Piracy: (Some Of) The Short & The Long Of It

Thankfully, Taylor Hackford recognizes that the film industry needs to wise up and educate itself on piracy. He and I agree on that. And I think we agree on the goal of it all, but I suspect we have completely different approaches to solving the problem.  And that is where I am really concerned.  To solve it, Hackford seems willing to sacrifice greater principles in the service of business, and that is a shame.  I hope I am wrong. Mr. Hackford, president of the DGA, was recently speaking at the Content Protection Summit and Variety reported on it. Reading the article I remain unclear as to what Hackford's point is about piracy beyond that it is bad and we need to make it a real concern of the industry. He seems to be saying that if we want to protect our content, we have to be willing to give up on a free and open internet. He claims groups like Public Knowledge and Free Press as enemies. Shutting down a free and open internet is not the path to solving the piracy problem; it is the path to a closed society that favors a class or capital over access and opportunity -- and that is the antithesis of what we need to do.

We can not create a system that favors the powerful, the connected, or the well capitalized. The Film Business already favors all those niches quite well, and government and utilities should do all they can to provide for all equally.  Equality under the law and within the society remains one of the greatest ideals, and personally speaking, I would rather have a world that strives for that ideal's enforcement, even if that striving has to support some bad apples, rather than risk that anyone does not have equal access or equal opportunity.

Hackford was insightful to link Hollywood's focus on event pictures to piracy, in that if piracy is eroding film's revenue -- or even thought to be -- then investors will be more likely to put money into the projects most likely to generate the quickest return and the most unique experience.  The insight would actually make sense if individual investors were backers of event pictures, let alone studio pictures.  They rarely have such opportunities.

Being someone who has depended on private equity for all but a few of my 60+ films, I have never once heard an investor confess concern about piracy (and granted some of that may have to do with their education on the issue).  I do have investors express concern about distribution opportunities, access to markets, cost of promotion, and difficulties to reaching audiences.     I do hear people intrigued about using the systems that have been developed by pirates and copy-forward advocates to reach audiences that they have not reached before.  They know that the system has to change and recognize the realities of the time we are living in.

I have witnessed first hand, and was one of the key witnesses, in a successful anti-trust suit against the MPAA for coercing the studios to take action that unfairly hurt independents in the process.  That case, popularly known as The Screener Ban, used piracy as the fear that prompted excluding the key marketing tool of Award Screeners from all filmmakers' arsenal.  The powerful often look out for their interests without even consulting the rest of the industry about their practices.  When Dan Glickman took over at the MPAA, he was quite vigilant at soliciting the indie sector's opinion on the state of the industry, and I hope his successor remains as committed.  I hope whomever takes over the MPAA recognizes the necessity of our culture industry to commit to a free & open internet or else exclude a serious sector of our community.

When it comes to protecting artists' rights, piracy is a serious issue, but open and free access to a public good (i.e. the internet) is a greater one.  We can not look at short term solutions that have long term repercussions.  The focus on the piracy issue tends to take place at events that exclude a large portion of the film community -- namely the truly independent artists that will never have access to the studio system.  We need institutions, organizations, and methods that make sure to include this segment's voice -- and that includes the DGA.

I, and artists everywhere, will not be able to support ourselves -- and thus generate new work -- if our work is widely stolen and we are not compensated.   Mr. Hackford is right on when he speaks of the need for passion and education when it comes to the issue of intellectual property theft, but as we enter that discussion, we need to strenuously protect the greater ideal of equal access and opportunity.  We also need to recognize human behavior and the current state of things -- people want convenience, but they also want other things.  The large media corporations have done little to offer a better option to theft.  Our methods of licensing and distributing work relies on out of date analogue models.  There are actions that can be taken, by artists and businesses, and it is hight time that we begun this discussion in earnest -- but let's not abandon the ideals as we start the march down the road.

Save the internet!

Adventures In Self-Releasing

Jeffrey Goodman over at the Moviemaker Blog has a post on what he is learning taking his film The Last Lullaby out himself.  Check it out.  He makes some good points:

1. MPAA. Want your movie to play outside of the art house circuit? Chances are you will need to pay to have it rated. Here’s the link if you want to see how that works (http://www.mpaa.org/CARASubmittalPaperwork8.doc). It is not cheap.

2. Box office split or four wall. These are the two basic arrangements you are likely to face. In the first scenario, box office split, you will simply share a certain percentage of the box office with the theater owner. In the second scenario, you will pay an upfront fee basically to rent the theater. Then, in return, you will receive a share of the box office, usually much higher than in the box office split scenario.

3. Paid ads. Depending on the market, some theaters will obligate you to spend a certain amount on advertising your film if you want them to show it. I’m trying to avoid these places wherever I can.

4. DVD window. Just got off the phone with one of the larger theater chains and they want to obligate me to a four month window, which means in theory I can’t sell DVDs for four months after playing there. But it is part of my hope and plan perhaps to sell DVDs during this whole theatrical run. What to do?

5. Booking a theater. Convincing a theater owner to take a chance on you is just like convincing a potential investor to give you money for your movie: You have to sell them. The thing they are most interested in knowing is how you plan to promote the movie in their area and who your audience is.

MPAA Spokeslawyers Insist They Not Be Identified

BoingBoing reveals how in suing RealNetworks, the MPAA has tried to keep their efforts hush, hush -- and journalists complied!  The report was first published on the Wired blog which outlines the whole case.

If you hadn't heard, RealNetworks released RealDVD, which allows consumers to copy the DVDs they own using their computers.  The Studios are demanding that a judge block the sale on grounds that copying is akin to theft.  RealNetworks says that they are stifling technological developments.

"We are disappointed that the movie industry is following in the footsteps of the music industry and trying to shut down advances in technology, rather than embracing changes that provide consumers with more value and flexibility for their purchases," RealNetworks said.

This is such a tricky situation.  I think with all the hysteria to prevent the film business from falling into the crapper like the music industry, the efforts are coming close to making it inevitable.  It's not a war against the consumer and advancement that the Studios seem to think is the case.
Wired boils this case (and another one) down at the end of the article:

The lawsuits beg the question of whether it is legal to copy an encrypted DVD for personal use. The courts have not squarely decided the issue as applied to CDs or DVDs, although the music and movie industry oppose copying.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which the MPAA claims RealDVD and Kaleidescape are breaking, says descrambling or circumventing encryption is a violation carrying a penalty of up to $2,500 per DVD.
RealDVD and Kaleidescape allow users to copy DVDs in their original encrypted form. Those companies, and other similar services, say their wares prevent the movies from being uploaded to torrent trackers.
Lawyers for the MPAA, in a teleconference with reporters, said Kaleidesape and RealDVD are circumventing "technology designed to prevent copying."

Dear MPAA: Don't Alienate The Consumer!

I am worried that the film industry is poised to follow the music biz right down the tubes.  

The MPAA has asked the FCC for permission to engage in "selective output control".  You can read about at Public Knowledge here.  It's a new issue to me, but it sounds very short sighted.  I understand the desire to end piracy -- although I am a believer in bootlegging as a means of audience access -- but we should never do it in such a way that forces the consumer to throw out their entire home entertainment set up!
Mark Cuban has just jumped into the fray, urging the MPAA to spend the money where it will do good: promoting films, and not in ways that will alienate the consumer.  Check out what he has to say on Blogmaverick.