Unintended consequences

Film piracy has intensified problems afflicting the industry.

Matthew Hoy

In my senior year of high school, I pirated a film for the first time. I had lost my copy of the 2001 stoner comedy “Out Cold,” figuring that since I already owned it there was little harm in nabbing a digital copy.

The next four years were filled with downloading movies, TV series, complete discographies, software and video games. I filled hard drives at a prolific rate, housing terabytes of illegal media in small black containers.

I credit this period with my education in film. Piracy provided a democratization of artwork that I had never encountered, enabling me to amass a vast collection of films and cinema knowledge.

My passion brought me to Los Angeles and led to jobs in the film industry. There I encountered struggling young hopefuls who shared my love of piracy and the film executives who cursed it.

I saw in that divide the true nature of the piracy argument — the wealthy producers vs. a bunch of kids who wanted to watch their movies.

I maintained this worldview until a few weeks ago, when I heard actress Geena Davis speaking about gender disparity in film.

It is an issue that has always bothered me and is easily explained by Hollywood’s need to appeal to the rapidly expanding foreign market.

As Steven Soderbergh explained at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year, appealing to the foreign market requires tropes that have damaged the overall quality of cinema.

The first, and most demonstrable, is that global cinemas want films with little dialogue, preferring special effects and action scenes to tamer, more thoughtful fare.

The second is that they demand characters who are one-dimensional and familiar. For women this means scantily clad eye candy whose only job is to look good and provide the male protagonist with a prize.

Davis made this argument  then took it in an unfamiliar direction, citing decreased media revenues as the source of Hollywood’s collective overreaction toward big budget monstrosities and their sequels.

Indeed, international box office revenues jumped from about $10.6 billion to more than $21 billion from 2001 to 2010, while global media sales and rentals, which peaked in 2004 at about $57 billion, fell to about $43 billion by 2010.

Some of this decline can be attributed to the movement from physical media to cheaper digital alternatives like Netflix. But, while impossible to quantify, piracy’s effect on sales is estimated to measure in the many billions of dollars annually.

Davis’ assertion that this has led to the film industry relying more heavily upon the international market is easy to see in effect. Every year is the “year of the sequel.” Hollywood executives talk at length about the importance of films with international appeal. We can even see that films with African American casts won’t get made because executives are afraid foreign markets won’t find them American enough.

This shift in importance would have happened anyway, but it has been exacerbated by the rapid decline in media revenue, itself accelerated by piracy. It was enough to inspire me to uninstall BitTorrent and ask my friends to do the same. I’m not saying that piracy has caused these adverse effects. I’m just saying that it really hasn’t helped.