Friday, July 23, 2010

Judgement Trumps Experience

Unless you've made a commercially successful film, you have no place in the debate over movie piracy.
This isn't the first time this argument has come up in debates over movie piracy. Truthfully, it must be one of the most ignorant things I've ever heard. Do you have to be designer to spot bad design? Do you have to be a writer to recognize bad writing? Do you have to spend time making and selling horse whips to realize that the horse whip business model is becoming obsolete with the invention of the automobile?

There is no school for presidents, yet new presidents seem to do just fine. You can have tons of experience and still make poor judgement calls, as we have seen with the record industry's gradual nose dive over the last decade.

The whole reason I haven't made a commercially successful feature film is mostly because of circumstance—I have two daughters who monopolize most of my time. But even then, I have had the chance to produce feature movies numerous times and on each occasion, I've chosen not to because all my research pointed at one ugly conclusion: the current business model for making films is intrinsically flawed. A shift has happened in the last five years that has radically changed how films are getting their money recouped, or not. Piracy plays an increasingly larger role in that landscape, and that scares the shit out of me. I absolutely am not going to look an investor in the eye and tell him he's going to make his money back if I haven't done my own due diligence to prove it.

So I vowed to myself that I should make it my life's mission to completely master how film distribution worked before making my own movie. After all, doesn't it make sense that you must know how much your product will sell for before you draw up your budget? If the product doesn't sell for what you expect, then you're saving yourself a whole lot of anguish by not gathering money to create that product. Right?

After two years of research, I finally figured out what was going in the film business. At the root of problem were two key factors:
  1. there was a complete misunderstanding of the new economics in play;
  2. there was an industry-wide denial from anyone with skin in the game.
As for #1, the internet has introduced the concept of abundance into economics. For thousands of years, economics has been dominated by an understanding of how best to allocate scarce resources, but when you can copy things digitally—when each copy is an exact replica of the original—those things aren't scarce at all, but abundant. In the grand scheme of history, the internet is brand new and we're only now starting to get our head around what it is, and what it means. Sure, we try to graft Analog Age concepts onto it like Intellectual Property (as if anyone can own an idea), but the way we consume and share ideas is unlike anything we have known about how we use scarce resources. Once you get that concept (and I was militantly resistant to the idea for almost a decade), you see that business models that have been around for almost a century are becoming obsolete and new business models will inevitably replace them. The artists who have based their business models on an understanding of the new economics in play have done famously well, like Amanda Palmer who got kicked off her label (at her request) and then made $15,000 in only 3 minutes.

As for #2, I can't say I blame people in the film industry for being in denial about how things are changing. Nobody with $15 million riding on the line is seriously willing to contemplate that their business model is becoming, or has become, obsolete. What they want or don't to be true is moot—the car replaced horse & buggy drivers, the printing press replaced manuscript illuminators, and the internet will have similar effects on legacy delivery systems like records, CDs, DVDs, and books. Deny that change if you wish, but it doesn't stop the wave from destroying your sand castle.

The changes in the market are now so clear to me that it would be suicide to enter the marketplace in the traditional way to make a commercially successful movie. And if that is the only price of admission I must pay to get my message through to those in denial, then I pray for their survival as I watch their car tragically head for the cliff.