May 4, 2009
Piracy. It’s being discussed a lot at the moment because everyone in the Hollywood community is wondering how it will affect (or how Fox will say it has affected) box office for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a near complete workprint of which (which I didn’t watch) leaked about a month prior to the film’s recent release. It appears to be going quite well for Fox so far, with Wolverine apparently clearing $35 million in the US on Friday alone. So is piracy affecting the industry, why are people engaging in it, and what happened to the cinema experience?
Just before my 8th birthday I fell in love. I know what you’re going to say, what does an 8 year old know about love? Surely it was just a crush? But no, this was genuine, and it’s lasted, as I approach my 28th birthday I’m still as in love as I ever was with both movies and the cinema. Sure, we have our arguments, and she’s disappointed me more times than I can tell you, but every time my faith begins to falter she’ll deliver a Martyrs, or a No Country For Old Men and I’ll fall in love all over again. Slightly overextended metaphor aside, after 20 years I still can’t get enough of the movies, and the ultimate way to see them, despite its many frustrations, remains the cinema. That’s the main reason I can’t understand the fear about piracy.
Movies, most of them anyway, are made specifically for the cinema, they are designed to be projected on huge screens, to fill your field of vision with an artfully composed picture, and to envelop you with dynamic surround sound. You can replicate this at home, if you’ve got a fantastic projector, a high quality and very large screen, a quality surround sound system, and enough space to make sure they are all positioned so as to do the best possible job of replicating the cinema experience. For most people though this is prohibitively expensive, and so the home viewing experience becomes, technically, a pale shadow of the cinema experience. And what I’m talking about is the DVD or BluRay experience, which is leaps and bounds better than any you’ll get from seeing a pirate film online.
Now, I’m not by any means radical when it comes to the piracy issue, in many ways I think the distributors are digging their own hole, I’m not one of those movie fans who, on hearing you say ‘I got a pirate copy of extremely average blockbuster A’ is going to lecture you and then call FACT. My argument with it isn’t so much the morality, it’s the quality. Online video has evolved massively, but it’s still pretty poor quality, certainly I haven’t seen anything (even DVD rips) that manages to replicate DVD quality, certainly not at a screen size that is comfortable to watch anyway, and honestly, if you can see something at its optimal quality, as it was supposed to be seen, just by going to the cinema then you shouldn’t be watching it in hideously compromised fashion for free.
Here’s the other thing. If people have made art that you have seen and enjoyed don’t they have the right to be paid? I know how the argument goes ‘oh these huge film companies have so much money, they don’t need my ticket money’. This is probably true at an individual level, but the problem is that a lot of individuals are making this argument, and that does begin to add up. I wouldn’t care really, because frankly you’re right, most mainstream films don’t deserve your hard earned cash, and most, at least currently, don’t need it, because there are enough of us to mitigate against you. However, it’s not those films I worry about, it’s the smaller stuff. Don’t be fooled into thinking that these conglomerates don’t have a stake in the independent scene, even if it’s just as an arm of their distribution business, and what, if enough of the audience stays away from the so called sure things that it begins to really be felt in the studios bank balances, do you think will be first thing they’ll axe? It will be any money going to those smaller, more niche market films, they will be sacrificed to make sure that the juggernauts remain profitable, and cinema will be infinitely the worse for it.
Another thing that must shoulder some of the blame for the rising levels of piracy is the cinemas themselves. Most audiences aren’t all that unruly as a whole, but many - most even - do have those one or two bad apples. The old couple who won’t stop explaining the film to one another, the kids who won’t stop texting, the guy who not only lets his phone ring, but actually answers the bloody thing or, sometimes, the projectionist who can’t set the frameline properly. All these things can be put down to one essential problem – the lack of ushers, and the fact that due to health and safety regulations, ushers are now essentially powerless to stop misbehaviour. When I saw Revolutionary Road one drunk audience member shouted at the screen and generally caused a disturbance throughout the entire film. Ushers came in and attempted to shush and eject him, but to no avail, because, due to this fucking litigation culture, they weren’t allowed to touch him. The entire audience complained, and the experience was largely ruined, but nothing could be done. I wouldn’t blame anyone in that audience if the next time they wanted to see a movie they downloaded it.
The other problem with cinemas, for me anyway, is the impersonal nature of them. I spend a great deal of time (at least one day a week for the past four years) at the cinema, generally at multiplexes. I don’t hate multiplexes, but they’re like shopping centres for movies – huge soulless constructions where you’re herded with a crowd to see and buy whatever is new and popular. If you’re only way to see movies is at a multiplex, again, I can understand why piracy seems an attractive option. Again though all people need to do to get away from that soulless experience is to open their eyes for a short while. There are still literally hundreds of independent cinemas out there that not only, generally, have more interesting films playing but each have their own personality as a place. Seeing a film with a full house at London’s wonderful Prince Charles Cinema (matinees from £1.50) is brilliant experience because the auditorium is great, the seats are comfy and the crowd and the staff is generally composed of film fanatics, and it shows, because I’ve never had film interrupted by talking or phones there. Get the cinema experience right and it’s unbeatable.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t indulged in piracy. Sometimes it’s been because my curiosity has just got the better of me (from the sublime experience of seeing No Country For Old Men early, to the ridiculous one of checking if The Hottie and the Nottie could really be as bad as Mark Kermode had said it was), but in the main it has simply allowed me to see films that don’t seem to have a UK release in their future. Grace is Gone, for example, still has no confirmed UK date. I saw it about a year ago and absolutely loved it, and I wish some distributor would get off their arse and release it, but if they won’t then I will recommend that people track it down and see it online. I’ve seen things from the archive that simply haven’t come to DVD, and are tough to find on video (the sublime Shop Around the Corner, whose hideous remake You’ve Got Mail has been available since the earliest days of DVD, comes to mind). The bottom line is that if no company is going to elect to release a film then there is no legitimate way to see it. In this way I believe that piracy can do the industry a service. It can send a message, telling companies that we want them to release these films, that we will rent or buy them if they do, that the interest is out there if they will make the effort. This way piracy can make the movies better, it can allow companies to test the water for a film before going to the expense of a global release, and it can help make the spread of films we see ever more diverse, which can only be a good thing.
Online video is far from fully developed, and I think the future will be interesting, I can see it leading towards a Spotify like service for movies, streaming near endless content for free, with a few ads to help foot the bill. Even when that day comes though, you’re far more likely to find me three rows from the back of a big dark room, watching movies the way we’re supposed to watch them, looking for the next great one.