net.wars: The camcorder conundrum

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 07 March 2009

Let's get forensic on file-sharing. It happens. What are the effects?

Wendy M Grossman

So yesterday on BBC Radio Scotland's The Movie Café, Eddie Leverton, on behalf of the Federation Against Copyright Theft, directed what I thought was going to be a general discussion of file-sharing and the role of ISPs into the specific case of movies being uploaded within weeks, perhaps hours, of their first release.

This is a different problem from the one we usually talk about.

While it's legitimate to argue that people who sample music and TV shows online may become paying customers, it's harder to argue the same about movies, still less about movies in first-run, when they pick up most of their ticket sales. A Dutch study of file-sharing, published on February 18 (there's an English version here (PDF)), makes precisely this point: that file-sharing does not have the same impact on music, TV shows, and films.

Music, the authors argue, is the most likely to be replayed frequently. TV shows, less so, but still: you replay early episodes when later ones cast a new light on them, or (with shows like The Sopranos or Damages you rewatch the last season to gear up for the new one). Movies, however…

There are of course some movies – the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera, François Truffaut's Day for Night - that you revisit periodically throughout your lifetime. But let's face it, there a lot of movies that you're only going to see once, and that only to stay in touch with popular culture. One must therefore calculate the ratio of files shared to sales lost differently in each of these cases.

It is reasonable to suppose that file-sharing has a bigger impact on the film industry.

Nonetheless, the Dutch report calculates that overall, file-sharing is a benefit to society at large. Certainly, a lot of Dutch people are doing it: 4.7 million Dutch Internet users (out of a total population of 16.6 million as of last July) aged 15 or older have downloaded files without paying on one or more occasions in the last year. As of now, the film industry's revenues are still growing in the Netherlands in terms of cinema visits and DVD sales.

But DVD rentals are slumping – and that, in my own experience, is exactly where you'd expect file-sharing to have its first effect. For me, DVD rental replaced premium TV channels: for the same money, I could see at least as many new movies in a month, and they'd be more interesting. Since most movie DVDs get ripped and uploaded with celerity, if you're willing to forego some quality in favour of convenience, file-sharing is an easy replacement for DVD rentals.

"File-sharing and buying go hand in hand," says the Dutch report; the same need not apply to rentals. But Leverton was talking about movies recorded in the cinema on a camcorder and then uploaded. Industry paranoia about this has reached a high level.

Also on the show was a film critic enraged at having his mobile phone uplifted during critics' previews. Impounding critics' mobile phones makes sense, I suppose, if you think alienating the critics before the movie even starts is a good idea. Making them line up at the end to get their phones back is a really excellent way of putting them in a foul mood to write their reviews, too.

The film critic and I pointed out that a lot of early torrents come from screeners and other insider leaks. Leverton denied this, saying screeners haven't been an issue for three years. I have news for him: a quick search finds (unchecked for validity) torrents of screeners of films opening in the US this week and even a few that haven't opened yet. Surely these pose a bigger threat than camcorders: there must be some limit to how much quality people are willing to give up just to get something for free. The camcorder rips I've seen are ghastly; you'd have to be either desperate to see that particular film or the kind of person who'll watch anything as long as it's free. The former probably have no other choice; the latter are interested in free stuff, not movies. Neither category is likely to represent lost sales.

More generally, if people are watching downloaded copies of movies rather than go to a theater, then there's something wrong with the theater experience. And there is: never mind the issue of the rest of the audience! - it's expensive, it's technically inferior, the sound is usually too loud, and the traveling takes time, which is in increasingly short supply. Cinema showings now have to compete with home theater, especially as many DVDs now cost less to buy than a single ticket.

They also have to compete with other entertainments: when the cost of movies in London's West End reached the price of a ticket for live theater, suddenly live theater seemed like the far better deal.

So is file-sharing really the film industry's biggest problem? The Dutch report recommends redefining its business models. Creating legitimate download services is a start.

But do stop blaming ISPs: licit downloads cost them just as much in bandwidth as illicit ones.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).