It’s a sad day indeed, for another media pundit has discovered the ugly ease of piracy and is calling for the complete destruction of the release schedule structure because he just cannot wait two days to see more episodes of Homeland. This time it’s Frederic Filloux writing for The Guardian, and his quandary is not to be taken lightly: the poor man paid $32 for the first season of the twisty CIA show only to find himself hooked, but when the next season arrived on September 30th, he had “no alternative but to download free but illegal torrent files.” Oh, no! Like a neck-scratching addict, he had to turn to crime in order to get his fix because his only other option, a hellish last resort, was to wait a few days to see it on TV.
So let’s burn this mother down.
Filloux argues that the antique nature of the current stratified release schedule should be replaced by universal availability because he wants everything right now, and, okay, maybe all of his frustration is warranted even if his response isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing the reality of how we consume media now, and we can take it without any kind of value judgment, but this is yet another situation where someone is calling ignorantly for the castle to be destroyed because the gate he goes in through all the time was closed for the day.
We’re no stranger to discussing piracy here (we’ve also invited pirates to share their perspective). It’s a complex issue, one that large companies and fans alike will have to struggle through in the coming years, but there are a few serious reasons why the release window can’t be collapsed wholesale.
For one, it’s the only protection on the film side that theaters have from losing out completely to other viewing opportunities. Filloux offers them a whole month to showcase movies in his plan with an extendable option period if the movie is a huge hit that continues to get crowds. It’s not like he’s suggesting all movies should debut online and on disc the day they hit theaters, but it’s not hard to see why his solution isn’t possible. It wouldn’t be financially feasible for movie theaters, and a potentially shifting release date would make marketing home release virtually untenable.
But why protect theaters? A lack of innovation and an inability to keep rotten, cell phone-owning apples from ruining the experience is one reason they’re losing ground, and it’s entirely their fault. However, there’s more than just the nostalgia and raw magic of seeing a big screen picture with a bunch of other people that’s at stake here.
For all the mud slung at them recently, movie theaters are still the only method, not just the dominant one, that movies have to gain massive, international audiences. They’re the birthing canal of blockbusters and break-even money alike. As an easy experiment to check this, try to name 5 movies that made more than $100m without a decent theatrical release. What about $200m? $500m? (If you don’t care to think in terms of money, think of it terms of 20 million, 40 million and 100 million audience members.)
Wantonly destroying theaters or even failing to protect them would be like knocking the foundation out from under a house.
The double edge of the internet is that while making things available to people is insanely easy, it’s also inversely difficult to gain attention in a sea of other bits of entertainment all fighting for undivided eyes, and feature-length films haven’t figured out how to navigate the territory all that well yet. No, theaters aren’t blameless for what’s happening to exhibition, but they will fall if the numbers continue to drop, and then we’re in apes on horseback territory. Dogs living with cats territory. How will content creators and marketers continue to create top level work and get it out to the masses without theaters creating popularity in the public space?
Filloux seems to recognize that in mentioning that the effect of a wide release in the US is what causes angst for people like him in other countries. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to understand how that system really works considering that it’s precisely that kind of ocean-traveling word of mouth that studios (not to mention pretty much all indies) depend on to pre-sell foreign distribution rights or to hype movies beyond our borders. The whole thing is designed to create a desire in foreign markets to see their movies. His angst is exactly what they’re looking for. Is there a group out there willing and technologically able to ease their own frustration by illegally downloading stuff? Sure, but the tipping point to make content providers cry Uncle isn’t here yet, and when it comes, the resulting new structure probably won’t look like the smiling green fields that some imagine.
Although that’s something interesting to consider. It makes sense for some stations (like NBC) to toss their content online the next day, but for HBO and its commercial-free Game of Thrones, there’s very little real reason to sabotage itself by making subscription-based access pointless. That’s where they make the money that enables them to create the shows that people can’t wait to pirate. Even if (or, rather, when) HBO decides to create an online service not tied to cable access, the price will most likely include a built-in premium for getting the content earlier. That’s not a bad thing. If enough people are willing to pay more to stop the hunger pangs, then everyone wins, but for someone who just wants to watch one show in real-time, signing up for a year-long, $120 service may be too much to ask when the show will be on iTunes in a few months for 1/4th the price.
Beyond that, a universal release schedule for the entire planet is simply unfathomable. And here, Filloux really shows his naïveté:
As for the TV shows such as Homeland and others hits, there is not justification whatsoever to preserve this calendar archaism.They should be made universally available from the day when they are aired on TV, period. Or customers will vote with their mouse anyway and find the right file-sharing sites.
Because this would all happen by magic — avoiding hundreds of companies with competing/favorable interests, international copyright laws, foreign distribution deals by region, IP blocks by country, and the threat of cutting out television companies like the Homeland-airing Channel 4 by giving the web first crack at the content. It’s a far, far more complicated issue than the writer cares to give it credit for.
Whether it’s television or film, the major players go into detailed research on trends by region based against what local fare might be released or available around the same time, and they make decisions from there. Does that mean France is going to get Prometheus before Germany does? Yes. On this front, I don’t just have great sympathy I’m living the reality of a stratified release because I’m living abroad, and somehow I make it through each day without clutching my pearls and tipping over. But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a “Please, sir, may I have some more”/”We get what we get when we get it” attitude so much as it’s the cool-headed acceptance of a reasonable way that things work (along with the realization that if a movie hitting the States won’t hit Germany until a week or a month after, there are literally millions of other things to watch in the meantime). Filloux seems to be suggesting that Homeland should air at the same time worldwide (forget about time zones) and simultaneously show up on the internet because he’s impatient.
The raw truth is that if money is being made in home video, studios and distributors want to give that the best chance to succeed. Once the market shifts more, and it will, then it will naturally slide toward quicker availability for certain media. But for calling it an archaic system, not much has really changed in 40 years. You put an object inside a rectangular object and it plays your movie. That’s the ballgame. Now, you can press a button on your remote and have a movie go directly to your other rectangular object for a limited amount of time, which is great, but it’s not the lightning bolt that will change 100 years of how things have been done.
It would be amazing to have all movies and television shows at everyone’s fingertips at all times. It would also be great to have peace in the Middle East, free pizza for all starving children and a replacement for the BCS. There are very real, very complicated business-side issues at work here that go beyond one fan wanting something and expecting companies to recognize that need in order to fill it. Fans especially should be intimately aware of these issues, because we will be on the forefront of changing the landscape. Perhaps a radical shift is needed, and maybe it will happen, but it won’t come because someone couldn’t wait two days to watch Homeland.
Feel free to devolve into an argument about whether piracy is theft or not in the comments section.