Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Charlie Don't Surf

(This is an unofficial continuation of the previous post, “Hollywood Ending.”)

On the opening day of "Iron Man" last month, a 20-year-old co-worker of mine came into work with a copy of the film on his iPod.

In the old days, and by that I mean about 4 years ago, if you wanted to watch a film (or own a copy, and who in their right mind ever wanted one of those?) you had to play by the Hollywood studio's rules.

This meant going to the theatres that had the film booked and pay your money, knowing that most of it (90% if you went the first weekend) went back to the studios. Or wait for the video or DVD, which also was controlled and managed by the studio, so that when you bought it (or rented it) some portion of the revenue trickled back to the them, so they could keep making more films, for all our enjoyment.

It was a monopoly - not so much as in the '50s, when the studios actually owned the theatres. But it worked, and helped to drive up prices, as more people paid higher prices for bigger special effects, more expensive stars, in louder and longer films.

Now there's a problem. Access has been democratized. Anyone has for all practical purposes free access to films as soon as - and in some cases before - they're officially released.

The new generation of media-consumers (I was going to say “film-goers” but it isn't always film anymore, and they don't need to “go” anywhere) is the exact demographic that most Hollywood entertainment is geared towards - the 16 - 30 age range, who have disposable income, disposable free time, are culturally and socially involved and savvy, and don't have enough experience or taste to avoid the obvious crap. And they all don't seem to realize that it's not okay to steal.

By that I mean they have grown up in the new burgeoning internet age of YouTube, BitTorrent, and Napster, in which the vast majority of visual entertainment is digital, free, and duplicatable. They've grown up in a “creative commons” atmosphere in which “information wants to be free.” Yeah, I know. I want it to be free too, and there's nothing we can do about it. But this begs the question - is the new “Harry Potter” film just information?

Hollywood has been trying to instill in this generation the idea of “intellectual property” with no success, with little ads at the beginning of the dvds they rip from Netflix (“You wouldn't steal a car, would you?”), and public service ads in movie theatres. What these well-meaning but prehistoric messages don't acknowledge is that most of the bootlegged films aren't being filmed on a camcorder from the back row of a theatre anyway - they're inside jobs. Good ones, too. They come from farther up the foodchain from somewhere in the studio. Films are worked on in the digital realm so much now (and don't make it back to film until very late in the process) it's obviously simple for someone to thumbdrive a copy (wow, that's a verb now) and walk out of the building with it in their pants - or better yet, just email it to themselves.

The kids who download these copies know that, and justify the copy on their computer with the fact that someone who knows better did it. Someone within the industry. “I'm not the one who stole it - someone else did!”

When I try to explain intellectual property, that it costs money to make, produce and distribute, I hear “But they already made so much money; they made $200 million the first week.” An argument which tries to justify the theft of one copy by virtue of the fact that so many other people paid money. Of course, the real question is, would the film have done better if it wasn't so available so quickly to anyone with a DSL connection and a mild curiousity (no doubt piqued by all the marketing, which costs more than the film in some instances)? It's a commitment to go out to the movies, park, pay money, choose what you really think you might like. You have a different relationship to a film you download overnight, “just to see what it's like.”

Don't want to waste my money, do I? And hey, if you want a copy let me know.

Might the film have done 10% better if it wasn't on the internet by opening day? 15% better? Not to mention the fact that the economic theory of the “long tail” suggests the film has a lifespan far beyond the 3 weeks it's likely to be in theatres, with DVDs, cable, and yes, even internet streaming, but for casual demand being satisfied so quickly.

I've also heard these kids admit that they weren't going to pay for it anyway - “it didn't look worth it. “ Well, foresight is 20/20. And this suggests that morality is somehow tied to aesthetics. (Now there's an intriguing concept worth pursuing at some later date....)

The most troubling rhetorical position I've heard (I don't make this up, I just report it) is, "But I already saw it once in the theatre." Like that $10.00 admission price (assuming they paid to get in in the first place) is the magic infinity ticket, which entitles them to all subsequent access in all forms to the film forever, from DVD rips to internet downloads to email trading.

Hollywood doesn't know what to do about this. The old business model, based on discreet and individualized (the prints are coded visually - patterns are placed in action shots for single frames at a time to identify which print gets duplicated and uploaded) copies that are projected in controlled and measured environments, with funds collected for each patron, is becoming obsolete. Access is no longer controlled - and revenue is no longer measurable. What the kids surf for on the internet isn't what they'll pay for.

The music business is struggling with how to generate revenue when the music itself is so easily stealable. Hollywood has to figure out what these tech-savvy and immoral 16 - 30 year olds are surfing for and downloading on the internet, and try to attract the dollars in their paypal accounts some other way, than selling them movie tickets.

Thank goodness for all the people over 40, who don't care to or know how to rip DVDs for home. They still appreciate the movie theatre experience...the one time a year that they actually go out to the movies.

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