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12.03 Newton’s Theory

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There be pirates here!

Movie industry cries, “Stop, thief!”

December 2003 – It may be difficult to sympathize when a bunch of multi-millionaires get together and grouse publicly about how that guy selling bootleg videos and DVD’s out of the trunk of a ’77 Chevy Nova is destroying the integrity of the industry, but they do have a point.

Those who have partaken in such a down-low transaction often justify the purchase by citing the prohibitively high cost of ticket prices, while this link in the black market “Circle Of Life” is actually partly to blame for it. We say that we have paid for enough movies in our lifetimes, so the industry “owes us”. Some have even gone so far as to justify this with a sort of sociological gang mentality, stating that we feel entitled to copy movies freely, as they are part of our common culture.

Nice try, kid, but to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “A theft is a theft, no matter how small.” Having cheap flicks to watch on a Saturday night is not your right.

The studio watchdog group The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) pegs the annual loss to such activities at around $3 billion. That’s a 3 with nine zeros after it, and it ain’t chump change. With the average studio film costing around $55 million to make, eliminating such a loss could conceivably mean another movie to choose from every week of every year (not to mention what an indie could do with even a fraction of that bankroll.)

Never mind that the majority of these illegal camcorder dupes look like crap. Did the director of photography just pray that his meticulous visual compositions would be washed-out and grainy, enjoyed on a 13″ computer monitor? It’s really quite simple — you watch you pay. Bootlegging anything is distinctly un-American. You don’t want to let the terrorists win, do you? Seriously, though, piracy is bad business, and is not a victimless crime. Our entire economy is based on free commerce, and when that flow is interrupted in any way, something’s got to give.

While the MPAA has always fought against piracy for its clients, the studios, its proactive approach to getting people to think of piracy as a crime has come into the public arena recently in a number of ways.

First, they started running PSA’s in theaters this past summer, schooling moviegoers as to how piracy affects the industry as a whole, as well as the regular folks who work in it. Coupled with the cable industry’s paranoia campaign targeting cable thieves and the music industry’s fierce front line attack against illegal downloaders, the subject now has an unprecedented visibility in the media.

Second, MPAA head Jack Valenti, who deemed piracy “a disease of business”, announced this September an extremely unpopular unilateral ban on “screeners,” that cherished industry perk prevalent during the home stretch to Golden Globe and Oscar nomination time. A screener is a full-length VHS or DVD version of a film that is usually still in theaters, sent to voters and press alike around this time of year. Apparently, he felt that the industry and the press itself could not be trusted, even going so far as to suggest discretionary pat-downs and “wandings” of patrons and critics alike at advance theatrical screenings.

But what will the effect of this campaign be? It is both naïve and illogical to think that all piracy will cease as a result, but if the MPAA doesn’t resort to fear-mongering, and the studios do not do something silly like raise the retail price of DVD’s to make up for the dying former cash cow that was the VHS market, more people will start to think twice about putting money in the pockets of people who have no right to it.

You can learn more about the MPAA at its website at www.mpaa.org.

Robert Newton operated Park Ave’.s Starship Video from 1995-2003 and is a filmmaker himself.

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