Ahorn | Sunday, der 22. July 2012
By Andrew Horn
When I read my colleague Ed Ward’s piece on the infamous Intern who owns tens of thousands of songs but only actually paid for 15 CDs, I thought I might as well put in my two cents – as it applies to the movies…sort of.
Actually I kind of did already in a previous article where I wrote about the compulsive need to have things – ie movies and tv shows – instantly, regardless of whether it was “officially” available or not. But that is not exactly the point here. I think there is another factor at work – just as psychological – and that is, we have gotten into a very bad habit of thinking that anything, by virtue of the fact that it is available to be accessed on the Internet, is therefore free. Or should be.
Now while I would like to feel at least some degree of moral superiority over today’s army of chronic downloaders, that wouldn’t be exactly correct. While I have never downloaded anything of that sort myself (though I should admit to having occasionally partaken of things from other less ethical hands), I do have to confess to have been a chronic home taper. Not so much from records that I might have borrowed – though heaven knows I’ve done that occasionally – but from the radio. I still to this day have a cabinet full of cassettes that I made from recording my favorite radio shows both in the US and, later, here in Germany (principally when John Peel was still broadcasting).
But in the last years my taping days ended. Not because I got an influx of money to start buying, or an attack of ethics, but rather that my favorite radio station (located in NJ) began, not only broadcasting over the Internet, but, more insidiously, has been archiving all their programs so I can listen to whatever I want whenever I want to, especially thanks to their search engine for looking up and accessing individual songs. Because of that, I haven’t had the desire – or need -to buy a CD in years. Theoretically on the up and up, but…
And as far as movies go, I certainly have been guilty of taping – along with all the legions of VCR owners. But at that time in order to tape something, you had to legitimately watch it on tv (or let it pass through your tv) or pay to rent the original at a video store in order to copy it. Nowadays you TIVO it which, again, is considered legit but seeing as how it allows you to speed through the commercials is pretty counter productive – I mean how can they get the money to produce these things if no one watches the commercials?
Me, I hate the commercials and have taken to watching all my tv on DVD – perhaps answering the above question – and for which I don’t mind at all paying the 1-3 Euros per rental (depending on where I get it and if I bring it back the same day). In fact, when I visit the US I am appalled by how invasive all the commercials are and I certainly couldn’t blame anyone for wanting to skip over them.
But here I think is where the downloading becomes problematic, because of digital broadcasting, the access to high quality original material is not only easy, it’s all but unavoidable. You could argue that once the show has been broadcast it’s already been paid for and therefore anything else is gravy, but then when you factor in the power of home video in creating the whole cable series revolution starting with “The Sopranos” and including “The Shield”, “Damages”, “Spartacus” or “Mad Men”, there’s a lot to be said for the monetary value of post-broadcast life in making such big-ticket items viable.
As for those bootleg DVDs shot off the screen at a first run theater, or pirate film sites, usually the quality is so bad that I can’t imagine anyone, who might otherwise pay to see the movie, being in any way satisfied to see something, particularly some big event film, under such conditions. And as somebody who once watched “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” on one of those little back-of-the-chair screens in Economy Class on a plane, I really can’t say that seeing something – even good quality copy – on YouTube is worth very much. That being said, I am certainly not above accepting things that can’t really be seen elsewhere, like an episode of “77 Sunset Strip” or “Peter Gunn” or some BBC music doc or whatever. And in any case that would be primarily for academic purposes (read: general time wasting).
Maybe I’m being naive, but I can’t imagine that audience accounting for a significant loss of revenue for anyone. And, in fact, there are already some VOD sites that offer old shows – or in some cases not-so-old shows – in considerably better shape, paid for by commercials that are, at least for the time being, mercifully way shorter than TV. And if you can’t deal with commercial interruptions, often times there is an option to watch – or leave the room for – one long commercial at the beginning. (Unfortunately, for the time being, such sites are often blocked out-of-territory which leads us back to “unethical appropriation” but as I already discussed in the above mentioned earlier article, we can only hope that this will be sorted out)
But DVD rentals are still going strong here in Germany, and while the video store is all but dead in America things like Netflix are big and are now offering subscription streaming. And of course there is this site right here as well. Again, I say naively, piracy is not really worth the effort, if you can get a good quality movie (and we’re not speaking about aesthetics here, only picture quality) for 1 Euro or as part of a base subscription price.* As I said earlier, it all comes down to availability. Other than that, really why bother, except for the psychological satisfaction of “sticking it to the man”. Which could unfortunately be, not only be Disney or Constantin, or whomever, but me or any number, or level, of filmmakers like me. So logic aside, I think it really boils down to the psychological, we can’t resist the idea of getting something for nothing.
But getting back to the music downloading, I truly think the problem is not a criminal one, but psychological. And I think music is more problematic than film. Not just because we’re used to getting it free on the radio, but because this whole notion of downloading – even the now legal aspect of it as cheap and accessible as it is -is a bit different. Movies, whether experienced in the cinema or on TV or rented on a DVD are ephemeral. It’s like a performance – it exists for you in the moment. And that’s part of our perception.
The idea of owning a movie the way you would a book is a fairly recent phenomenon that only became significant in the 90s when the price of home videos began dropping precipitously. Recorded music on the other hand is something that, until recently, was a possession, a tangible object. A record album or a cassette or (arguably less fun) a CD. You could hold it, look at it, read the back of it, look at the cover picture, lend it to, or borrow it from, your friends – you could collect it. It somehow had a meaning greater than itself. It had emotional attachment. Just remember that movie ‘High Fidelity”. Or think about that often-told story of the historic first meeting of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger where Keith saw Mick walking down the street with an armload of blues records and was on him like a shot – if you see Keith tell it, you can practically see him salivating.
I can’t even imagine something analogous happening today. The whole downloading thing has made music basically invisible and intangible. The fact that you can now store your entire music library – which can be many thousands of songs, which need have no relation to each other, sort of torpedoing the notion of a record album – in a little ca 2 inch case, makes it very hard to connect it to any sort of value, monetary or otherwise. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t show it to anybody and there is no significance in lending or borrowing since you don’t ever have to give it back. Which further sort of negates any possible value of anything as a collectors item. And no one I know ever gives someone a song, they just lay off a whole anonymous batch of stuff from one hard drive to another.
It’s not at all surprising to me that a young person today would think it not worth paying for something that doesn’t actually exist in space. That doesn’t seem to be actually a possession. That’s just floating around in the internet and all you have to do is just grab it. Who wouldn’t? And if you add all the small bands giving their stuff away on their websites…
And the scary thing in all of this is that once someone gets used to getting something cheap or for free, it’s very hard to break the habit. And I can say that knowing first hand how it feels. Who among us would say they don’t?
Plus we are constantly being sold the technology that makes it hip and easy and attractive, in the form of players and tablets and hardrives, etc. I don’t have the answer but I would imagine that the problem would be much better solved by the same “creative” marketing that’s making us buy all these devices that make piracy so easy in the first place.
To me the problem is not so much one of criminality, as psychology – or as the Japanese say, “wrong thinking”. So, as much as I find it bad, I also find it problematic to simply pass moral judgement on “The Intern”. As they used in that old comic strip, Pogo, “we have met the enemy…and he is us.”
*Parenthetically speaking, getting a DVD, or a movie streamed to your home for a small price, I personally think, has had a much more devastating effect on the movie business than piracy. Why spend money on going to the cinema when you can wait a couple of months – and this wait is getting shorter all the time – and see a movie at home for a fifth of the price of one ticket for you AND your date. And whoever else might be there. And as someone who used to haunt the revival theaters and arthouse cinemas, that whole experience has been basically gutted by the home video market. And frankly – no matter what market – how do you monetize a film with even a small budget on individual rentals of 1-3 dollars or Euros for individual rentals, or even individual sales for under 20 dollars or Euros? Never mind cheap monthly streaming subscriptions. What we gain – and greatly, I will say – in availability, we lose in turning us into a legion of cheap-ass couch potatoes and offering a smaller level film very little in the way of a decent return.