Very Bad Pirates

A couple of years ago a young man with impeccable political principles boasted to me, quite innocently, that he had managed to download all my films for free on the internet. On close questioning it became evident that he had not thought through the implications of this for me and all the others who had worked with me (many of whom, on some of the films, had been paid very little or, like me, had deferred their fees and were therefore dependent on ticket and DVD sales to get paid for their labours).

From his perspective it seemed that to have made the films I must, by definition, be rich and privileged, whereas he and his student friends were somehow the deserving poor.

This young man was a self-proclaimed Marxist, idealistic and thoughtful, deeply concerned with economic inequalities as the basis for all ills. But he had grown up in an era of conspicuous consumption. The ‘right’ to have, to own, unconsciously dominating all other considerations. He was also ignorant about the economic realities of film production.

He was not alone. In the same month I went into a bookshop where I heard one of my own soundtracks playing. I looked around for the CD, but then the bookshop owner told me, with an innocent smile, that a friend of hers had downloaded the music free and given it to her to play in the shop. She looked baffled when I gently suggested she might not be so pleased if I proudly told her I wasn’t going to buy one of her books today as I had just downloaded it free from the internet.

The film industry, of course, is opaque and misleading. Glittering premieres, celebrity gossip, inflated star earnings, yachts, mansions and private jets belonging to the visible few at the top-earning end of the industry do not lead to sighs of sympathy when piracy triumphs over commercial sales. Instead there are whoops of glee; the pirates become the romantic heroes in the fight against profiteering exploiters and captains of industry. On the surface of it, seen from this point of view, the little guy seems to win out over the corporate monsters.

A while back I answered a questioner in detail, in another post in this blog, about how it is that even a ‘low-budget’ film like RAGE can possibly cost “only” one million dollars.

The release strategy for RAGE was made in the light of many of these considerations. The decision to ‘give away’ the film for free on people’s mobile phones and on the internet was, we hoped, (in addition to being refreshingly forward thinking and in the spirit of the story), also a way of being one step ahead of the pirates. Instead of needing to steal it by illegally downloading it, people could experience it – above board – as a gift from the filmmakers. Those who could not afford to buy a cinema ticket or DVD would not miss out on the experience if they wanted to have it.

The missing part of this equation is that there has to be some form of circulation of money for it to be possible to make more films that in turn can be given away free. This means cinema tickets or DVD sales. Research in other areas suggests that free downloads do not necessarily stop people going out to the movies or buying DVDs. (or CDs in the case of the music industry). The desire to own a DVD or CD as an object (with the extras and so on as a bonus) can be provoked by a free taster. But it is early days in the unknown and inevitable evolution of the digital age.

However, to state the obvious, it is human beings who make music and films: these people need to eat, pay rent or mortgages and be able to devote themselves fulltime to their work if it is to be worth watching or listening to. It takes time and effort to get good at the job. And the money has to come from somewhere. In a culture less and less inclined to subsidise the arts – and cinema in particular – there has to be an engagement with the realities of finance, the global equations of expenditure and income.

I have spent the last weeks fronting up this way of thinking about RAGE. I have argued for new and fresh ways of thinking about this; less emphasis on prosecuting pirates and more on being inventive and flexible. But yesterday I discovered that – despite the free access to RAGE on mobile phones and the internet – (albeit encrytped in such a way that it can be viewed but not copied) the film has already been copied from the DVD and is available as a pirated download. This is depressing!

The pirates are not romantic heroes. They are Very Bad Indeed. If a low-budget film can be stolen in this way – even when its makers have not yet been paid at all (I promise you this is true) and even when they have offered it as a gift to those who cannot afford it – then the future of filmmaking itself is threatened at its core. It is a question of logic and common sense: if everything is free and the right of the consumer is all, then there will eventually be nothing left to consume. We are all responsible members of a chain of consumption and production and have to find new and just ways of serving each others’ material and emotional needs.

Cinema serves needs that are sometimes hard to define. ‘Entertainment’ touches us in ways we do not always understand. But a society without the arts – music , books, movies etc – would be a dead one, lacking in imagination and food for the soul (whatever we understand this non- material aspect of the self to be).

And just as food for the body costs money to grow and distribute, so do films. A DVD can cost much less than a night out in the pub, another new Tshirt, or many of the other so-called essentials that people do not think twice about laying out their hard-earned cash for.

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