Thursday, July 05, 2007
Free Screening Tonite

I have a regular round of paperwork that I do the first week of every month, but with a holiday in the middle of the week coupled with a minor fire in my office building on Monday, everything is all out of whack, and the data I need to do my paperwork is not forthcoming. So I find myself, as usual, with some extra time to fill. Which is as good a time as any to clear out a half-finished blog post.

I've been thinking a lot about the recording industry lately. I, like you, have been watching the decline of the major labels and pondering what it means for me. Their situation perplexes me because, at least in the case of music, it all seems so clear-cut and obvious, and I can't quite figure out why the corporations are having so much trouble coping. I mean, I can -- old men with vested interests in the way things have always been are notoriously resistant to change -- but it all seems so futile. I can't understand why they continue to struggle against the inevitable.

Okay, so nobody's buying CDs anymore. So what? A CD is worthless -- it costs at most a few cents, extra for the packaging, but I don't pay any more attention to the physical object than I do to any of the other plastic packaging in my day-to-day life. It's the data on the disc, the music it carries, that has value. If I can buy the data without the disc, then that's simpler for everyone involved. Personally, I still prefer to have a hard copy, if only because the data-only version is still so often restricted, and that annoys me. But even when I buy a CD, the first thing I do is rip the disc and put the original product away. I have CDs I have never actually listened to directly; they were only the conduit that carried the data onto my hard drive. My computer is the center of my musical universe now; I expect that's how it is for a lot of people.

And I like the new economic model. I've stolen my share of music, but generally only when a) it wasn't available commercially; b) I was experimenting and didn't want to pay for something I might hate; or the most common scenario, c) I only wanted one track off an album that I would never have bought otherwise. It was never about avoiding payment or ripping anyone off -- I did it because I had no satisfactory alternative. I'm more than happy to pay for a single track if the option is available, and now that it is, it's easier and safer to buy than it is to steal. It's a good model, it works.

Giving away some of their intellectual property can be good for artists, too. Of all the music I've bought in the last two or three years, probably 80% of it resulted from having been given music for free, either by friends or by the artists themselves. Okay, so I didn't pay for the first album -- I paid for the next three, which I probably wouldn't have bought otherwise. It isn't completely legitimate, but I think it's fair. Most bands seem to think so, too, at least implicitly. Sharing music seems to be taking the place of radio play for every band worth hearing.

So I tend not to get too worked up over attacks on internet radio and the evils of DRM. It's all bad, and I'm definitely against it, but I can't really see something like DRM lasting too much longer. It's just too bad and useless an idea to survive. Information, as they say, wants to be free. It can only be good for music in the long run.

But here's where things get tricky for me: what does that mean for film?

The first response whenever I ask that question is always, "well, if it works for music, it'll work for film." And maybe in some permutation, it will. But film and music are different species, and the consumer's relationship to them is radically different. You buy an album because you want to listen to it over and over again, or at least want the option to be able to do so. You listen to it while you drive to work, sitting in your cubicle, while you do dishes, while you jog in circles around the park. You can focus on it, but it can also become a secondary activity. It's flexible, and it can fill in the empty spaces in your life. Film isn't like that. Film requires attention; it's the thing you're doing, not something to do while you do something else. And apart from seven-year-olds, few people watch a film repeatedly -- even the films I've seen most often I've seen maybe half a dozen times. The vast majority of the time, you watch a film, and then you're done with it. That's the end of your relationship.

So what's the motivation to buy a film? Obviously people do, but what convinces them to do so? Of all the films you've seen outside a cinema, how many of them did you purchase, either before or after? I bet it's a pretty small percentage; I bet the vast majority of those films were rented. And there's nothing wrong with that -- except that now where does the artist fit in to the economic model? In the standard version -- the film equivalent to the music recording industry -- the filmmaker gets a cut from the distributor, who collects a fee for every copy of a film sold to a rental company, who is then free to make as much as they can off that copy. It works fine for the majors, just like selling CDs at Wal-Mart works fine for Justin Timberlake. Smaller music artists can increasingly bypass the entire structure and sell directly to a consumer, who is hopefully happy to pay. But what's the small filmmaker's equivalent bypass?

Who's willing to take a monetary chance on a film they've never seen by a filmmaker they've never heard of? But once they've already seen it, what's the motivation to pay for it? And if there's no motivation to pay for it, then how can the person who made that film ever hope to be compensated for their work?

You see the problem.

I believe that information's need for freedom applies to film as much as it does to music. When Michael Moore says he's not worried about Sicko being distributed free online, I think he's on the right side of the argument. And I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing for a lot of the money to be sucked out of the film industry -- there's no direct correlation, as we all well know, between the amount of money spent making a film and the quality of said film. If every little would-be Tarantino realized that he was never going to become rich and famous as an independent auteur and dropped out, that would be just fine by me. But even so, filmmaking is an arduous, time-consuming pursuit, and even the most long-suffering film artiste needs a little audience support to keep going. Not to say that every filmmaker deserves to find an audience, just as not every band deserves a fanbase. But bands have options that filmmakers don't have. A band selling CDs after a show is smart; a filmmaker selling DVDs after a screening is just sad and pitiful. A band giving away a few tracks can hope for some results; a filmmaker giving away a few shorts is engaging in futility.

My interest in this question is mostly theoretical, in any case. I mean, shit, I'm into documentary -- I gave up any hope of ever making money from my films a long time ago. Maybe that's for the best: I do it for the love, not the money. I do it because not doing it is unthinkable, whether anybody ever sees my stuff or not. I do it because I think I might have something to contribute to the form, even if it doesn't contribute much to my wellbeing. I do it because I'm an idealist, or a sucker. Both, probably. And I think any artform driven primarily by compulsion rather than profit is probably in the best possible hands -- leave it to the bastards who don't mind going broke in the name of their art. Then we'll finally start seeing some films worth paying for.

Update: DaveX put a few responding thoughts up at his blog. The question is, do I respond to him here, or over there?
12:34 PM ::
Amy :: permalink