Noel’s blog entry about critics and music piracy rang through my head the other night at an evening screening for the awful, awful Four Brothers. After being treated to the half-assed wanding and bag checks that have become standard issue security measures at these things, the DJ for whatever t-shirt-hurling radio station is sponsoring the screening (in concert with the generous folks at Paramount, who have wasted our time for free) made an announcement. He said that anyone caught with his or her cell phone on would be booted out of the theater. Why? Not because cell phone usage is an annoying distraction, but because some of them are picture phones and could be used to illegally copy the movie. Okay, I’ll admit that I haven’t been keeping track of the great new advances in cellular technology, but I’m pretty sure that none of current models have the shutter speed, resolution, or memory to record a ready-for-street dub copy of the latest blockbuster. Yet retarded ideas like these are common in the movie industry, which loves to squander its vast resources for no good reason.

On the piracy front, the movie industry has it easy compared to music. Even those committed Napsterites who believe that every piece of music is public domain have to admit that file-sharing has dealt a serious blow to the labels’ bottom line. If so much as one CD gets leaked to a file-sharing website, that title is compromised forever, because everyone with an Internet connection has easy access and nothing is lost in terms of sound quality. But I don’t think street sales of poorly recorded blockbusters are taking nearly as big a chunk out of the movie industry, which can blame its current slump on other things, such as high ticket and concession prices, improved home technology, and crappy movies nobody wants to see. Yet the MPAA remains committed to fighting piracy as best it can, and that usually means picking on the biggest culprit: Movie critics.

Now I won’t waste time talking about the ill-conceived screener ban, which was rightly struck down in court early last year for unfairly discriminating against independent distributors that rely on screeners to get the late-year buzz their little movies sorely needed. But that didn’t end the studios’ scrutiny of critics, which continues to grow more desperate and surreal as time goes on. Here are just a few of the highlights I’ve witnessed: 1. A screening of Collateral in which a theater manager patrolled the aisles wearing night-vision goggles (!). 2. Semi-regular high-profile screenings where a full security detail is brought to the private Chicago screening room to check bags for cameras and pockets for…really tiny cameras? Guns are permitted, however. 3. A public War Of The Worlds screening, less than 36 hours before opening day, in which all attendees had to check their bags, cell phones, iPods, Blackberries, and other gizmos before entering. Only in this case, they were checked in a small storage room just outside the theater door, meaning that only one person could be helped at a time as the huge line jammed everyone back into the theater, creating what I’m sure was a terrible fire hazard. I’m told that some people at a similar New York event had to wait a full hour to get their things.

Combating piracy is a little like plugging up holes in a dike, yet critics get abused because they’re the only potential leaks that can be plugged. Meanwhile, there’s a flood of other, more likely possibilities that presumably rages out of control. Since studios and exhibitors cannot possibly front the money to support an airport-like security system at every theater, there’s nothing to stop ordinary moviegoers from sneaking in with their picture phones and snapping away at a rate of 24 frames per second. And speaking as someone who once worked at a movie theater, where prints are delivered a few days in advance for projectionists to build, there’s nothing stopping an unscrupulous employee from holding his own private screening after hours and mounting a video camera on a tripod. Then there are reports of technicians working within the industry itself who leaks copies of work prints to the black market. And on and on and on…

I don’t doubt that movie piracy will become a much bigger problem as time goes on and technology improves, but if the industry keeps looking at critics as the #1 suspects, it’ll get what it deserves.

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