Pirates of the Cinema - Postscript

February 29, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

Initially, I had planned for this series to be three parts (plus the introduction). However, the volume of e-mails received about it, some of which raised interesting points, led me to append this final piece. Since this is essentially a response to readers' comments, it lacks the structure of what has come before.

A number of people have written to back up my contention that, in some cases, piracy can be used to advance revenue. One man stated that, when The Fellowship of the Ring was released, he had no desire to watch it. However, when he stumbled upon an illegal on-line copy in December 2001, he decided to download it to see what all the fuss was about. (He also admits to being curious about whether this really was the movie or a fake.) The version he copied was videotaped in a movie theater, with the camera pointed at the screen. He never finished watching the pirated copy. One hour into the movie, he decided that he wanted to see it in a theater. He ended up paying four times to see The Fellowship of the Ring, six times for The Two Towers, and (thus far) five times for The Return of the King. In addition, he has purchased the theatrical and special edition DVDs of the first two movies, as well as the books and several other items. That's hundreds of dollars generated by one instance of piracy.

Another reader from overseas informed me that he frequently pirates TV show episodes because legal copies are not readily available. Once they are released on DVD in his country (in this case, Germany), he fully intends to buy them because the quality is superior to anything he can download. Had he not been able to download copies of episodes, it is likely he never would have become hooked.

The more often I read stories like these, the more firmly convinced I become that, rather than working to shut down piracy, the studios should become accomplices. There is a powerful marketing tool here. For someone who is smart, far-thinking, and creative, it could be exploited. I'm not suggesting that a studio throw up a pristine copy of their latest big-budget release onto Kazaa, but why use the stick when the carrot will almost always work better?

Two interesting ethical questions have been raised by individuals writing from Asia. Several readers have asserted that a primary reason for piracy in that part of the world is financial. Why would anyone go to a store and buy a $30 legitimate DVD when a pirated copy of the same title can be had for $5 (or less)? That's the mindset. Piracy is not viewed as being illegal or unethical. Plus, considering the low wages earned by many workers, the expense of buying a non-pirated DVD is out of the question.

While I understand that perspective, I find it hard to defend. I can argue in favor of someone who has to steal in order to provide their family with food and shelter, but not movies. Entertainment is not a necessity of life. I work in the telecom industry, and twice during the past 3 1/2 years, my job has been in jeopardy. So I prepared budgets detailing how I would proceed in the event of a layoff. One of the first things to go was DVDs. Would I have missed them? Of course, but their importance is insignificant when compared to the need to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.

But I was provided with what I consider to be a compelling ethical argument in favor of piracy. Several countries (notably China) heavily edit American films to remove "objectionable content." For movie-lovers living in those countries, there are three options: (1) Skip the movie altogether, (2) See the censored version, or (3) Obtain a pirated copy of the original. In those circumstances, I would opt for choice #3. This is one occasion when piracy shows respect for the creative process, whereas doing things the legal way supports close-mindedness and censorship.

In conclusion, I would like to say that it was never my intention to tackle every aspect of such a wide-ranging issue as motion picture piracy, nor do I claim to possess definitive solutions. My goal with this essay (which has taken two weeks to post) has been to wade through the pool of topics and overturn a few rocks. Hopefully, a little more thought has gone into this than in most knee-jerk reaction pieces. The bottom line, as I see it, as that while piracy is "wrong" in the strictest sense of the word, it's not going to go away. The studios have to recognize that there is some merit to a familiar old phrase: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

A Busy Week

May you live in interesting times...

In the movie business, months can expire with little happening. Then, all of a sudden, the drought isn't broken by a gentle rainstorm, but by a hurricane. That's what the last week has been like. The Oscar ceremony seems like a footnote on seven days that have seen an avalanche of screenings and the release of the year's most controversial picture. To answer the oft-asked question of why I haven't been writing in this space for a week, it's because I have been seeing movies and writing reviews. And doing radio shows. And phone interviews. And personal appearances. After tonight, I will get a chance to catch my breath.

I intend to write something about The Passion of the Christ in a day or two, focusing a little more on the phenomenon and the reactions to it than on the movie itself. I do not plan to write anything else in "ReelThoughts" about the Oscars. My reactions to tonight's ceremony will get their own space. I'll be doing my semi-regular "live" Oscar commentary starting at 8:00 EST. My fearless predictions will be there, as will my thoughts on the winners & losers, as well as all the garbage that goes into an Oscar telecast. Do not, however, expect comments about any portion of the coverage that would require me to endure even a minute with Joan Rivers.

I watched most of last evening's tape-delayed coverage of the Independent Spirit Awards. For the most part, I believe the Oscars could learn something from this. However, someone has got to do something about the speeches. I am a firm believer in the three-name rule. You can thank three people, period. Bill Murray had the right idea. Make the speech entertaining. Much as I appreciate Charlize Theron as an actress, I was unimpressed by what she had to say. She thanked her lawyer??? Long speeches go with big egos. Thankfully, the Academy Awards impose a 30-second limit. That's one thing they do right.