Bits Bite Back

There’s a digital filmmaking revolution happening. Just not where you might think.

Early in December I attended a preview screening of The Last Samurai. As press, I get inside screenings before the rest of crowd. After I had sat down in the empty theater, I noticed that two security guards were talking near the front row. One man was showing the other how to use a night vision scope to surveil the audience during the show in order to prevent an unauthorized recording from being made.

Preview screenings are now fraught with such precautions. Guards question audience members upon entry whether they have cell phones with imbedded cameras, which are then confiscated for the duration of the show. Onscreen warnings appear before screenings (akin to the FBI notice on videos) that remind the audience of the illegality of making a recording. Also occasionally shown are the same commercials run on television that feature film industry employees asking people not to take away their livelihood by distributing and downloading illegal copies of films.

All of this, of course, is an exercise in futility, a desperate effort by the film industry to stop what cannot be stopped. The great irony inherent in these 21st century issues of digital piracy is that, in effect, relentless entertainment industry marketing has worked so well that the public’s desire for product outweighs any obeisance to copyright law.

Film, the greatest mass medium, is often seen as product. Certainly this is Hollywood’s position. The expense of making and marketing a movie is such that every attempt must be made to recoup costs and make enough profit to justify making more. The long-promised digital video revolution has materialized in only the most marginal fashion to date and has not yet made a dent in how 99 percent of films are created and sold. The real digital revolution is not one of filmmaking, but of film theft. While a good (i.e. high enough image quality to shoot a feature film) high-end prosumer digital video camera costs at minimum $2500, a desktop PC of amazing power and storage capacity can be had for less than $500. Add a DSL line at SBC/Yahoo’s bargain introductory price of $29.95 a month, download a free copy of Kazaa Lite (the hacked, spyware-free version of the popular filesharing program), and you have all you need to suck the best of Hollywood off of the Internet and into your living room without repercussions. And even if the film industry were to go an a customer-alienating rampage in the manner of the music industry, the sheer volume of online swapping means that you are more likely to get gored by a bull moose in rutting season than busted by the copyright cops.

Film piracy has led to its own creative sideline: The proliferation of fan films and music videos. Because of an unlimited supply of free downloadable movies and TV shows, anyone with editing software (also available in pirated form on filesharing networks) can splice together snippets from their favorite programs, lay down a stolen MP3 music track beneath it, and create instant GeekTV. An especially popular subgenre of this form is the anime music video, with chunks of Japanese cartoons like Pokémon, Cowboy Bebop, or Rurouni Kenshin re-edited on beat to Pearl Jam, Green Day, or Enya in loving fusions of Eastern and Western popular media. The same treatment has been given to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, and the Lord of the Rings films. All these videos are shared for free by their creators on the same filesharing networks that provided them with the digitized source material.

I read once from some long-forgotten source that “the black market is simply the real market driven underground.” Nowhere is this truer than online. The Internet is certainly a market, and its main currency is not cash but popular culture. Many of its users, unlike passive consumers of other media, possess a relentless, driving hunger not only to consume this culture but to digest it, repurpose it, and personalize it. This is no longer a simple one-way creator/consumer relationship but two-way communication between consumer and product mediated by software; an emerging form of language.

In a digitally literate society, the reworking of mediasphere product into a neodigital-creole, a language that crosses all digital media — text, image, design, sound — is inevitable and ever-increasing. Because this process is freeform and chaotic, and empowers users at an individual level via the technological tools sold to them by, in many cases, the very corporations that generate the media content that flows through these tools, it cannot be easily controlled. And the very ease of sharing, copying, and storing that makes digital content so attractive to use is also its Achilles’ heel when it comes to theft.

Yet, for media corporations whose very existence is predicated on identifying trends and selling them back to the public, this is one trend they misidentify as plain theft and do not, as traditional Adam Smith-style marketeers, have the language to understand. The digital sharing tidal wave ignores copyright and the demands of free-market capitalism as if they were simply blips to avoid in some global video game. Digitally repurposing various media (what the Situationists called detournement) also explodes the notion of these media works as sacrosanct, integral, unbreakable entities, and instead snaps them apart into Lego blocks of sound and image and meme, reusing them as tools or toys. This process has gone far beyond the bricolage of postmodernism, with collage as its foundation. Not only is it an elaborate system of language, with its own grammar, slang, symbolic shorthand, and insider humor, but it also represents a deep subversion of operant free market paradigms. In other words, it’s fucking with The Man.

By their very nature, such consumer-created works as fan films cannot be bought or sold because they are made up of owned, copyrighted components. Creators of these assemblages have in effect become mini media outlets. Internet users can create “original” work and distribute it anonymously at almost no cost to themselves. What greater threat to a monetary system can there be than to undercut the dollar value of a product by giving it away? Yet to look at the situation in only this linear, simplistic fashion ignores what is really going on; not everything, despite what copyright defenders would have you believe, is about money.

Media companies, instead of being horrified by what they see as loss of revenue, should (and eventually will) embrace this new game and turn it to their advantage. Rather than trying to stop the hemorrhaging, they should just amputate the gangrenous limbs of everlasting copyright and traditional media distribution and replace them with their cybernetic improvements.

Lucasfilm Ltd., creators of the Star Wars movies, quickly embraced fan films as a marketing tool, as they were rightly seen as an extremely desirable outgrowth of consumer enthusiasm for their movies. Fan-made works, often wholly original content digitally shot and filled with new special effects by their creators, were loving paeans to Lucasfilm product. There have been several company-sponsored contests that awarded prizes and recognition to the creators of these films. This seems like a healthy, desirable outcome for both parties; Lucasfilm gets free publicity in a form often more imaginative than the films they reference, and fans get to play in the Star Wars universe without fear of getting sued.

Oscar Wilde’s adage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” is magnified by a factor of a hundred thousand in our media-driven culture. To be mentioned in the news, a gossip column, or a web site is to be actualized. And marketers live to create the kind of buzz that gets their products inserted into the daily conversations of consumers. Therefore, in a very direct fashion, piracy is not merely the sincerest form of flattery; it is the ultimate result of an advertising-saturated society and perhaps the greatest measure of a product’s popularity.

Citizens of our vogue-fetishist, ad-drowned world have had it beaten into their brains that:

  • They need Cool Stuff.
  • This Cool Stuff must be gotten immediately.
  • Cool Stuff should, whenever possible, be had at a bargain price.
  • Not getting said Stuff is social suicide.
  • Convenience shall determine all courses of action.

What better, easier, more convenient way to get what you desire than theft without consequences? Aren’t consumers only doing what they have been only too-well programmed to do?

Lest we’ve forgotten, the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict were not particularly about political unrest or rage at the authorities but rather a glorified excuse to loot. People knew a bargain when they saw it. Although such overt anarchy is rare, the sacking of LA revealed the true character of a population bottle-fed on the science of desire, yet not given the means to easily achieve that desire.

If indeed advertising has created a nation of self-serving, amoral product junkies, then corporations have gotten exactly what they deserve in the form of a population of copyright scofflaws, some of whom are also the new generation of digital filmmakers.