No sooner had a top Hollywood executive blamed piracy for a sharp drop in the production of movies than he was howled down by a cacophony of bloggers.
Sony Pictures Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton blamed online theft for the fact that the Hollywood majors produced just 162 films in 2008 – more than 40 fewer than in 2006, and the lowest in a decade.
Maybe so, but as many bloggers were quick to point out, despite the impact of piracy the number of independent movies continues to rise: Last year 610 films were released in the US, nearly 2 percent more than in 2007. And stats show the cinema business worldwide remains healthy, and growing.
Writing in The Times, Lynton explained that Sony decided to launch the Michael Jackson doco This Is It worldwide on the same day to beat the pirates. “If Sony released it only in the US on Wednesday, by late Thursday it would be camcorded, uploaded on to the internet and available free to anyone with a broadband connection,” he said.
Quite reasonably, he argued that many art house and independent films can't afford to open simultaneously worldwide, so when those movies are stolen it hurts their chances of building an international audience, robbing filmmakers of entire markets where stolen versions of their work have proliferated online.
“Online theft siphons billions of dollars out of the marketplace,” he said. “That means less money to make movies. Projects get scaled back and others dropped. Some potential blockbusters won't get made. Some new writers, actors and filmmakers won't get discovered.”
The studios may be hurting financially from piracy, but ticket sales worldwide continue to rise. Last year US box-office receipts hit a record $9.78 billion and the global B.O. rose by 5.2 percent to $28.1 billion, according to the majors' trade group, the Motion Picture Association of America.
“The problem seems to be that the folks at the movie studios (just like those at the record labels) only like to count the big hits as successes – rather than the smaller projects that actually make money and make up the majority of the actual market,” said one blogger, TechDirt, in refuting Lynton's arguments. “It's the same sort of thinking that makes studio people insist that we need to explain to them how they can keep making $200 million movies. That's the wrong question. The question is how do you make profitable movies. The technology has advanced such that it's cheaper and cheaper to make movies (which is why we have more of them). But notice that the studios never focus on ways to make movies in a more economical way, but how can they keep spending. Perhaps that's a bigger problem than online piracy.”
As for folks who'd want to watch a camcorded version of This Is It, some bloggers are highly dubious. “The quality would be absolutely dire, Jackson's singing would be punctuated by the rattling of candy packets and accompanied by a myriad of noisy cinema-goers singing their own version of his songs, probably all in D-Minor,” opined one blogger at TorrentFreak. “The video would undoubtedly bring a whole new dimension to 'Black or White'. People download this garbage but no one enjoys it, and for good movies, sales are not affected.”