Thursday, February 02, 2012

Is Online Piracy About Theft-- or Inertia?

It's funny how life offers up little bits of synchronicity every now and then. I had been musing on a topic for the blog that centered on the idea of playing it safe when I can across the trailer for Jason Statham's upcoming movie Safe. Sometimes these things write themselves.

The obvious reason that Statham's new movie would play into my blog topic is because he is, once again, cast as the lead in an action flick. I don't object to that; I think Statham is a great action star. But according to Hollywood (I use the town as a generic term to refer to the mainstream entertainment industry) that's mostly all Statham is. They've put him in a box that he may never get out of-- though I'd gladly take the paycheck that comes with that particular box.

However, I shouldn't single out Statham. Hollywood is littered with actors that are known for playing a specific type, be it Jennifer Aniston, Tom Cruise or Will Smith. Sometimes you'll see attempts to break out against type in what I think of as Oscar bait films with varying levels of success but mostly the industry keeps everyone in their safe little boxes and that's that.

So what's the point of all this musing?

I may be stretching here but I think the staleness of the entertainment industry has created an environment that is preventing it from adapting to a new era-- hence the rise of SOPA and PIPA.

If you've been paying any attention you've heard a lot about the bills that have been put forward, and rejected, regarding the pirating of content on the web. This has been a HUGE topic and I think you'd have to live under a rock to not be aware of it. It's a favorite topic on sites like this because it impacts writers as heavily as movie makers and musicians-- maybe more so since authors are not known to bring in the big bucks unless they've reached a pretty significant level of success. I'm not going to get into the nitty-gritty as far as the legislation behind SOPA or PIPA goes other than to say that I am against what I view as extremely broad-based regulation that is guaranteed to lead to abuse and censorship.

What interests me about this topic is the reactions I've seen to it across the net. I follow a lot of authors on sites like Twitter and Facebook and have yet to see anyone that supports either bill. But I have read articles online that indicate there is still widespread support for PIPA and SOPA in Hollywood-- at least among the various guilds.

And I get it-- to a point. I understand the desire to protect intellectual property rights. There is a lot of hard work that goes into making a product like a book, a movie or a song. We all know that it isn't just a matter of coming up with an idea and voilĂ -- instant success. This holds true for any industry. But the question I have is whether the driving force behind the now-shelved (but sure to be resurrected) bills is really about intellectual property?

I'm not, nor have I ever been, a Hollywood insider. But I did work as an associate producer on a television show, a long time ago, and it did give me glimpse into how Hollywood thinks-- and I'm pretty sure that protecting the creative rights of the artist has very little to do with the recent crackdowns of online file-sharing. The television industry is, like any business, all about generating money. Nothing wrong with that. But what does that really mean?

The show I worked on was one of the early reality-television shows (the same kind of show I now abhor) and our show was based on taking real-life video, what you see YouTube nowadays, and we'd do interviews with the people in the video and patch it all together into segments. My job was to interview people for the segments-- a job I loved-- and I became very protective of the people I interviewed. Often these people would be filmed in very tragic circumstances and I felt a duty to protect them from overexposure-- you'd be amazed at the things people will reveal to complete strangers in an interview. I learned early on to never, ever put information into the files that could be too embarrassing or revealing because it almost always ended up on air. I also learned that "tweaking" the story to create an elevated sense of excitement was not off limits: the lawyers were always nearby to advise producers on the legality of using certain content and no small amount of mental gymnastics was regularly involved in the process. I also had some first hand experience with a producer who went on to work on "Big Brother" and her "coaching" techniques for contestants on that show-- but that's another story.

The reason I tell you these anecdotes (and they barely scratch the surface) is to demonstrate the callousness I saw toward the people who provided the raw content for our show. They were essentially a product to be exploited. And, from my point of view, that's an attitude that permeates the industry on all levels. The "talent" we used on the show, the host and reporters, weren't really treated any better than the people I interviewed. They were paid well, but seen as disposable. Heck, that was true of all of us. So when I come across the intellectual rights argument all I see is a semi-factual discussion that is really designed to keep the money flowing to the top.

As I look back on that time I can't help but apply what I experienced then to all of the industries affected by the anti-piracy bills and why we ended up here. First, and foremost, I don't think it can be overstated how much impact changing technology has had. When I worked in Hollywood no one could have envisioned the role the internet now has in the entertainment industry-- and it's clear that the big-money machinery already in place is very slow to adapt. Whether it's web-streaming (legal and otherwise) of popular shows and movies or original content offered as online-only content, there's a lot of competition for market share. Add to that an audience that has seen their paychecks shrink at an alarming rate and the ability to create a pretty awesome home-theater experience and you've got a real uphill battle to get people to the theater.

And what's Hollywood's answer?

As far as I can tell the only thing they've come up with is to fight progress every step of the way. Whether it's stale content in the form of endless sequels and remakes or the attempt to stifle forward the forward progress of streaming providers like Netflix, Hollywood seems determined to keep things exactly the same. Same studios, same actors, same salaries, same scripts etc. etc... Of course I'm simplifying things but I think the premise is basically sound.

What's amazing to me is that Hollywood doesn't seem to understand that the audience is responding to multiple factors when they decide how they're going to consume a certain product. I know that cost is a biggie-- is it worth $25 or more to buy a blu-ray of any modern film? And how often do you take the whole family to the theater these days? If you're like me you probably don't mind waiting three months and spending $1 on a Redbox rental. All I know is that when I see a $20-million-a-film celebrity telling me that I should be worrying about intellectual property rights, I can't help but think that their salary has helped make my movie-going experience really expensive. And if I do decide to spend the money I'm back to questioning whether it's worth it to see another sequel or remake.

But Hollywood is only one industry experiencing growing pains-- as we all know. The publishing industry is fighting their own battle with online piracy and yet they are also excruciatingly slow in addressing complaints over the cost of digital books, citing the costs of editing and promotion as the reason digital copies aren't cheaper. The interesting thing about this is that it has really spurred on the self-publishing industry and after the success I've seen on that front (I personally know one self-published author who made a healthy six-figure paycheck last year) I don't know that the big publishing houses can compete indefinitely. If I can find good quality books at $2.99 or less (and I can) why would I pay $9.99 for a new release?

Another thing the entertainment industry, of all forms, needs to take into account is the audience's ability to rationalize. Most people I know have a healthy code of ethics that prevents them from downloading, but it's obvious from the success of file sharing sites, there are a lot of people who don't feel too bad about taking whatever they can get. Does this mean they're all bad people? Well, maybe. Or maybe they find it really easy to look at the way the various industries are doing business, and who is making the money, and decide that a little larceny isn't a big deal. After all-- it's not our fault that the industry insists on staying in the dark ages...

I know I'm getting long winded here-- and I do apologize. But I think there needs to be a broad-based conversation about online piracy before we even think about passing anything like SOPA or PIPA. A lot of people in the creative community are quick to grasp the possible consequences of such bills-- especially since they're generally not the biggest beneficiaries of the profits anyway. We've already seen incredible innovation on the net and I think we've only begun to explore its potential. We've also seen that there are tons of people out there who will do outrageous things for free on camera for their fifteen minutes of fame-- and before long we're going to see a lot of genuine talent break out on the net and continue to eat into the profits Hollywood is already losing. Self-published authors are already reaping the benefits of distributing their own product and I don't see that trend slowing down anytime soon. Hollywood may think they're playing it safe by trying to protect what they already have-- but I think they're being incredibly short-sighted when it comes to realizing what they could have by investing in innovation instead of wasting their energy on shutting down websites. Fighting progress is nothing but a losing proposition-- I just hope we don't up the biggest losers of all.


Charles Gramlich said...

The safe playing of hollywood is often a topic of convo at my house, and it really has turned both Lana and I off on movies in general. I had read some stuff from writers who've dealt with Hollywood that also shows that callousness toward the creators that you mentioned, and maybe that's part of the reason the whole film industry is so sterile.

SQT said...

Charles-- The biggest gripe I have about the media is that they feel no responsibility for the influence they have. There are only a few major studios who put out most the content and they determine the direction entertainment flows. I'm sure they hate the internet because it's such a threat to the way they've been doing things. I LOVE the net because it's opens up the flow of information and innovation. 10 years from now things are going to be waaaay different.

Elfy said...

Yeah, God forbid someone in Hollywood actually think outside the box and take a chance on something new or different.

Linds said...

I think for a lot of people it boils down to easy access or rather the lack of it--television and entertainment should use the internet to reach more people. I agree that it's stagnant. I think they should take advantage of the internet's possibilities and offer something better. I'm happy to watching something on hulu or on their own websites but when it's not offered, or the streaming is of poor quality--it's no wonder people look elsewhere.

Libraries of course, have offered free and legal access to books, music, and movies for ages and the industries have survived. The internet, you could argue just does that on a larger scale. But it also introduces the media to a wider audience.

Personally, I'm curious to see how direct sales to the public will eventually affect movies. I've started to see some movies available to purchase at the time of release to view online (for cheaper than trekking to the theater for two people). Mostly indie or documentaries, but I'd love the chance to actually see them since they don't reach the multiplex.

I also think I'd be awesome for tv channels to offer direct streaming so if you really just wanted to pay for one cable channel, you could.

animewookie said...

I agree, the ones that are complaining the most are the ones that are worried that they're not going to be profiting more than everyone else...after's what they're used Great discussion :D