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Why Pay for Anything? Movie Bootlegging and the Evolution of Media

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | June 10, 2011 |


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The other day while on a long train ride I took a glance at what people were watching on their laptops.

A solitary woman in her mid-30s, absently chewing on her fingernails, watched Sliding Doors. This movie, made back when Gwyneth Paltrow was an actress whose name was not yet followed by contemptuous snickers, foreshadowed the over-arching ambition that would spell her doom. Her British accent was so appalling and condescending it was as if she had become the very distillate of all that was obnoxious in the world. Who did Paltrow think she was kidding?

star_trek_chokes.jpgAn older man watched the J.J. Abrams Star Trek prequel. I loved the verve and pop of this film and had a smile sliding all over my face when I watched it in the theatre. Seeing all the old characters I had grown up with, as familiar as aging friends of the family, reconfigured as vigorous and ambitious was what touched me, I think. We got to see a glimpse of all them before they were defined in the series, before they were set in our minds forever. For me, it was like watching my parents, before they became my parents, when they had lives and identities that were their very own.

A pretty young woman wearing a hijab was watching The Social Network, which I thought was a first rate movie. Expertly directed and featuring a great score by Trent Reznor, the film brilliantly showcased the acidic writing of Aaron Sorkin, whose voice found a natural home in the intellectual misanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg that had previously been masquerading as liberal humanism in "The West Wing."

Other people, instead of watching the movie, were actually on their Facebook pages, while at the back of my car near the washroom, one woman had managed to draw a small crowd to her laptop to watch Bridesmaids. The notable thing about this was that Bridesmaids was still in wide release and the what they were watching was obviously a bootleg.

I habitually buy bootleg movies. I consider it a gritty and urban activity, like listening to somebody whimper for mercy over a drug deal gone wrong through my bedroom window late at night.

20070405_061406_komodo_dragon_0.jpgMy first foray into the bootleg market was accidental, a matter of circumstance rather than design. Like most entries into an underground economy, morality didn't play a factor. A better delivery service for a product I used had been built and made available to me, and so I used it. I employed reptile thinking, really, instinctive and self-interested rather than contemplative and empathetic.

The bootleg hut I go to is presided over by an ancient Asian man who either speaks no English or pretends to speak no English. I've forgotten the exact pricing structure, but I think it's 3 for $12 or 7 for $20. The quality of the DVD's can be hit or miss. Once, I got a copy of The Crazies in which a theatre goer's shoulder was visible at the bottom of the screen and the copy of Alice In Wonderland I bought was curiously devoid of what I would call color. (Personally, I kind of liked these interpretations of the filmic experience, seeing them as a kind of mash-up or a piece of found, if degraded, art) No matter, for each handheld disaster there are usually five perfect copies of advance screeners that had been sent out to the media and then bloodlessly dispatched to bootleggers. (By the way, this site does not accept screeners, or bootlegs, as far as I know.)

I have to admit to feeling some excitement in finding out if the DVD I bought is going to be a dud or not. You know, it's like playing a Scratch N' Win ticket-- maybe you're going to beat the system, or maybe the system is going to beat you. And of course, in this particular situation you have no recourse if you've been burned. The hut is migratory, so you might not even be able to find it again, and if you do, well, the guy working the front is old enough to be indifferent to threats and is apparently mystified by all languages and attempts at communication. He's an impenetrable bureaucracy unto himself.

But still, that doesn't make buying bootlegs right, does it?

In considering this I think it's relevant to acknowledge that I think the Internet is as important an innovation to civilization as the wheel.

If it's not actually the place where we live, it's the place where we're all moving to.

It's a radically democratizing agent, one that provides an instantly accessible repository of culture, knowledge and marketplace, dramatically shrinking the world and amplifying opportunity that had previously been withheld from people for generations. The Net's a rapid delivery system that cuts out the middle-man, enabling a cultural and commercial freedom that could evolve independently of, and perhaps obliterate the obdurate directives of our monolithic elites. Skype will destroy the existing phone companies. Music file sharing sites will ruin record companies. Ebay and Etsy will threaten retailers. Twitter, Craig's List and infinity of Blogs and web sites will crush newspapers.

Time marches forward and economies, ever-evolving, keep moving on, forcing people to come up with new ways of making money as the old revenue streams dry up. Better ideas force industries, and more importantly, people, to adapt.

Right now, musicians, instead of signing big contracts with record companies are making money by touring and hawking merchandise, their CD's little more than loss leaders for the rest of their commercial enterprise. Television shows, now aware that people watch their programs at their own pre-recorded leisure and just zip through the ads, must now embed the ads within the shows. Critics, once singular voices of authority, have blossomed from every nook and cranny, now offering the public a diverse and fully interactive array of informed and idiosyncratic opinion.

Why pay for anything? We have ourselves a hive now, and what one person knows or thinks, everybody knows and thinks, and maintaing any sort of elite ownership over intellectual property is going to be impossible, perhaps even immoral. (Brazil manufactures cheap copies of patented HIV drugs to dispense to citizens that wouldn't otherwise be able to acquire the life-saving treatment.)

thoo-brook1.jpgThe fact that technology now exists to rapidly duplicate and disseminate bootlegged copies of movies doesn't mean that those who buy them are wrong (or right) or are responsible for destroying jobs within the industry, it just means the world is changing. The movie industry, instead of trying to crush and control this audience, is going to have to adapt, and they are. What are 3-D movies but an attempt to keep us coming back into the theatre so that we'll continue to see franchise movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series, buy the action figures and DVD's they spawn, and ensure that at the top of the pyramid, Johnny Depp still gets his 50 million per film?

Regardless, the experience of attending a movie and seeing it in a theatre cannot be duplicated. To have everything dissolve around you and fade to black, and to see a world-- so much larger than life-- unfold before you just as the artists intended, is unique. And without even knowing it, the mood and expectations of the rest of the crowd, like weather blowing in, passes through you and then a rare but unforgettable moment of shared transcendence might emerge, and for that, well, for that we will always return.

Michael Murray is a freelance writer. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.



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