Stealing Sith

May 21, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Sorry if some of this sounds redudant, but it's on my mind today...

Two days after I wrote a piece on illegal downloads, the story got life in the mainstream media when it was revealed that a work copy of Revenge of the Sith appeared on-line for downloading. It is reported that at least 16,000 people downloaded (or tried to download) the movie. Does that mean the movie is in financial trouble? Of course not. Early reports indicate that the movie is poised to make more money during its first weekend than any other film in history.

16,000 people represents a drop in the bucket. At $10 a head, that's $160,000 - less than .05% of what Revenge of the Sith will probably earn at the domestic box office. And I believe the loss - if there is a loss - is far less than that. The mainstream media has jumped upon this "sky is falling" story without bothering to look beneath the surface. My guess is that almost all of those 16,000 people have already seen the movie, and will probably see it a time or two more. The reason they're on-line downloading Revenge of the Sith is because they love the film and want it as a part of their collection. When the DVD is realeased, they'll buy that to replace the sub-par work print.

Punitive action against the downloaders isn't going to solve anything. (And, for the record, I have neither downloaded Revenge of the Sith nor searched for a copy to download.) Hauling some poor nerd living in his parents' basement into court for downloading a movie he attended the night before in full costume is going to make the MPAA and Fox look like bullies. It's tactics like this that have turned public opinion against the RIAA. The MPAA looks ready to follow that lead and poison their reputation with the public.

The studios should be active in two areas: figuring out how to use this kind of downloading to their advantage (hire some marketing geniuses) and going after the people who do the uploading. Kill it at the source. Remember: the only known on-line print of Revenge of the Sith is the result of an inside job. Start punishing the people who steal work prints and there will be a drop-off in availability. The studios love posting guards at advance screenings; maybe they should employ a little security at the place where the movies are created.

For those who think I'm an advocate of piracy, let me assure you that's not the case. I'm all for stamping it out - I just think the MPAA isn't going about it in the right way. Target those who illegally mass distribute movies to sell on street corners or in foreign markets, not the poor schlub who just wants a short-term copy to bridge the time between theatrical release and DVD.

Someone challenged me to come up with a solution rather than merely pointing out the problems. So here's one possiblity. It's not the most creative one I have heard, but it will satisfy the true fans. Sell a $60 Revenge of the Sith package that includes 2 tickets to the movie in a theater, a voucher for a copy of the DVD when it is released, and access to a private site where the movie can be legally downloaded. (Protect the file so it can't be copied.) Make the file of decent enough quality that it can be watched on a conventional computer screen with an image that is about 3" wide, but so that it looks like crap if it's expanded (even to full screen). With a film like Star Wars, I bet this would result in a huge spike in revenue.

That's just a thought... and one of many. Movie piracy is a problem. But let's not get sidetracked by alarmist propeganda and ill-informed stories in the media while looking for a legitimate solution. In this case, there are 16,000 sheep and one wolf. To me, it's pretty obvious who the MPAA should be hunting.