important thing we can do is to change the social stigma of Internet piracy.  These hackers are hard at work trying to make themselves look like cool freedom fighters so clearly image matters to them.  By shooting down the self-serving arguments about corruption in Hollywood and the evil specter of the MPAA we are deflating their public persona.  By reminding them that they’re just a bunch of profiteering computer nerds that weren’t athletic enough to go into real crime we can counteract the hacker “mystique” they so desperately cultivate.

And if you’re not swayed by the arguments to keep cinema alive, consider one other vital front in this battle.  The freedom of the Internet is largely dependant upon finding viable solutions for copyright infringement.  If everyone who protested measures like COICA put equal effort into finding ways to clamp down on piracy, perhaps such draconian measures would not be necessary.

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