23 April 2010

Not Worth Stealing

This week in movie news, Hitler has reacted badly to the news that Constantin Films, who own the copyright to "Downfall", have issued a DMCA notice resulting in the removal of many "Downfall"-based parodies from YouTube.

The Downfall parodies are a prime example of what Larry Lessig calls Remix. Constantin Film AG calls it "theft".

EFF, the Open Video Alliance, and others will argue til the cows come home about whether remix is theft or fair use.

I say the hell with it.

Forget about remix. Why start with crap?

I haven't seen Downfall; it was made in Germany, not Hollywood, so it might not be total crap. But what arguments over the DMCA are distracting us from is that

Take Avatar. It was released on video this week. It won THREE Oscars, and was nominated for six more including best director and best picture. It's a two hour cartoon with a juvenile story you could tell in one minute. Don't believe me? Here you go:
Evil militaristic corporation lands on pristine planet occupied by noble giant smurfs and priceless ore. Military begins wiping out smurfs but one honorable disabled underling falls in love with a smurf, goes rogue, and leads the resistance. Just as all seems lost, the planet itself rises up and crushes the invaders, and the hero is magically transformed into an able-bodied smurf himself. In 3D. With lots of heart-swelling music.
Avatar is crap; the only good thing about its DVD release is that if you watch it at home, you'll be able to pause it every two hours so you can pee; I saw it in the theater and I was praying for a catheter by the halfway point.

Edward Jay Epstein's recent book "The Hollywood Economist" is depressingly clear about why almost every movie made today is crap. In a nutshell, it's because moviemakers can't get distribution deals for pictures which aren't guaranteed to herd teenage boys into the theaters in droves (read the book for more details). Epstein notes on his blog that crap teenager-magnets like Avatar are squeezing indie movies (which are still occasionally worth seeing) out of the theaters. Epstein's conclusion is this:

With the prospect of American distribution rapidly fading, indie producers are now finding pre-sale financing almost impossible. "It's a dead business model," a former Miramax executive said.

If so how can Indie producers continue to make movies? They might be able to find wealthy individuals entranced enough with a movie fantasy to put up the money, but they still need to devise a new way in this digital age to distribute them to an audience willing to see something more than the movie versions of amusement park rides.

Bingo. So let's get started.

I promised you two years ago (I know, I know, but I've been busy…) that I'd post a business plan for a New Studio: "…a new business model that lets creative people make a decent living making good, cheap movies. [The New Studio is] going to trust its audience to pay for quality films. It's going to grow its fan base by distributing entire movies on the Internet with no DRM."

In the unlikely event you've been eagerly waiting for me to keep this promise, you're in luck. Here's the first installment:

What is The New Studio?

The New Studio is a business model which uses the new technologies of low-cost digital capture and editing, high-quality low-cost print-on-demand services, and near-zero-cost electronic distribution to take creative control of cinematic storytelling away from producers and studio executives and give it back to writers and directors.

The New Studio is owned and managed by directors and writers, who produce their own material and retain artistic control of their work. Every director in a New Studio has final cut.

The New Studio accomplishes its financial goals by enabling motion pictures to be produced, marketed, and distributed cheaply enough that there is a high probability of a modest profit (and a smaller possibility of a large profit) for every film the New Studio produces.

The New Studio may accept investments by outside producers. Producers’ relationship with The New Studio is, however, financial rather than creative. In return for lower financial risk (that is, a more predictable return on investment than a traditional studio can promise), investors in The New Studio willingly leave all creative decisions to the New Studio’s writers and directors.

What are the The New Studio’s principles?

Hollywood fears the web. Studios fear that releasing their movies on the web will destroy their revenue stream.

Fear of releasing movies on the web comes from a belief that the product is worthless – so no sane person would voluntarily pay for it. This belief is justified by most of today’s movies. They are made not to satisfy an artistic urge, or to tell a story, but to make money. A lot of money.

If you need to make 100 million dollars, you have no time to think about anything else. Including telling a story.

But you don't need to make 100 million dollars, because you don't need to spend 80 million dollars to make the movie and distribute it. In 2010 you can produce movies cheaply using new technologies, as Robert Rodriguez and others have demonstrated. You can distribute movies essentially free using the Internet. This means that, as long as you’re not greedy, there are stories you can afford to tell with the new tech which studios cannot afford to tell for theatrical release. This is good for the artists but bad for middlemen who add cost but not artistic value to projects.

People will want to pay for a story which is worth the money. No story is worth $100 million (well, maybe just a few. The Bible’s done pretty well at the box office…). But lots of stories are worth $2 million.

When you put content into electronic form you enable people to make an unlimited number of copies for free. There is therefore no such thing as theft. Want proof? If someone makes a free copy of my movie, what have I lost? Only something I never had: the copier’s money. (NOTE: If you thought Digital Rights Management could stop people from making copies, you’re confused. Study until you understand why you’re wrong. Until then, don’t bother us).

While there is no such thing as theft, there is such a thing as publicity. A good product, distributed widely, creates buzz and demand. This in turn generates sales.

People who see honest publicity for a good product want to buy it. Digital Rights Management is based on a worldview of shortage. Our worldview is abundance. We think our stories are good – so good that people who see them will want to own them. We want as many people as possible to see them because we know some (not all) of those people will pay us for them.

What does The New Studio sell?

We sell access, experience, and artifacts.

Access to our products and, to a few lucky fans, access to the process of producing our products.

Experience of the magic of motion pictures – the willing suspension of disbelief, the entry into the story, the magic of the motion-picture production process, the glamour of our stars.

Artifacts including high-quality art produced specially for our customers and actual items used in the production of our motion pictures.

We make motion pictures and sell films.

  1. We release our motion pictures free on the Internet. In high-quality audio and video formats. Before theatrical release.
  2. We sell films. Not DVDs (which are just little round pieces of plastic and metal) – films. Films are released to the retail market simultaneously with free Internet release. The buyer of a film gets a high-resolution DVD with an excellent motion picture that tells a compelling story. This DVD is not region-coded or protected by DRM; the buyer can play it on any device, create any number of copies, and exhibit it to the public if he chooses. The film comes in a high-quality package which creates a film experience.

    The motion picture at the heart of the film is reproduced on the highest-quality media available, so that it will last a lifetime. If media is scratched, or if it degrades, it will be replaced at no cost, with no questions asked – guaranteed.

    The film is sold in one of three editions, and not everyone can own one. The first edition is the limited edition.

    The limited edition film includes original, limited-edition collectible art art (a numbered 8x10 archival black-and-white photograph of one of the stars by an outstanding photographer) which will grow in value over time and which represents a connection between the filmmakers and the buyer.

    The limited edition film includes a high-quality illustrated book containing production stills and a commentary on the production by the screenwriter and the director; this book is available only as part of the film editions.

    The limited edition film includes a unique password for a website which allows the buyer to view dailies and other production details of the next motion picture produced by the studio.

    The limited edition film includes a coupon which can be redeemed for two free tickets to see the motion picture in a local theater after its theatrical release (if it gets released to theaters!).

    And the limited edition film includes a lottery ticket. The two winners of the lottery will be auditioned for roles in a future motion picture produced by the studio. If the winners are not cast in speaking parts, they will be cast as extras or given roles in the crew of the production.

    The limited edition film will be available for only $50 per copy. Only 100,000 limited edition copies of the film will be produced – ever.

    The second edition of the film is the special edition. The special edition film includes all the contents of the limited edition. It also includes a copy of the movie’s poster (signed by the director and shipped rolled, not folded) and a numbered 11x14 archival black-and-white photo of one of the stars by an outstanding photographer, signed on the front by the star and on the back by the photographer. This photo will be shipped ready for framing in a 16x20 archival mat. Both the poster and the photograph will grow in value over time and represent the personal connection between the filmmakers and the buyer.

    The special editions of the film are available for only $250 per copy. Only 1,000 special editions of the film will be produced – ever.

    The third edition of the film is the collector’s edition. These collector’s edition will include, in addition to the special edition film contents, two premiums. The first premium is an actual prop or costume used in the production of the film, with a certificate of authenticity signed by the director and the star most closely associated with the item. The second premium is two tickets to the theatrical premiere of the motion picture, if such a premier is held.

    The collector’s editions of the film are available for only $5,000 per copy. Only 100 collector’s editions of the film will be produced – ever.

  3. We sell motion pictures via iTunes. No motion picture will be released to iTunes until three months after its free Internet release – guaranteed. The motion pictures will be optimized for high-quality playback on iPads and laptop computers, and will be free of any DRM restrictions.

    Our motion pictures will be available via iTunes for only $4.99 per copy (for purposes of comparison, “Chicago” is sold on iTunes for $9.99 per copy).

  4. We sell prints of motion pictures to theatrical distributors. No motion picture will be released to theatrical distribution until one year after its free Internet release – guaranteed. This benefits buyers of films because they will have exclusive access to high-quality prints of the motion picture for a year before the motion picture is released to theaters. It benefits theater owners because they will have access to motion pictures with a proven fan base on the day of release.

How does The New Studio sell?

We sell direct, over the Internet.

We create demand by letting people experience our motion pictures in their entirety, in high-quality reproduction, for no cost. Our customers are not thieves. They are fans. They appreciate motion-picture art when they see it. If they can afford to own motion-picture art, they will choose to buy our films because those films have lasting artistic value, are worth owning, and enhance their lives.

Some of our customers cannot afford our films, but they still love and treasure motion-picture art. We celebrate the opportunity to enrich their lives by providing them with excellent art, even though they cannot afford to buy a film. Many of these people will become more prosperous, and will buy our films in the future; others will pay for downloads of our motion pictures so that they can play them through iTunes. Fans who cannot afford to pay us in cash will pay us with their voices by recommending our motion pictures to friends. A few of our fans will be inspired to make their own motion pictures, and they will tell stories we cannot imagine – and that’s the best part of all.

How does The New Studio advertise?

We don’t. Our product speaks for itself. People will recommend our motion pictures to their friends and companies will recommend them to their customers. Our motion pictures are so good that we think other people will want to use them to advertise their products and services. We approve. We will give a limited number of people and companies with influence, good taste, and good products permission to host our motion pictures, uncut, on their sites – individuals’ blogs and corporate portals – to help them advertise themselves and their products and services to their customers. If you think your audience or your customers would be attracted to your site by an excellent motion picture, get in touch. But hurry – we’ll grant this permission to a limited number of people and companies who believe strongly and early in the value of each of our motion pictures.

In the next entry, I'll run the numbers to convince you that the New Studio can make money.

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Blogger Chris Quenelle said...

What about less expensive merchandise that is often licensed? $1.00 for a screen-saver based on your movie, $5.00 for a poster, etc. People who watched and liked a movie are often willing to buy little chotchkies like this.

April 23, 2010 3:46 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The music industry, in its old form, has totally ceased to exist. This means that most musicians get to promote their work via non-standard means. They probably will make more money in the long-run doing that anyway. Not to mention better music. Josh Freese works as a paradigm in this area.

Why shouldn't this happen to the movie industry too? I look at the list of credits for a typical movie and wonder, "They have to list *catering*"?

How long can that system last in an economy that fosters the amazingly rapid exchange of information? Answer: not long. I give them a few more years at most before they start hurting. Especially when someone starts designing 3D monitors for the average consumer (who, by that time, will feel completely jaded with 3D movies).

Oh, and I saw "How to Train Your Dragon" which seems to have (hard to believe) a more complex plot than Avatar (you've seen this plot about a thousand times before: boy meets girl/dragon, boy loses girl/dragon, boy find girl/dragon while saving a lot of dragons (and girl)). We only saw it for the special effects (we *really* like dragons and felt bored that evening); even so, I found the inane plot and terrible voice-acting plot really distracting from the effects.

Well, soon people will get bored with the new effects and start to focus on content. Real content works as a scarce resource, due to it getting created by truly creative people, of whom less than one in a thousand exist.

April 23, 2010 4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you allow people that aren't that tech savy to see your movies?

Many moviegoers wouldn't even think of downloading a movie--even if it was free. It's not that they'd have a problem with, it just wouldn't enter their minds. But those people aren't going to pay $50 for the limited edition, even if there are any left for them to buy.

Why not have a no frills "I love the film but don't need the schwag" version of the DVD in the $10 range?

Let's face it: The technology for watching movies on anything other than a television is complicated, and the technology for playing digital content on a television is no walk in the park. If you want everyone to be able to enjoy your movie, you need to make it both possible and easy for them to watch it in their preferred format.

May 07, 2010 1:21 PM  

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