Hello my Powerpeeps, and welcome back to another episode of The Powerwolf Mailbag, This week we discuss Piracy! Should the public be inclined to acquiesce to the demands of the law? Does it even matter?
This is not a mind blowing question, but what are your thoughts on movie piracy? Will the proliferation of it destroy the cinema in the manner Lucas nearly destroyed his own Star Wars?
Interesting name. Is it Russian? You bring up a really pointed question that goes well beyond the film industry, and whose implications go beyond your very straightforward question. By “destroy the cinema in the manner Lucas nearly destroyed his own Star Wars“, I can only assume you mean “corrupted to the point where it loses both its artistic and historical value.” We’ll throw in “viability as a legitimate business model,” despite the fact that we all know the Star Wars movies would keep making money regardless of how terrible they get.
To answer your questions on the most basic level: I don’t think so, but it’s really hard to say definitively. Proponents of the “It’s no big deal” line of thought love to point out that box office sales have been on the rise, but that doesn’t take into account that studio investment in lower risk projects (non-sequels and remakes) has plummeted dramatically in the past decade. Studies certainly indicate that piracy hurts a film’s box office earnings, especially if appears for free before it’s available in theaters. This is the reason that companies have been more careful about how they stagger their worldwide release schedules. This is also the reason that turnaround speed for home video sales has increased so dramatically. Back in the VHS days, it used to be a year or more before a film was available on home video. This gave viewers a much bigger incentive to see them in the theater. Now, if studios wait four months rather than three to distribute home video, it can lead to a significant ding in sales.
So regardless of any other potential outliers involved, I think the strong correlation between the possibility of piracy and a decrease in revenue is proof enough that it can harm the bottom line for film investors. This clearly isn’t destroying the film industry financially. They’re adapting their release strategies to be more consumer friendly, which I feel is a win all around. They’re blowing the doors off of the piracy-heavy Chinese market by working around and within the system. And they’re making more money than ever before!
But the second part of the question revolves around whether or not this is negatively impacting the industry creatively. We can all agree that it’s a bummer for studios to take fewer risks on creative new properties, but is piracy the cause of this? It certainly makes acquiring funding for a certain level of indie film more problematic. But considering the simultaneous incredible advances in the past decade for crowdsourcing and digital-distribution, coupled with the decrease in cost of quality recording and editing equipment, I honestly think it’s more likely that there’s just more competition than ever before. The low budget movie has been replaced by high end television. Hell, Netflix is now financing critically acclaimed movies on a smaller budget.
While I’m sure that there are some very beautiful films that will never see the light of day due to piracy, I think the vast majority of examples are a result of there being just an incredible glut of competition. Whether or not Transformers 9: Dawn of the Mega-Explodicator is legitimately worth peoples’ time, it’s still what way more people want to see than Tangerine. And that’s a bummer, because Tangerine is incredibly beautiful and meaningful, despite being shot on an iPhone. But this is why I’m a huge proponent of the idea that populous films should have depth. They are naturally going to be seen by more people, so they have an even greater responsibility to say something – anything – meaningful. Even if that’s not the thrust of the whole film.
And I do think this level of thoughtfulness is rewarded. See this year’s showdown between Batman v Superman and Civil War. While there were certainly a number of variables differentiating the two, there were definitely enough similarities that they should have been well received by similar audiences. Producer Debbie Snyder recently stated that BvS‘ relative critical and box office failure could be attributed to the fact that “people don’t like seeing their heroes deconstructed.” This is hilarious, since BvS wasn’t a deconstruction, it was a morally abhorrent and incompetent misunderstanding of not just the characters at its core, but of the concept of superheroes in general. People disliked BvS because it had nothing beneath the surface. In a movie about conflicting symbols of hope, that’s a death strike.
So no. I don’t think the industry is at risk of being murdered Lucas-style by pirates or anybody else. Indie filmmakers may have a bigger ball of yarn to unravel to decide where they fit in the new order. The good news is, if there is an audience for their work, there is a now a way to find them. Despite the fact that piracy is illegal, studios repeatedly calling over a quarter of the population “criminals” hasn’t seemed to curb the problem. So, like most business, they’ve made adjustments to their distribution plans. They’ve made more concerted efforts to make movie watching more convenient by offering many more legal ways to acquire content digitally.
The most common excuse I’ve heard is that film executives are selfish, money-grubbing dicks, who get off on manipulating the public for their own personal gain. I’ve actually heard this the most from people who work in the film industry, and… they have a point. This is probably why pay-what-you-can campaigns have been so successful for some artistic content. Not only does it allow the consumer to really realize their money means something, it shows a level of humility from the creator that acknowledges that consumers drive the market.
That’s not to say that piracy is super great, and we should all do it to stick it to the man… but it’s certainly good that the result is showing Hollywood how much they stand to lose by being obtuse about their distribution methods.
Actually, if you’ve ever legally purchased Star Wars, you should illegally download the Despecialized Edition… because fuck George Lucas.
Thanks for tuning in for another week of the mailbag. Let us know your thoughts on piracy in the comments, and keep our mailbag full by emailing us all your entertainment related questions and theories at firstname.lastname@example.org!