Vox published an odd piece by Jason Blum in which he makes the case that piracy is the primary reason why Hollywood isn’t making art house films, ergo piracy must be stopped in order for Hollywood to continue to make good films. He makes the case, but he doesn’t make it particularly well or at all convincingly.
Let’s start with one thing he got right:
“Every year, millions of piracy “transactions” take place, accounting for incalculable lost revenue to those who actually paid to make and distribute those films.”
That is technically correct, in the sense that the lost revenue cannot be calculated. The music industry keeps trying to make this argument, but the numbers don’t work. They have yet to make a convincing case for a demonstrable amount of lost revenue. You can’t just say that a pirated video is the same thing as a lost admission to a theater. If that person wasn’t going to go in the first place, you’ve lost literally no revenue. If seeing a pirated version gets them to go see the legitimate version, or buy merchandise, or see the sequel, then you’ve gained revenue. Yes, there is evidence that piracy may actually increase revenue.
I’m not going to make that argument, though. I don’t think the numbers are anywhere near solid enough to say, without reservation, that piracy increases revenue. It does, however, suggest that the argument that piracy is killing the industry is not very solid.
Another problem with Blum’s piece is that he suggests that piracy will selectively kill off the more prestigious films (the good ones) while leaving the blockbusters (the bad ones) untouched. This is an odd argument to make. The assumption behind it is that the art films are just a gift that the studios give us, a gift that will likely lose money, and they won’t be able to give us nice things anymore if piracy continues.
If anyone believes that studios make art house films out of the goodness of their hearts and not with the intent of making bags of money or winning loads of awards, please raise your hands. Didn’t think I’d see any. In fairness, Blum does address this issue, but never addresses the problem that these films would be uniquely vulnerable to the loss of revenue due to piracy.
None of this addresses the real problem: You can’t stop piracy.
I’m not saying that piracy is moral, or legal, or anything remotely positive. I’m saying that, from a strictly technical standpoint, there’s fuck-all you can do about it and all the shouting in the world isn’t going to make any difference. As long as there are computers, there will be piracy. That is the fact of the matter.
Any system which can play a file can copy what is being played back. That is true of all digital media. If you can watch a movie on it, you can pirate a movie on it. Same technology.
Here’s my advice to the industry: Stop focusing on the things you cannot change. I understand that it is frustrating to see people rip off your work. It’s wrong of them to do it, but you literally cannot stop them from doing it*. Focus on the things you can control. Live presentation, tie-ins with talent, merchandise, and commercial use of the property and things still within control of the rights-holders. Use the thing you can’t control, the digital media, as an advertisement for the things you can.
The current model won’t stand up over the long term. Even if the overall revenue keeps growing, and it likely will, there will be people who benefit from the changes in the way commerce works, and there will be those who can’t adapt. I feel from the folks who can’t make the changes, because it feels like something’s been taken from them. That, for better or worse, is the nature of change, and trying to act as though you can stop change isn’t going to end well for anyone.
* I can hear the complaint already: “That’s like saying ‘lie back and enjoy it’ to rape victims!’ No, no it isn’t like that. Now, if you want to compare it to trying to stop someone from taking your picture when you’re out in public? That’s a reasonable analogy. It’s nothing like violent crime.