Pirates of the Orient

May 30, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

After spending some time wandering through the malls and markets of Manila, I have come to the conclusion that the MPAA faces a huge battle in curtailing piracy in Asia (the portion of the world where it is most prevalent). With a challenge so great, and with real revenue being lost at astounding rates, I have to question why they would expend so much time and money going after on-liners. The reason is, of course, publicity. But the fact is, they're spitting into the wind. Even if they eliminated on-line piracy altogether, it is unlikely to make a significant difference to the bottom line (for reasons previously discussed).

I don't have specific facts and figures, but I would guess that, in Manila, out of every 100 DVDs sold, 95 are pirated. It's a matter of both ecomomics and title availability. Legitimate DVDs can be found, but the variety is poor (mostly recently released blockbusters and a few "speciality" titles). On average, they cost between $9 and $12 - cheap by U.S. standards, but not close to the $1 for which any pirated title is available. And it's not like it's difficult to find pirated movies (even though they cannot legally be put on display) - I had two different vendors approach me in a marketplace asking if I was interested in buying DVDs.

We're not talking about poor-quality knockoffs, but products that look and play exactly like the sanctioned versions, which sell for ten times the price. When it comes to ten-for-one, it's pretty obvious why few people in Manila buy the "real" thing. And issues of ethics - such as revenue being taken away from those who produced the films - are dismissed with contempt. Why should someone in Manila, who struggles to make $50 a month, care about some "rich" guy in Hollywood? (By comparison, even struggling film technicians a lot make more.)

There are probably only two ways to stamp out piracy in Asia: change the culture (impossible) or cut off the source material (nearly impossible). So the MPAA has a real dilemma. If they think "education" is going to make a difference, they're misguided. Culture change requires revolutions, not pamphlets and advertisements. The fact is that the only ones who know piracy is "wrong" are the tourists, and not even they care. The people living in Asia see pirated DVDs as another buying option - and, at this time, the smart one. If you spend $10 to get essentially the same product you could get for $1, does that make you ethical? Or does it make you foolhardy?

Those who buy pirated DVDs do not consider themselves to be criminals, even though movie piracy is illegal in the Philippines. They're simply taking advantage of a system that is already in place and is generally recognized as legitimate. It's like someone in the United States driving faster than a posted speed limit. That's a violation of the law, but how many speeders consider themselves to be criminals? It's not as outrageous a comparison as it may seem.

The only realistic way to stop the mass purchasing of pirated films in Asia is to kill the distribution networks, and that's a herculean task. It's not something the MPAA can do alone, but it would seem that their time, money, and effort would be better expended in this arena than through prosecuting lone downloaders. (The MPAA's response to this, by the way, is that they are engaged in the struggle against piracy "in all appropriate areas, including [both] on-line... and international theft.")

I know I have written about piracy a lot since I started the nearly-every-day ReelThoughts postings, but, having gotten to see it first-hand recently, it has given me a greater feeling for how difficult it will be to reduce on an international level, and how irrational it is to target on-line downloading, when that's such a small percentage of the problem.

No Lack of Sith

I had initially hoped to visit a Philippine movie theater while in Manila. The idea was to get a feeling for whether there's an appreciable difference in the experience. I have never seen a movie outside of North America, and was curious about whether the audience reacts differently, whether there are the same deficiencies in technical quality apparent throughout the United States, etc. At this point, however, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. The reason is simple: Revenge of the Sith. In some Manila multiplexes, this is the only movie showing. I have seen Sith twice, and, while I enjoy the movie, I'm not planning to watch it a third time until it's available on DVD.

My other choices seem to be limited to three: House of Wax, Madagascar, and Unleashed, none of which merits repeat viewing. There's not even a locally-produced Philippine movie showing within a reasonable distance of my hotel. So, much as I might be interested in experiencing the Manila movie-going experience, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. My wife assures me that I'm not missing anything, though. And there's probably something perverse about traveling half-way around the world to see a movie.