“To the Point” is a bi-monthly column about the world of film from our own Damon Houx. He may say things you don’t agree with–and that’s sort of the point.
Recently The Oatmeal did a cartoon about a guy wanting to watch Game of Thrones, and finding it impossible to do so unless he pirated a copy. Alas, this was printed a mere two weeks before the DVD and Blu-ray box set hit stores, leaving the cartoonist looking, well, like an entitled prick. It’s hard to know how long this cartoon took to draw, though that’s little excuse. Piracy is wrong, end thought, but it’s a tricky subject.
I say that because – for anyone of the pre-internet era – if you were a really serious fan of an artist, you probably owned some things that weren’t entirely legal. In the era of brick and mortar, many record shops and video shops owned things to which royalties were not paid. In the 90′s I loved artists like Liz Phair and P.J. Harvey, and saw both a number of times in concert. Local record shops would often have CD’s of their shows. I bought them. I didn’t think about the legalities because I was exchanging cash for those goods. And as a film fan there were a number of places like Video Search of Miami that would have widescreen copies of films on VHS that weren’t available stateside, or weren’t available uncut. So myself (or friends) would purchase films like Deep Red or Le Samourai to see them widescreen, or uncut, or see them period.
And as I grew as a film fan, my network of friends grew, and we would often trade copies of films that were never released on home video, mostly taped off of cable or late night television. Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt, Jean Renoir’s Woman on the Beach, or shlock oddities like The Frozen Dead had a certain currency – just as laserdisc collectors (who were faced with hundred dollar price tags for single movies) would often loan each other their films. I would watch second or third generation copies of things just to have seen them. None of this was illegal per se, and like many people I grew up in a library, where the system was that you would borrow things for a while free of charge (unless you incurred late fees). Even in the 1980′s, libraries were renting videos, and so I made my way through numerous films free of charge. But the sense of a lending library makes sense.
The digital age changed everything. Availability became less of an issue as many films that were not available stateside were made available through either domestic release, or through imports. But then came torrents and illegal or off-shore sites that offered films. Where I grew up there weren’t many street corner vendors of pirated movies, though I understand (through Seinfeld) that bootlegs were a common occurrence in some cities. In an era where access to movies and music has become that much easier, torrenting makes it all available on line, free of charge, push of a button.
Though it’s easy to wag a finger at corporate monoliths, I do know that no independent filmmaker wants to hear about it, and with an industry that favors micro- or macro-budgeted films, it’s the middle-sized films that seem hurt the most. The push toward IMAX and 3-D has as much to do with making more money as it does avoiding piracy – making the big screen experience worth the extra dollar. Ti West wrote an impassioned plea not to pirate his movie, and if you talk to low budget filmmakers, piracy is the bane of their existence. On top of which social media allows filmmakers to see people tweeting et al. about how they downloaded their movie. Trust me, they’re watching. The problem, which The Oatmeal – possibly unintentionally – revealed is immediacy, which makes most pirates look like entitled babies. Wanting to watch something now for free is unarguably a jerk move.
The issue here isn’t about trying to see the obscure or the old, and that’s why this is such a headache, and why it’s a headache for people like me. There’s no excuse for pirating things that are readily available, or will be with a modicum of patience. If you want to watch something that’s on HBO right now, you have two options: get HBO or wait. If you want to see a film that’s never been released on DVD and is only available through gray market channels, well, I understand, but with most studios now pursuing Movies On Demand for some of their more obscure catalog titles, even that excuse now longer has much weight. But the problem with Piracy isn’t usually about people exhausting opportunities, it’s about not wanting to spend money. That’s just stealing. And for that there is no argument. But as someone who long trafficked in gray market material, I’m stuck holding in my “but’s.”
What was your first experience with piracy?