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Sunday, 6 June 2010

Piracy: Or How I Learned How To Stop Worrying and Love the Customer

Note: I wrote this some months ago for another website. They have experienced a 'changeover' where think pieces like this aren't welcome, so here it is:

Think about it. The last time you saw a film, where was it? A multiplex? A little neighbourhood cinema? TV? A DVD or Blu-Ray? Or on your laptop? Does it matter? The film industry is undergoing the biggest technological and societal change since it was invented in 1895. How Hollywood and the UK players react might make the difference between survival and death.

In the 1950s, as TV emerged in living rooms across the world, cinemas feared the worse: why pay good money for a ticket when you can watch moving images at home, on your sofa? And although the admissions fell from the dizzying heights of the 1940s (in 1946, 1.6 billion, yes that’s with a 'B', cinema tickets were sold) that wasn’t just TV’s fault: families bought cars, went on holidays, started having more babies – society as a whole changed the way it spent its time

Thirty years later, the industry went into another episode of self-induced panic, when the VCR became widespread and video shops popped up on every corner. The End of Days was once again announced, and audiences would never step foot in a cinema again. Fast forward that scratched-up tape to twenty years later, and VHS seems as antiquated as that black and white television with just one channel. Now consumers have DVD, Blu-Ray, Sky, Internet, Video on Demand, Lovefilm, 5.1 surround systems, plasma and LCD flat screens – the possibilities on offer are endless. And yet, cinema admissions for 2009, not just in the UK, but worldwide, have been record-breaking. How does that square with the industry’s claims that piracy will destroy cinema, and that unless we stop downloading it’s all over?

Recently, parliament passed the Digital Economy Bill, a law almost universally opposed by internet service providers, digital rights groups like the Open Rights Group, and by all techies, geeks and hackers around Britain. Passed in the middle of the night with only an hour for debate, the bill turns internet service providers into spies on their own customers, with disconnection for people who are found to be in ‘copyright infrigment’ with no right to appeal. This is the equivalent of BT cutting your phone off because you sang a copyrighted song over the line, or your access to post taken away because you posted photocopies of copyrighted books back and forth with someone. The fact is that there do need to be laws governing the internet, but they need to be debated carefully and thoughtfully, with testimony from intelligent people, as opposed to debate amongst MPs that barely know how to use email.

I bet you never though you’d be debating theatrical windows, the time between a film’s release and its eventual arrival on DVD or Blu Ray. When the ‘big three’ (Odeon, Vue, Cineworld) threatened a boycott of Alice in Wonderland, the concept was in all the headlines. Right now, that ‘window’ is set at 17 weeks but it’s as doomed to history as the Betamax format. The ‘media chronology’ where a film must follow a cycle of life starting at the cinemas and winding up on television will come to an end because consumers are demanding their content in different ways now. And why should companies decide when and how we watch films anyway? Offer us the options and the audiences will make the choices that best suit them.

I am no advocate of piracy. I would never download a film for free and watch it at home, I understand that every cinema ticket sold, every rental of a DVD and every legal, copyright-protected viewing of a film makes sure that films get made. It makes sure cinemas stay open. It makes sure that my favorite filmmakers (from Michael Mann to Ken Loach) have a job. But at the same time, burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the way people consume entertainment isn’t changing radically would be a mistake. Speaking to a leading French distributor recently I learned that they monitor downloads of their films in advance of the release to determine how many people will come out to see it.

Luckily, we have some examples as an industry for reference: the music business went through this same process about ten years ago. After decades operating a business model where they charged us £20 for a CD that cost £1 to make, they have had to re-think how and where to make money, allowing artists to distribute their music online either through a paying platform like iTunes or for free (and often both) and earning more off their income from touring. The publishing world is experiencing the same problems – they are also finding new ways to create revenue that don’t involve the 400 year old technology of printing paper. All media content is questioning how to survive.

One thing I know: in over 100 years of cinema, audiences have never stopped paying to go into a dark room to be entranced by what’s on the screen. I don’t think they ever will. What they will do though, is stop paying for sub-par service and experience. As a cinema operator, you can’t just give people a seat and expect the money to roll in. Comfort, service, top-notch sound and image technical quality, atmosphere and convenience are all elements that cinemas have to provide if they want to compete in the 21st century. And 3D is a first step, but we’re going to need bigger and better, especially as 3D TV rolls in this year.

Running a small independent cinema, as I do, a lot of these debates fly above me, since our customers are less fickle than the teenage audience that Hollywood and the multiplexes have invested all their marketing energies in. Our customers value the social experience of the cinema as much as the content itself, and like being able to drink a beer or glass of wine while enjoying the latest Haneke film (which they are unlikely to download or want to watch on a 13” monitor). That said, eventually the changes that are affecting the big boys will have repercussions for everyone.

How will it all end? If I had the answer to that, I could print my own money.

11 comments:

  1. I do download films: the ones I've missed at the cinema. If there's a film I want to see at the cinema, and I have the time, I'll go any see it.

    If I could download any film to watch at home, for a couple of quid, playable on the device of my choice, I would.

    As it is, if I missed a film I don't have much option other than to download it. Or walk for 25 minutes to Blockbuster, who probably don't have it anyway, then have to walk 25 minutes back to return it 24 hours later. Besides, Blockbuster keep cancelling my membership because I don't go often enough.

    In fact, there's a documentary movie I've missed which I'd have to buy if I wanted to see it. I don't want to buy it for £15, I just want to watch it once. The torrent is downloading as a type - does that make me a film fan or an evil thieving pirate?

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  2. It's interesting that you mention service as being important. I find the service at the Duke of York is dished out by very miserable looking people. It costs nothing to smile, as the old saying goes. Why do I feel that I've ruined the day of the person serving drinks, just by asking for one? I'm a long-standing member of the DoY. Please help me enjoy my membership more by encouraging your team to do a better job of making everyone feel welcome.

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  3. Interesting article; whilst reading about the Digital Economy Bill I discovered that it's the same people that download films & music that are the very same ones that spend most of the money as well.

    I have a DoY membership card and a Cineworld Card; for £13.50 I can go & see as many films as I like (last week I saw 4 at Cineworld) my friend had to pay to get the bus there, £7.60 for the film then over £2 for some chocolate. Not a great incentive for him to go very often.

    I personally love going to the cinema; I love films with a passion & watching a film at home just doesn't give me the same experience - I regard the cinema as my second home. Saying that, if I didn't have a Cineworld card I'd rarely go as I can't justify the prices.

    Going to Cineworld is a hassle because of the distance; the screens are scratched, the snacks are outrageously priced, the place is shabby & the toilets are horrid - there is also nearly half an hour of tedious adverts. But I see at least 1 film every week there because of the offer.

    PS - I think your staff are fine; I hate the long queues & you need more staff at the snack counter though!

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  4. I agree with the Urban Cynic. I've had a cineworld card in the past, I am going to be getting a new membership this week. I love going to the cinema - it is always going to be a different experience than watching a film on a laptop on your own. However, at 8 quid a ticket (more if you want 3D), outside of the cineworld card, I simply can't afford to go as much as I'd like.

    Sometimes, it is either too difficult or simply too expensive to watch a lot of the films I would like to - if that is the case, I will sometimes d/l it. I don't think that makes me an awful person - a big chunk of my (limited student) funds already go on DVD rentals and buys.

    If, however, I could pay ten pounds for a BFI service similar to the I-player (with access to difficult, indie and older stuff), I would happily pay that.

    But interesting article.

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  5. Also, agree about the staff as well - they are perfectly fine. I will often pop in for a coffee because there is a relaxed atmosphere and the staff are always friendly.

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  6. Thanks for the comments and I am sorry about the queues. Sometimes they are inevitable. About the service, however, we really do try our best to provide the best possible - we've won Best Customer Service two years in a row at the Brighton & Hove Business Awards, and we often do customer surveys to find out how we're doing. If you ever experience poor service, please let us know when it happens!

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  7. @openid "I don't have much option other than to download it"
    - You could get a bike and be at Blockbuster in 5 minutes.
    - You could join Blockbuster, Lovefilm, et al online.
    - You could buy it and sell it again.
    - You could buy it and invite friends to bring the drinks and popcorn.
    - You could make damn sure you see it when it's out.
    - You could wait till it's cheaper.
    - You could go without.
    You talk as though you have a constitutional right to be provided with film regardless of the remuneration of the creator.

    However I do agree that the new law is an ass with regard to the penalty. Why does the punishment have to fit the crime all of a sudden? Are we going to amputate the hands of thieves next? Fines are fine. Cutting someone's ISP is potentially out of all proportion to the offense. In my case it would be my livelihood.

    ...on second thoughts perhaps it is appropriate after all if the alternative is to deprive filmmakers of their livelihood.

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  8. you made a huge point.. the cinema industry is always concerned about their income.. not sure if it has always been like that, but i find that cinema tickets are ridiculously expensive.. i actually refuse to go to the cinema unless there is an offer or that i'm actually dying to see the movie, which is very strangely. Not also that but popcorn seems as expensive as a starter from frankie and bennys.. i love popcorn but again i refuse to pay for something that is overpriced. I love the cinema but not what has become.. now the 3D trick to charge more.. as if they were not charging enough! some people don't even get paid that much an hour.. and the student concessions are not too generous.. i do find that cineworld's monthly offer is good but again far away so not many people able to join me.. is about time that some other companies could share the benefit that only cinemas used to get.. competition is on, cinema you better improve or we'll end up abandoning you... (i guess we won't, but i wished i could say that!) - thetwipain

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  9. For me, the difference between going to see a film at the cinema and watching one at home (DVD, Blu-Ray or Download) is the same as the difference between seeing a live band/singer and listening to a CD/MP3... You can't really compare one to the other. The cinema is where movies were meant to be seen - anything else is just a second-rate option.
    You have a fine establishment with wonderful and helpful staff, Jon - I haven't had a bad experience since I moved back to the area four years ago (and I visit three or four times a month.) The Marina Cineworld also has great staff... But I agree with everything else that Urban Cynic said about it! I, too, have an Unlimited Card - but would pay a Fiver more a month if Odeon offered a similar deal.
    My list of "movies I haven't seen on the Big Screen but REALLY want to - as there's nothing quite like it!" is slowly being chipped away at. On a related (and, sadly, topical) subject: Easy Rider on Late Night Friday at The Dukes sometime soon?

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  10. Thanks for the kind comments Binary - our Dennis Hopper tribute begins and ends with BLUE VELVET next week I'm afraid!

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  11. Independent cinema operator not too far from Brighton..1 July 2010 at 04:56

    Hi Jon,
    Just thought I'd add something to this. The whole 'how films are consumed' debate will rage on and on for years and no doubt things will evolve so that there is a blurring of the line between cinema and other media such as TV, internet etc.
    But, for those that doubt that the cinema biz loses money to piracy.. we had a customer come out of a screening of 'The White Ribbon' a few months back asking for refund as 'she'd already seen it the night before at a friends house!'. Unfortunately the staff on the ticket desk were so taken aback they DID actually give her a refund. Apart from the obvious loss of revenue it shows that people don't even think twice about it. I can't imagine the same person casually remarking that she drove there in a stolen car.. so some double standards are applied by many viewing pirate - or lets give it it's proper name - stolen material.
    I don't have a solution except to try and gently convince people of the negative effects of watching stolen content.
    Personally I don't believe those that give price as the reason - I think that's just an excuse that makes them feel better about what they do..
    However, despite all this, like you Jon I remain optimistic about the future of cinema and independent cinema in particular.

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