Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Pirates of the Midwest; or, Download This!

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 4, 2005

I know it’s been awhile, but life gets in the way sometimes…rest assured that I haven’t had anything good to say for the past month or so, so you haven’t missed anything.

I recently met this guy who, as it turns out, is a huge movie pirate. I wasn’t looking for this information, but it didn’t take much effort to find out. Not only does he make no attempt to hide it, he’s damn proud of it. He was very eager to show me boxes and boxes of movies that he’s downloaded and burned onto cheap DVDs.

Call me old-fashioned, but I was pretty shocked by this. Not that people download and copy movies – I don’t exactly live in a cave, contrary to popular opinion. I was shocked by the fact that he was so open and easygoing about it. No big deal, right? People do it all the time. Millions of people, or so I imagine, all over the country and the world. It’s become common practice, at least in some circles.

Of course, it’s also against the law. You all know that, right? Yeah, I can hear people scoffing even as I write this. “Oooooh, I’m so scared. The FBI’s gonna break down my door any minute now”.

This isn’t about passing judgment. I’m not a member of the MPAA, and I’m not in the entertainment industry, so it’s not my job to lecture people about this. I know the technology is there, and it’s so easy and tempting. Given our current economy, far be it for me to fault somebody for wanting to make a few extra bucks.

I certainly can’t claim to be above reproach myself. I don’t download movies, but I’ve done things that aren’t too far removed from that. As a kid, back in the days when cassettes (audio and video) were king, my friends and acquaintances made a habit of recording each other’s albums (wow, that word dates me). I’d often wait before buying the latest release from one of my favorite bands to see if anyone else I knew bought it first. We used to record movies off of cable onto blank VHS tapes, and even recorded videotapes we borrowed and rented with a second VCR. It was common practice in those days. No big deal, right? Not exactly as organized as Napster, but it was basically the same principle.

Even recently, when Showtime had their free weekend a couple of months ago, I recorded like 35 movies that I hadn’t seen on my DVR (I’ve watched all but one of them). I don’t normally get Showtime, I didn’t pay for it and I didn’t pay a dime to see any of those movies. So I saved quite a bit of money by not renting those movies. Of course Showtime pays a license fee to the studios for showing those movies on their channels, but who gets paid when they beam those movies into my apartment for free? I don’t know. But can you blame me for taking advantage of things like that? If they’re giving it away for free, I’m damn well going to take it. I can’t imagine I’m the only one.

For that matter, who gets paid when people order “12 CDs for the Price of 1” from Columbia House or BMG Music Service? Does anyone really think that the artists get the same amount of royalties that they would get if you paid full price for each CD? I don’t really know how that business works exactly, but those record clubs give CDs away at the drop of a hat. Every month it’s “Get 4 Free CDs When You Buy 1!” Even when those mail-order clubs are a pain in the ass (Columbia House’s DVD Club seems to delight in overcharging me on practically everything I order from them), you’re still saving a shitload of money by buying from them instead of your local chain store.

Believe it or not, I know people who never go to theaters, never rent videos or DVDs and don’t subscribe to pay-cable services. They still wait for movies to show up on network or basic cable, or they just don’t see them at all. I’m not saying I necessarily understand those people – I couldn’t stand to wait that long. But how much money are they saving? And how much are the studios losing on them? If those eventual avenues weren’t available, would more people be spending their cash at the local cineplex or video store? Maybe. Probably.

So it’s not like the entertainment industry doesn’t give away their goods fairly often. And I don’t see anyone trying to shut down stores that sell used CDs and DVDs for discount prices (often less than half what a new copy of the same product costs). Not to mention pawnshops and flea markets and…well, you get the idea.

Having said all that, I still don’t really see the need for piracy. OK, I can sort of understand the “thrill” of downloading and burning your very own copy of a movie that’s still in theaters. People are always going to want to get around the system somehow. My question is, who are these dumbasses that actually buy pirated copies from these people?

The guy told me that it costs $5 apiece to download movies to his hard drive. Throw in the negligible cost of some blank DVDs. That means he probably charges around $10 for each movie he sells to make a profit. I can’t imagine he has that many customers out here, so he most likely doesn’t make money from volume.

So what are they getting for that $10? Well, upon his invitation I borrowed a half-dozen discs from him (note that no money changed hands). Three of them were straight-to-DVD releases, one was a theatrical release last year, one was a current theatrical release and one was a foreign film that hadn’t hit American theaters yet. I haven’t reviewed any of the movies on the site, and I’m not going to.

They all had artwork on the covers, but absolutely no extras. Not surprisingly, the ones that worked and looked the best were the straight-to-DVD titles. Somebody probably copied them directly from DVDs and uploaded them to the Net. One of them stopped playing about halfway through, but when I started it up again and fast-forwarded to the place it left off (there were no scene chapters on the disc), it worked fine. The other two I had no problems with. The foreign film was an obvious “bootleg” that was recorded from a theater screen with a video camera. As you might expect, it looked rather shitty. Last year’s theatrical release started fucking up about 45 minutes into it, and I couldn’t get it to play beyond that point, even after cleaning out my player. The current release I couldn’t get to play at all – my player wasn’t even able to “read” it.

Suffice it to say, I got tired of watching this guy’s copies pretty quickly. I came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t worth taking a chance on, even for free.

So for that $10, his customers are getting a copy without any guaranteed picture and sound quality, no extras and a cheap, flimsy disc that will probably break after a couple of plays anyway. I just don’t get the appeal of this. Where I live, matinees at the local first-run cineplex are $6. Even though I have issues with that particular theater chain, I’d rather spend my money there than risk buying an unwatchable copy.

And when you consider that most movies go to DVD between 3 and 6 months after their theatrical release begins, it really doesn’t make any sense to buy pirated copies. You can find most mainstream releases on sale at stores like Best Buy and Circuit City within the first couple of weeks of their release. Would you rather pay $10 for a cheap bootleg, or shell out, say, $16.99 for a disc you know is going to look and sound great, usually with a fair amount of extras? Plus you can take it back to the store if it doesn’t work. (This same principle applies to online DVD retailers as well.) I know what my choice would be.

This isn’t about kissing Hollywood’s ass. This is about the consumer getting the best value for their money. Maybe in the old days of pan-and-scan VHS, when you only got the movie itself and the picture quality wasn’t that great in the first place, a cheap bootleg might be acceptable. Not anymore. A brand-new DVD generally isn’t that expensive to justify settling for less. And if you have the patience, you can hold out for sales or for prices to drop (which I often do).

I could almost understand piracy for really obscure, hard-to-track-down films that you can’t get your hands on otherwise. But for movies that are easily and readily available, I just don’t see the point. It seems downright silly to make that kind of effort for something you’ll be able to buy or rent at any store in a few short months. It’s not like we live in a country like China, where most foreign films are banned and piracy is the only way to see them. And if you honestly can’t wait a couple of months to get a copy of Beauty Shop, you need to seriously reevaluate your life.

Ultimately, the morality of downloading is a personal thing. To some people it’s wrong, to others it’s perfectly fine. I understand that. For me, I just think it’s a big hassle to go out of your way to get something that you can find easily enough when the time comes. I eventually stopped recording my friends’ cassettes because it became a pain in the ass to keep track of what I borrowed and who borrowed what from me. At some point I figured out that it was easier to save my money and just buy the damn things myself.

Similarly, it’s just not worth it to me to spend hours downloading movies. Who wants to invest that kind of time and effort? Life is too short. And while some people might get off on being able to see movies at home on their computer instead of in a movie theater, I think they’re missing something. If I could download Star Wars Episode 3 right now, 15 days before its release…I wouldn’t do it. Why spoil it for myself? I’d rather wait a little bit longer and have the experience along with everyone else. Isn’t that kind of what it’s all about?

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