File-Trading: The Ultimate in Time-Shifting28 Jun, 2005 By: Holly J. Wagner
OK, I know I've been on this superrelease (movies released to theaters, DVD and cable on the same day) jag for a couple of weeks now, so I'm trying to taper off. But it's not just me, you know. Every major newspaper in the country has been nibbling at the corners of this story in light of sagging box office and a few unusual industry deals. But they don't see it yet.
It occurs to me that the movie industry is going through exactly the music industry fate they are so desperately fighting, but on a front the studios never expected nor fought for.
The arrogant music moguls long ago decided to eliminate singles. Back when us old folks were kids they were called 45s, after the RPMs. Then came tapes and discs, and $20 standard-disc pricing to get the one good song you want. Music companies stopped developing artists and started stamping out cookie-cutter acts for fast money.
Fast-forward to the year 2000, and some punk kid figures out how to put tracks from those CDs online and share them. Napster ate the greedy music industry's lunch. Boo hooty-hoo-hoo. Then it caught on big time, and finally the industry is forced to change to meet demand.
Meanwhile, Shawn Fanning's file-sharing system has not only caught on, it has been improved upon in exactly the way our Founding Fathers hoped it would. Others have built on and refined the technology, and now P2P is a powerful creative engine.
To the music industry, this is a catastrophic loss of control. The airwaves may be theirs by way of Clear Channel and the like, but on the Web everyone gets a chance to be discovered. Big music companies no longer control the pipeline. It's wildly, beautifully, extremely unpredictable and digitally democratic. In the land of the Web site, music companies can't dictate the hits.
Cyberspace is a populist world where the term “hit” becomes ultimately literal.
That scares the holy crap out of the movie studios, even though 90 percent of movie piracy still happens on physical media. People are willing to trade movie files framed in paper bags online and still the studios don't get the message: Your audience wants control of the viewing experience, or at least the timing. It is a key to the success of DVDs.
Yo, Studios! It's also a key to the reason your box office sucks. I have a movie for you. It's called The Revenge of the Focus Groups. You're living it and taking other channels down with you.
A couple of weeks back, John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), responded most articulately to my questions about how the exhibitors feel about the superrelease. Now we come full circle, to what I found to be the most striking among his comments. He said theaters would lose business on studio movies to DVD and would have to start showing independent movies to fill the gap.
HEL-LOOOO! You complain that movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding would never make money unless they have long theatrical runs, then you relegate it to one in 20 screens while the other 19 are shoving The Alamo and XXX down our throats. No wonder people stay home.
And it's the same complaint we hear from the music industry: They can't be starmakers any more. The people choose.
The industry never expected the impact of piracy and P2P to be on theatrical. Video piracy, whether on now-cheesy tape or DVD, has always been with us. Studios pay gazillions for Macrovision's worthless “copy protection” for discs long after the horses have left the barn. Look, you make most of your money on home video, the very thing you demonized in 1984 in the Betamax case. This is the same thing all over again.
In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in MGM vs. Grokster, it behooves our industry to look at what's really going on. Like the VCR, Grokster lets users decide when they want to watch. Clearly, for a lot of people, that is during the theatrical release window.
File-trading is the ultimate in time-shifting. Instead of recording programs to watch later, consumers are recording programs to watch sooner than they would otherwise be able to do it.
The assumption has always been that people download illegally because the movies are free. But what if they download because so few are worth paying for, and the ones that are don't play in their towns? What if they download movies and buy DVDs to be on their own timetables instead of your contrived release windows? What if the game is up? What if John and Jane Q. Public refuse to be pawns for your 90-day profit report?
What if when we look back from Jan. 1, 2006 this is still the worst box office year in two decades or more? We're on the fast track to that dubious distinction already. It's a shame all the studios seem interested in is shooting the messenger.