Torrents, piracy and beyond: will the film industry survive?

Written by Nic Wistreich on . Posted in Editorial

cnv00028"So the guys who started this business all cheated somebody to get there, and now they're being cheated, perhaps, by all these crazy, geeky people all over the internet. I must say, my anguish level is not great."
Richard Dreyfuss

"although iTunes has 70% of the pay to download music market - only 1 in 40 of all tracks downloaded on the web are ever paid for. That's 2.5%"

For many years now people have been telling us how much the media world is changing. And it is. Faster than we ever imagined.

I downloaded my first Torrent this week. It took me about 20 minutes to download and install the software and get an album called Wu Orleans - a mash-up of Old New Orleans Blues and the Wu Tang Clan which will never appear in a shop. There’s the rub - if I wanted to pay to buy the album I wouldn’t be able. Like DJ ‘Gnarls Barkleys’ Dangermouse’s Grey Album, and DJ BC’s Let it Beastles it’s in a strange category of illegal downloads where there’s no legitimate alternative. The choice is between never hearing these songs or breaking copyright law. DJ BC and Dangermouse are so good at what they do that the idea of simply never listening to the tracks wasn’t really an option.

But now, as a result, I have a piece of software which could, if I so chose, allow me to download pretty much any album, TV, piece of software or film. For free. I won’t. But I could.

I read last week on the FT that although iTunes has 70% of the pay to download music market - only 1 in 40 of all tracks downloaded on the web are paid for. That’s 2.5%.

I’ll say that again. 2.5% of music downloaded on the internet is paid for. The other 97.5% is ‘illegal’.
Shift this across to the world of film and you may get a glimpse of quite how things are changing, and why some people in the industry are - to put it mildly - concerned.

It would be a great time to be a snake oil salesman. To offer the industry some miracle Digital Rights Management cure, some piece of technology, some dongle that would turn back time to the days when you couldn’t duplicate a bunch of 0s and 1s to create seamless perfect copies. Or to provide the powers that be with the details of a single organisation or server farm which, if they shut  it down, could put an end to these threats and guarantee the multi billion dollar media conglomerates an unimpeded flow of their multi billion dollar revenues.

untitled by jeff Belmonte's Flickr Creative Commons setAnd there’s the rub. While the studios shout that piracy hurts the artists and the filmmakers and musicians, most savvies know that - AT MOST - 10% of the cover price of any DVD or album will go to the original artists or production company. In many cases it’s much less. When you bring creative accounting in, sometimes the people who made the project such a success will never see anything. Forrest Gump earned over $677 million at the box office worldwide, yet famously never made a ‘profit’. The Blair Witch Project, the low budget $35,000 guerilla filmmaking legend (the most profitable film ever made according to Guiness), grossed well over $248 million at the box office alone yet the filmmakers are apparently still yet to see more than their original $1m advance. As Richard Dreyfuss recently said "So the guys who started this business all cheated somebody to get there, and now they're being cheated, perhaps, by all these crazy, geeky people all over the internet. I must say, my anguish level is not great."

Hollywood’s history is splattered with the blood and tears of corruption, dirty deals and backstabbing. Its vast wealth has been accumulated from the work of an array of incredibly talented directors, writers, visionaries, artists, musicians and actors. By standing between these master storytellers and the public, Hollywood has managed to both make vast sums of money, and - more controversially - saturate the world’s cinemas and TVs with a single idealogical voice.

Perhaps it is this factor more than anything else which piracy-celebrating sites such as Sweden's Pirate Bay are trying to draw attention to. As the web helps the world shift closer to a form of balanced global consensus across the billions of citizens who have web access and freedom of expression, then there is inevitably a greater sensitivity to dominance from any one culture. Especially against the backdrop of war, poverty and the looming potential for environmental devastation - all of which seem low on the current US administration's policy agenda. It’s not an anti-American thing - I’m sure there are plenty of people in America who would like to see the media they consume be free from corporate bias, while reflecting a broad and diverse human race, in ways that honestly depict the problems of the world - perhaps even exploring ways they can be resolved.

Hollywood makes some amazing films, but there is still an overwhelming favoritism towards white, English-speaking male heroes, even in a great ‘subversive’ film like A Scanner Darkly. I can’t actually think of a famous Muslim leading actor - that’s terrible. (OK, Wikipedia tells me of Ellen Burstyn, Dave Chapelle and Omar Sharif, but that’s it really. Even tho there are as many Muslims as Christians in the world, just about, Osama bin Laden is no doubt still the most recognisable Muslim face to most Americans).

But I digress. The point is that piracy is an unavoidable reality. The political and ethical issues only increase the resolve of the pirates, as do the bullying and gung-ho attitudes of organisations such as the RIAA and the MPAA.

The nature of torrents as a technology would effectively require the shutting down of the Internet to prevent people from sharing films or music. The imprisonment or fining of individual file sharers may scare some people off doing it, but it is just as likely to alienate and anger potential consumers. Scaled up to the millions of people who ARE doing it, enforcement is arguably impossible to administer. It's really hard to see how ‘the stick’ will work in a realm as open, vast and unregulated as the net.

http://static.flickr.com/96/232091311_38a82bf747.jpg?v=0Last week Universal Music, the world’s biggest music company, announced it was going to try a version of ‘the carrot’ by offering free music downloads to consumers who first watch an advert. The SpiralFrog service will arrive later in 2006 in the US and next year in the UK. It’ll be interesting to see if it works, but if PVRs are anything to go by, people just don’t like be told to do something, least of all watch ‘a word from our sponsors’ and will sooner or later find ways to circumnavigate. But at least the industry is trying.

So what is to be done? Without revenues the music and film industries cannot survive. Films are the most expensive of art forms. Most artists are busting to give up the day job, and surely the more talented and committed should be able to? Is it done for? Can there be no more professional film and music production in a digital future?

Well I don’t know and I don’t want to Snake Oil it by saying I know how to prevent that. But it seems pretty unlikely. In fact, so long as people are prepared to use money for buying and doing stuff, it’s maybe impossible.

Think of buskers. No-one needs to pay them for their music. There is no contract or rights management software which requires you to throw some money in their hat - nor, for that matter, are you guaranteed a nod and a smile when you do. But people do. And good buskers make good money.

What we may be witnessing is a massive shift in the way the media industry operates from a relationship between creative people and consumers that is mediated by large multinational business, to one which is mediated as transparently as possible by technology, by the web. In other words, producers communicating with and selling directly to audiences.

I think of Kevin Smith, cult director, who showed just quite how creative one can be on a microbudget with Clerks and who now blogs and chats with his fans through silentbobspeaks.com (thanks Chris from Dundee for alerting me to this). Another site - jayandsilentbob.com sells all manner of merchandise - t-shirts, action figures, fake props, real props, posters and of course copies of his films. Almost all of which come signed by Kevin Smith himself. Given the adoring fandom which surrounds Smith (his Edinburgh Film Festival appearance sold out in minutes), you wonder if he could finance a film directly from these sites - pre-selling signed copies of the DVD and auctioning off roles as extras. Even without this, the shift is clear - as a film lover the impression is that there is no studio managed interface between you and Kevin Smith. When he interrupts a blog post to have sex with his girlfriend, you know that he is talking to you directly, without the bullshit - and you, in turn, buy from him his films (and Shot Glasses, Banky Hats and Silent Bob Coats).

untitled by Jeff Belmonte from his Flickr Creative Commons poolWe now live in an era where a blogger like Josh Ellis could ask his readers to pay him $500 so he could travel to Nevada and write an essay about his trip to the origins of the Manhattan project or where Daniel at PouringDown.tv could raise over $2000 from dozens of readers via Fundable.org to go and make a film a day on a week long road trip for the Seven Maps project.

The landscape is changing, and the thing that struck me at Edinburgh last week was quite how unaware and unexcited the UK industry seems to be. Of course the fact that most of these shifts are coming from the US is perhaps part of the problem. A suspicion towards technology in the UK has been going on since the levelers (and probably right back to the days when people started cooking meat on fires before eating it). And it’s understandable - I must confess given how addictive things like the web are I do share concerns of a youtubed future where everyone watches - and contributes to - their own personalized channel without enganging with the outside world - or their families - much at all. But these changes are happening, they are unavoidable, and sticking one’s head in the sand may only increase the shock once the shifts in the landscape have settled down, and reduce the potential influence.

"Think of buskers. No-one needs to pay them for their music. There is no contract or rights management software which requires you to throw some money in their hat - nor, for that matter, are you guaranteed a nod and a smile when you do. But people do."

For there are big questions to consider. Should you, for example, as a filmmaker, put your energies into befriending public and private financiers who may (or may not) one day fund your work, and make best efforts to present yourself to them as a safe bet, nothing too unpredictable, irrational or headstrong. Or would it make more sense to build up a web audience. A collection of blog readers, vlog watchers, buddies, subscribers and people you chat with online, who probably are most interested in the qualities as a filmmaker which make your work less like everything else they see; that which is your uniqueness, your humanness, your individuality.

It’s a bit of Cluetrain conclusion, and one that’s in the front of my mind right now as I try and weigh up a similar choice with Netribution. Should the site - and indeed myself as its cofounder - focus on wooing screen agencies, quangos and production companies for a bit of cash so that it can stay sustainable and launch some pretty interesting projects. Or should we focus on making - when inspired - great original content that will build up our audience to such a level where this isn’t a factor. I know which of those paths would allow me to keep the most of my personality intact - and as a filmmaker - that’s more appealing. But at the same time there are some amazing things that, with a bit of cash, could be really quite useful to independent filmmakers. And if we are shifting from studio dominated content distribution to a creative dominated system, then it would be a unbalanced system if all of the mechanisms for achieving this global collaboration and distribution was US-based and focused.

sky1.jpg

One can imagine the whole infrastructure, how it would need to work, how one could build a kind of Wikipedia for independent creatives, an open source media multinational, a technology as an alternative to the power of the media conglomerates to connect individuals throughout the entire process as transparently and efficiently and impartially as possible. It seems, the more I look at it, inevitable and unavoidable. Some could even argue that the web as it stands now is an early framework for such a structure.

I just hope that when the final pieces come together they don’t come attached - as the vast majority of the media, including the big sites like MySpace, Blogger and Flickr - as simply a continuation of the shareholder-accountable media world built around a drive to increase profit margins.

Just imagine it - a human-centric, socially-accountable media ecosystem, built around great art, music, storytelling and ideas.

(Images by OneSmallVoice and Jeff Belmonte from Flickr CreativeCommons pool)

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