because no one will listen to what the ‘Hurt Locker’ pirates are saying

It’s hard to imagine that the people involved with this endeavor are failing to see what’s really going on here. But on the off chance that they don’t, I’ll explain. As an introduction, The Hollywood Reporter offered us this exclusive scoop earlier this week:

The war against movie piracy is getting downright explosive. We’ve learned that the producers of the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” are preparing a massive lawsuit against thousands of individuals who pirated the film online….

Voltage Pictures, the banner behind the best picture winner, has signed up with the U.S. Copyright Group, the Washington D.C.-based venture that, as we first reported in March, has begun a litigation campaign targeting tens of thousands of BitTorrent users.

According to Thomas Dunlap, a lawyer at the firm, the multi-million dollar copyright infringement lawsuit should be filed this week. He declines to say exactly how many individuals will be targeted, but expect the number to be in the tens of thousands, if not more. “Locker” first leaked onto the web more than five months before its U.S. release and was a hot item in P2P circles after it won six Oscars in March. Despite the accolades, the film grossed only about $16 million in the U.S.

Let’s break this down: The Hurt Locker, as David Chen at /Film notes, “was leaked onto the internet not too long after it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2008 [where it garnered mostly rave reviews], far in advance of its June 2009 theatrical release.” This means that unless someone camcordered the film at Venice — which seems vanishingly unlikely; pirates are only interested in pristine files, anyway — the film was leaked by someone on the inside who had access to the source material. If the producers of the film truly wanted to crack down on piracy, that’s where they’d be attacking: You don’t prosecute the people who picked up currency blowing in the wind on a public street, you slam the guy who opened the door to the armored truck and started throwing bills onto that street.

Second: The old paradigm of film distribution is dead. The people who love movies are screaming this, but no one will listen. Audiences want to see films on their own terms. And I’m not just talking about the fact that multiplexes are horrible places and people would rather watch a movie from the comfort of their own sofas, instead of from a circle of hell where babies who should be home in bed are screaming their heads off and bland, artery-busting snacks require that you take out a second mortgage. I’m also talking about the fact that if your film gets great reviews at a festival, people don’t want to wait five months to see that film: they want to see it now. The whole idea of “seasons” for movies — summer for blockbusters kids like (because they’re off from school), autumn for serious awards-baiting fare (because… well, I dunno: Autumn means back-to-school solemnity?), winter for the dumping ground of crap (because everyone’s recovering from the holidays) — is dependent upon the notion that people make an effort to go out to the movies, and need time and money to do so. But people clearly don’t want to do that anymore. (Though perhaps they would if the multiplexes were better. But that’s a different rant.) And anyway, The Hurt Locker didn’t seem to want to slot itself into that “seasons” paradigm anyway, or it wouldn’t have been released for a full year after that Venice debut (or it would have been released simultaneously with Venice). So what the hell…?

If a movie like The Hurt Locker gets major buzz off a festival, what’s the point in holding is back for half a year? The fact the people were downloading a pirated version of the film should tell producers something: People want to see a movie when it’s hot. Why didn’t the producers of The Hurt Locker take advantage of this? (Yes, of course, there are concerns about available screens and the like. But available screens are actually all but limitless, if you think beyond the multiplex: Everyone has at least one, and likely many more, in their homes.) This became even more true after the film won the Oscar for Best Picture: it got even hotter on the pirate circuit (though it had already been released on DVD at that point). Greg Sandoval at Media Maverick writes:

It’s not difficult to guess why Voltage managers are so fired up. They won an Academy Award but only pocketed $16 million in the United States.

It’s probably frustrating for the producers to have earned so little from a movie that generated so much critical praise. How much piracy can be blamed for that isn’t clear.

You know what can be blamed for this? At the widest point of its North American release, The Hurt Locker was playing in only 535 theaters. Six hundred theaters is the bare minimum to be considered a “wide” release, and even that leaves large swathes of North America out of the fun. Most people who wanted to see The Hurt Locker had no legitimate way of doing so!

And you know what? The Hurt Locker has actually done very well for itself. It cost $15 million to make, and it has earned more than $40 million worldwide. It has earned another $28 million through DVD sales.

Here’s the thing: People who love movies are trying to tell Hollywood what’s wrong with how Hollywood is giving us movies, but Hollywood won’t listen. (And yes, I know that The Hurt Locker was not a Hollywood film, but an indie. Which makes listening to one’s audience even more vital, because you’re working on much smaller margins than fat-wallet Hollywood is.) I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall, I’ve said this so many times, but it’s pointless for the industry to fight this. Hollywood needs to listen to its customers, who are yelling for DVD and/or on-demand releases on the same day a film debuts on big screens… and that day had better not be too long after select audiences (such as at a festival) get to see a film. Because once word gets out, all the marketing in the world cannot trump the enthusiasm of audiences. If people want to see your movie, that’s a good thing. Give them ways to see your movie legitimately, and they’ll do so.

As a maker of the kind of intellectual property that is easily stolen — and frequently has been; I’m forever coming across sites that have reposted my work in its entirety — I don’t condone theft, and I know that unless creative people are compensated for their work, much of their creative output will go away. It drives me crazy to see people on the subway buying bootleg DVDs of movies currently in theaters: I always want to ask those buyers if they realize that the actors and directors and other creative people whose work they enjoy do not get compensated for that work when you buy a DVD from a pirate.

But that’s not what’s happening when movie fans, out of frustration, download a bootleg of a movie. (Or a TV show. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am downloading files of the latest episodes of Doctor Who soon after they air on the BBC, which is an illegal act. I jaywalk, too, and that’s also illegal, because that’s often the most convenient way to cross the street. Downloading Doctor Who the only way I can see those episodes when they’re new. But I’ve also shelled out dough for the BBC America iTunes downloads, which are a few weeks behind the BBC, and I’ll buy the DVD set when it’s released as well, even though I’ll probably receive a press review copy, too. If what I’m doing is illegal, well, it feels more like civil disobedience. The law needs to catch up with reality.) Money is not changing hands… but it would if there were a method for it to do so!

To borrow a phrase I stumbled across recently, the barn door has sailed. It’s time for Hollywood to stop bailing out the Titanic and get in the lifeboats with the rest of us.

This has been your WTF Thought for the Day.

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