Tech – No, Movies Do Not Want To Be Free

I suppose one can forgive nerds for viewing the entire world through the lens of software. After all, they’re nerds. I’m a nerd. I just happen to be a semi-tech, semi-art nerd, which means I view the world through a film lens.

What I can’t forgive is the philosophical justification nerds offer for stealing movies. Your garden-variety guy who’s figured out torrents and is just being a cheap prick is one thing. That guy knows, on some level, he’s being a self-serving asshole. He may justify it with “Oh, I’ll tell my friends if it’s good” or “Oh, if I like it I’ll buy the DVD”, but he knows that’s a crock.

But here’s the basic argument for stealing movies: movies are information. They’ve been reduced to math. Math is a fundamental constant of the universe. Therefore, Hollywood is unfairly charging for a fundamental constant of the universe, and I am justified in taking it. Maybe toss in some dimly-understood economic theory or self-righteous political rhetoric about the MPAA or how they don’t support Hollywood because it’s racist/sexist/homophobic (this is inevitably from a straight white guy), and viola! Instant asshole argument.

I can understand this argument when it comes to software, because software really is, at root, just math. If you want to sit down and code out your own software for pretty much any purpose, you can. It’s worth remembering that the kind of people who believe in this are the kind of people who don’t understand why anybody WOULDN’T want to code their own software.

But movies are different. They’re even different from music, which we’ll get to in a minute. Any programmer worth his salt can probably code any application given enough time and study. But none of them could pick up a camera and make, say, “The 400 Blows”. They couldn’t even make “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

What it comes down to is that films are not easily reproducible. You can’t create what makes a movie special. That’s why it’s called the authorial voice. That’s what you’re paying for…if you even want to pay in the first place.

But what about “fighting the Man” or “fighting Big Hollywood” or whatever economic/political argument you want to trot out, most left over from the music industry fight? Well, let’s take a look at movies versus music.

Movies depreciate in value, and they do so pretty quickly. First it hits theaters in the first run, that’s about ten bucks to see it once. But, you can wait a month, and then it’ll hit a second run: that’ll cost you a lot less. Or, you can wait until it hits home video. Then you can rent it for even less, such as Netflix, or buy it day-and-date for about one-and-a-half to twice as much as a first-run screening and watch it as many times as you want. Or, you can wait for the DVD to come down in price, same deal. Or you can wait for the movie to hit basic cable, and watch it ad-supported. Or even without ads, if you record it on a HDR.

In short, if you don’t want to pay to see a movie, you don’t have to download it. All you have to do is wait. And no, Hollywood does NOT have to cater to your impatience. The scarcity of the movie IS the product. The idea is that you make time to go see it because you just have to go see it. If you want to see the movie so badly, make some damn time and go to a theater, or just wait for the DVD. That’s what most people do in the first place.

This is especially important because the movies you pay to see tell Hollywood what to make, and just as importantly, what you DON’T pay to see tells them what NOT to make. So every time a good movie comes out, and you download it, you’re telling Hollywood you don’t want any more movies like that. You did not pay, so your opinion does not count. Conversely, every time you buy a ticket to a shitty movie, you’re telling Hollywood you will pay for shit.

Way too often, the success of indie films on torrents is pointed out, the most recent example being “Ink”. But, again, we’re dealing with a different realm here. Your average non-studio-funded indie runs anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million, and the filmmakers have to repay not a studio that views the movie as an investment, but usually a consortium of independent investors, who probably aren’t in it for a profit. Once the investors get their money back, there’s a lot more flexibility for an independent film to get seen, pure and simple. So that’s not a valid argument either.

Now let’s look at music. The music industry’s preferred model is…issue one or two songs as “singles”, which are also issued for radio play, lock the rest of the songs onto an album which can cost up to $20 and…that’s it. For years, people bought albums to struggle through track after track until they got the hit or found the best song on the album. Not anymore.

As I’ve pointed out before, the entire reason music piracy exploded is because it gave people what they wanted; the ability to just grab the good songs and ignore the dross. It’s extremely telling that once iTunes offered a way to cheaply pay for individual tracks, people migrated over to that service extremely quickly. Essentially, the music industry had held a monopoly for so long, they didn’t want to give the customer what they wanted. So when somebody did, well, that was the ballgame. The music industry is still adjusting, painfully, to the fact that they are now subservient to Apple and Amazon, but they are NOT happy about it.

I won’t be surprised to see the album fade out over time. True, Apple is trying to revive it but frankly I doubt it’ll be successful. And that’s not a bad thing. Instead of slamming out twelve tracks for the royalties, an artist can put out individually crafted songs; good for them, better for us.

I’m not out of sympathy with some arguments. I have a profound dislike of the MPAA, which needs to be dismantled, and it’s also true losses due to piracy are greatly exaggerated. The movie industry isn’t the focus of the same bad will as the music industry, and pirated DVDs are less popular. But none of that justifies stealing. So before clicking on that torrent, think long and hard about what you’re telling Hollywood you want, because the rest of us have to abide by that decision as well.

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3 Responses to “Tech – No, Movies Do Not Want To Be Free”

  1. Phil Saunders Says:

    I agree completely.

    There are two arguments for piracy I think you should consider.

    For non-fiction, or documentary films produced or subsidized by a government entity (BBC), or for Discovery type stuff when you pay your cable bill, the film should be freely available. If I paid taxes, which I do, then I’m not sure why I have to pay again for something I didn’t have a choice about whether or not it was produced, or may have missed a viewing window.

    Secondly, and in a related fashion, if the content you want to watch is not released in your area (the classic example is anime) then the moral choice of whether or not to steal it doesn’t exist. You don’t have a legal alternative to see it, short of flying to Japan, so they can’t, logically, be losing money by your piracy.

    • seitzeeing Says:

      Discovery’s a private entity, so I’m not sure what you mean. Just because you pay your cable bill doesn’t mean you buy the content. You buy ACCESS to the content. The BBC I think is a different case, keep in mind I’m approaching from an American perspective.

      As for geographic release, that’s actually fairly easy to get around. Region locks are falling out of fashion and it’s fairly easy to get your hands on pretty much anything if you’re willing to pay the shipping.

  2. Brentin Says:

    Releasing singles vs. albums might be better for some people, but as a music-nerd, I think Album Oriented Rock still has its merits. Green Day proved that with “American Idiot”, and Bruce Springsteen is a master of the craft. The album tells a story or sends a message…each track is carefully chosen and sequenced.

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