In response (corporate community service?) to backlash over his remarks about hating the Internet, and nothing good ever coming from it, Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton has performed penance by penning a piece for Huffington Post in which he “welcomes the Sturm and Drang [he’s] stirred,” and yet seems to still misconstrue criticism and entangle two separate arguments.
To just reiterate in brief, it’s not at all that I advocate online piracy; I’m both far too busy and lazy to engage in it myself, but, furthermore, as someone who’s had work stolen, re-tagged and re-purposed by others, I understand wholeheartedly the idea of intellectual property rights, and the need to protect the economic viability of large-scale creative endeavors.
The problem is that Lynton and others like him in the film industry — folks in lever-pulling positions of power — have been static and/or almost nothing but reactive with respect to the Internet, both as a form of entertainment and an economic game-changer with respect to how entertainment content will be delivered to future generations. Railing against piracy and hand-wringingly calling for vague governmental “guard rails” (and yes, there is a comparison to the Interstate Highway System under the Eisenhower administration in Lynton’s piece) isn’t, I’m sorry, the sort of discerning insight or leadership I would expect on this front from the chairman and CEO of a huge, multi-national corporation dependant on capturing a significant market share of people’s free time.
Collectively, the film industry uses the hammering language and technique of fundamentalists, but piracy alone isn’t the problem; illicit efforts to obtain entertainment product reflect, fundamentally, unhappiness with current modes of deliverance, as well as costs. People take a look — some consciously, some less so — at the price it costs to manufacture DVDs, versus their $25-plus MSRP, and decide they’re going to buy far less. Throw in the advantages of portability that downloads afford, and you have an active cannibalization and erosion of what was the saving grace of the film industry, the sell-thru DVD market, less than a decade ago.
The much bigger, macro problem, though, is that movie studios have in large part done nothing to bolster, reinforce or instill the cultural value that Lynton assigns to what they peddle. “Freedom without restraint is chaos, and if we don’t figure out some way to prevent online chaos, the quantity, quality and availability of the kinds of entertainment, literature, art and scholarship we need to have a healthy, vibrant culture will suffer,” he writes. Yet when you have an industry that relies so heavily on prepackaged product (videogame adaptations, sequels, franchises, spin-offs, etcetera), is it any wonder that a younger generation views your wares as collagist, temporary, ethereal and therefore, to a degree, unimportant? The dearth, in relative terms, of originally scripted stories; the foot-dragging on the DVD release and attendant lack of interest in publicizing so many classic titles; the embrace of a distribution system that continues to place more value on opening weekend box office numbers than deep, sustainable catalogue value; the evidenced unwillingness to commit to make and market small- to mid-budget humanistic stories — these are all related, in their own way, to the generally low opinion that invites the criminality of illegal downloads.