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Piracy, The Studio System and YOU

This dopey gal has the funny idea that movie piracy is what makes movies so bad.

Haha, yeah…no.

This is the kind of insipid, status quo-perpetuating nonsense that allows things like the current privacy-violating legislation in Washington and heinous money-grubbing hacks in Hollywood and elsewhere to thrive.

After discussing a meme-inspired convention/conference thing where the merit of memes as intellectual property is apparently discussed with complete seriousness, Katie Notopolous says,

I worked at major movie studios for years, and I know exactly the consequences of movie piracy. I was around for several rounds of massive layoffs at studios where thousands of jobs were eliminated. There is a direct and real effect on a large American industry. While Tom Cruise or the president of the studio doesn’t see a dent in his paycheck, you might see the entire accounting department outsourcedto trim overhead.

What Miss Notopolous is forgetting is that the sensibilities with which modern movie-making is done has existed since its inception; make movies cheaply, focusing budget on spectacle and marketing instead of substance, and then watch the dough roll in. It’s not new that Hollywood produces bad movies. Regardless of the effect piracy has had on employment of the “little guys” in LA or NYC, the root of the problem is the very idea of profit over substance. And this seems to be the case in any way you can look at it.

Hollywood produces a film for y dollars. Typically a film is considered to have been a feasible investment if it makes back 1.5y, in other words the studio’s initial investment plus half that. This is a worst case scenario, mind you. They desire much more—as much as possible, obviously.

A project’s potential to meet these standards is the only criteria that is taken into account when a project is developed in the current studio system. Characteristics like plot, character, setting, theme, craft, the talent involved (director, screenwriter, performers, etc.), are taken into consideration only in respect to their ability to be sold. No matter what producers, execs, etc. say about the magic of the movies at their self-congratulatory award shows or benefits or whatever, they will not make a movie if it will not make them money.

Certain standards that have proved to be economically viable are the quickest to be picked up for production—obviously, a sure thing is more likely to be made than something more risky or different. And in most cases, risky or different projects that do get picked up belong to individuals who have already made studios a lot of money.* So genre movies, movies that will star major actors, movies with plots that are not too difficult to follow, movies that will win awards at the aforementioned political back-patting award shows (really, really long commercials, basically), movies based on already-existing material that will sell to built-in audiences and that have books/TV shows/other movies/etc. to act as extreme hype-building, free advertising, etc. get picked up more often than original ideas. That last one—the one about previously existing materials—is where we get the rampant remake/reboot/sequel/prequel/adaptation problem. Not piracy, as Notopolous hilariously suggests.

Once a movie meets these (read: weak) standards (which producers are perfectly willing to alter to their sporadic specifications if need be in the midst of a complicated production process which they otherwise have no part in) the actual talents involved are given millions of dollars with which they can make the schlockiest product possible so long as they do it on or under budget, on time and then subsequently sell that movie as obnoxiously as possible.

This brings me to the most troubling fact in the article in question. In the midst of all the defense of the little guys in the studio system and appeals to handing our money away to these trashy movies studios produce, Notopolous points out this little gem:

Inception had a $100M marketing budget

I shudder at this fact. Alright, obviously this isn’t anything new or really surprising. Most major Hollywood releases have crazy marketing budgets. But in the same article that we are being asked to be empathetic and honest and give these people our hard-earned money, we’re told that a film that already had a $160M production budget had a marketing budget that consisted of another $100M? How are we supposed to view Hollywood and its scumbag executives as anything more than just that, utter scumbags, with knowledge like this? And hey, I like Inception. I like it a lot. I think, despite Christopher Nolan being something of a slimy, Hollywood-spokesman kind of character (in my humble opinion), that he’s made some really great films and I greatly look forward to his next Batman movie. Like, greatly. Like, nerdgasm times a million greatly. But that so much money goes toward something as despicable as marketing** kills me, it soundly eliminates any potential sympathy there could have possibly been in my mind for Hollywood and its Randian cretins.

So an idea is picked up for its salability, marketed with attention toward that salability, distributed on a mass scale so as to pull as much cash from as many audiences as possible (and allegedly even the $9-13 we have to spend on tickets isn’t enough for them most of the time), audiences see it, much money is made…but not enough. Even though most of these major releases—the ones that cost the most money to make—make money (break even and then some), they are not making enough money. Piracy is keeping money from them that they need so desperately that they lay off poor accountants and whoever else, because not enough people wanted to spend money on their excellent movies? On what planet does such an argument make sense?

These movies appeal literally to the lowest-common-denominator, they have little to no substance, and even when they do, it’s a rare sight. That they are lower-than-crap productions is not the fault of piracy—audience members who go to movies for entertainment (and possibly even for substance!) see crap and become demoralized with the fact that for decades they’ve been spending enough money on a cheap dinner for the family on excessively-priced movie tickets for the worst kind of movies. Notopolous provides this gem:

First, several studios shuttered their arthouse imprints like Picturehouse and Warner Independent in the past few years. So no more “good” movies that don’t make huge profits.

Implying it is the responsibility of the independent filmmaker to produce movies of value. That, if studios choose not to distribute independently produced content, good movies are not released. What is this nonsense? Why should it be up to independent filmmakers to produce quality? And let’s be honest. The “independent” fare that Hollywood tends to pick up is still picked up based on its ability to be easily marketed. It has that “indie feel!” It has that popular actor going slightly out of his comfort zone! It’s controversial and people will pay to be able to talk about it! It’s never a question of substance—in the studio system, monetary potential precedes substance always.

Piracy is a result of people sick of repetition and studios constantly taking advantage of a perceived stupidity in the masses. Perhaps the masses when, I dunno, massed, can be stupid. Transformers always sells. But studios appeal to aspects of humanity that can be easily manipulated into blind consumption and empty acceptance of low quality. People who are starting to realize that and who have the ability are now refusing to spend their hard-earned money on garbage. And personally, even if it’s not garbage, if I know my money is going to go to the perpetuation of this system, this means of production, I can’t help but feel guilty for supporting it. But I do. Tomorrow I’ll finally be seeing The Avengers, because I love comic books, I love Joss Whedon, I love the cast and characters. But I hate the empty ideology and overt twisted attitude that surely went into much of its conception, production and distribution. And that’s something you and I are giving our money to every time we pay for a movie ticket.

*For example, king of the ass-kissers Chris Nolan making a pair of extremely successful Batman movies and then getting the opportunity to make odd, cerebral movies in between successive Batman movies, one of which (Inception, which Notopolous discusses in her article) was made on a budget nearly on par with the budget of his second Batman movie, which seems like a triumph for creative filmmaking when in fact it’s just a result of a Batman movie (a franchise with the benefit of both built-in, decades-old marketing and the employment of two of the franchise’s most popular villains, one of which played by a beloved actor who died far too young just before the film’s release) making back a little over five times its original budget and therefore giving Nolan himself a little leaway in terms of creative control. That the “one for them, one for me” aspect of Hollywood filmmaking is thought of as some sort of fair trade or righteous artistic endeavor by the majority of people, including film fans, is insane to me. That a talented mind (and the extremely talented crew that he or she works with) spends millions of dollars on a gamble so that he may or may not get to make the kinds of movies he wants to make is extraordinarily sad to me. Another example of a filmmaker who got to make what he wanted is James Cameron, a self-made millionaire with enough money from his franchises to be able to make whatever movies he wants (and tellingly enough even he chooses to play it safe and make the movies that’ll multiply his excessive riches).

**That’s for another day. Don’t get me started on marketing.

"Film is only entertainment."

One of the most insipid things a person can do is reduce an art medium to one sole goal—most people, even the worst of plebeians, would agree when it comes to things like painting, music, photography and literature. But the one medium with which people have the hardest time making this leap is cinema; so many are willing to reduce its purpose to mere entertainment that, unlike most other art forms, it has for all intents and purposes accepted this position. It’s as if most of the great photographers of the world dropped everything and took up pornography as their sole subject. This sounds like an excessive analogy—maybe it is, I don’t know—but when I look at the nature of film (in America, at least) I see extremely talented individuals employing their skills for the most menial of purposes. That being, spending millions of dollars making movies of extremely temporary interest that appeal to the basest of human instincts (sex, violence, and whatever you want to call the instinct that makes people cry when cute dogs die in movies) and do so for the sake of escapism. A craft that has proved to be fully capable of rousing, provoking, and moving audiences to truly powerful effect (see: A Clockwork Orange, Irreversible, Salo, among many others, more and less grotesque) has stalled into formula and simplicity, and worse, it’s been accepted as such by the majority (even many of those in tune with art in general).

Why is this a problem? What’s wrong with a little escapism? Well, it certainly isn’t little. Clint Eastwood said it best:

This film cost $31 million. With that kind of money I could have invaded some country.

Or saved it.

I won’t pretend all the wealth out there could go to helping those in need all over the world all the time. But this money gets thrown all over the place at so many different resources (worst of all actors, directors, producers etc. who almost definitely get paid far too much) and often for the sake of producing a film that will be seen by a lot of people and be talked about pretty briefly and then quickly tossed aside for the next big thing. And this is no exaggeration—this is a truth acknowledged by those in the industry. It’s how remakes, reboots, etc. are made possible; the industry builds hype for a project, kills the hype once it is released and makes the majority of its money, and then the resources put together to build the hype for that project must quickly be moved to another project. Most high-ranking industry professionals only care about the first weekend and rapidly move on to the next project once its figures are accounted for.

So these huge investments of little practical value are produced for the sake of quick moneymaking and very brief audience pleasure.

Why? Because people want to escape. And some of the best filmmakers out there not only acknowledge this fact but embrace it as if it is some unique, beautiful thing about cinema. It is surely quite powerful that such a thing has been made possible with cinema, but is it a good thing? Does the American public need another way to ignore the realities of the world? There are already plenty of ways for us to ignore and forget reality—most of them are cheap. What we really need is to be forced back into reality. The best films employ the medium for such a purpose. And I’m not talking about gritty realism in movies, I’m talking about movies of all styles and genres (even entertaining ones) that don’t let the audience just sit back and forget about the real world. Such a thing is dangerous. We know it is. The media, our crappy living wage labor jobs, etc. all keep us complacent. It’s important not to let anything else get away with it, least of all something that we spend hard-earned money on. If I’m gonna spend ten dollars—more than an hour of minimum wage work—I want it to show me something amazing, I want it to force me to think, to ask why, to look at the world differently. Too few movies do that anymore. Plenty of movies are entertaining. But let’s stop letting filmmakers and their lazy, greedy employers get away with the bare minimum. Don’t let them take money away from you that you spent hours working for just to forget the world. Embrace the world in all its grotesqueness and evil…and beauty.

It’s not just entertainment. Make film mean something again. And to more than just the nerds out there like me.