Pirates on the High Seas (of the Internet)

I read a pretty spectacular article from Forbes.com today about how the MPAA and RIAA are fighting a losing battle against piracy.  The article echoes statements I’ve made in the past, though not on this blog (…that I can find, anyway…).

The author is blunt and to the point: the movie industry is being dragged kicking and screaming to a future that practically all their customers want, and they’re losing revenue in doing so.  They could make their money back on volume by making their movies a). easier to access, and b). cheaper.

The primary problem movie studios have to realize is that everything they charge for is massively overpriced. The fact that movie ticket prices keep going up is astonishing. How can they possibly think charging $10-15 per ticket for a new feature is going to increase the amount of people coming to theaters rather than renting the movie later or downloading it online for free? Rather than lower prices, they double down, saying that gimmicks like 3D and IMAX are worth adding another $5 to your ticket.

They have failed to realize that people want things to be easy. Physically going to the movies is hard enough without paying way too much for the privilege. Going to a store and buying a DVD instead of renting or downloading is generally an impractical thing to do unless you A) really love a particular movie or B) are an avid film buff or collector.

Here’s the part I’ve been most concerned by: rising ticket prices.  Why go to a movie theater to spend $10-$15 on a ticket, plus an additional $10+ on “food?”  Granted, I have a toddler so my movie viewing in theaters has decreased tremendously in the past few years anyway, but with the advent of Netflix, I have all kinds of things to watch, and now I have the will to wait until a movie comes out on DVD.  Especially when the summer blockbusters are looking more and more like that “Battleship” ad you saw during the Super Bowl.  Now, if I could see a non-IMAX, non-DTS movie in the theater and get a medium-sized non-refillable soda for $10?  I’d do that.  No question.

Finally, the author suggests a solution to this problem: the movie industry needs their equivalent of the gaming industry’s digital distribution platforms (e.g. Steam). Heck, they need Apple’s iTunes.  Make buying the product so stupid simple that it takes less effort to buy it than it does to steal it.  As he points out, it takes 7 steps to download a movie illegally, and depending on your internet connection, you could have an HD-quality movie in a half hour.  If the movie industry would just get behind an Apple or Amazon model of 1). find movie, and 2). click “buy” (for a reasonable price).

Let us recall music piracy of the late-90s/early-2000s for a moment.  Back then, you could go on Napster or Kazaa and search to find music you wanted, but you’d easily find tens or hundreds of the same track, each one with different sound qualities.  You could easily download a track you thought was good, but after downloading, you’d find actually had multiple “hiccups” in the file.  iTunes streamlined the process.  Search to download one song that you knew was of relatively high quality and was consistent with the rest of your iTunes library.  Moreover, you’d see that you could get a song for $1, but the entire album for $10, undercutting what was easily $15 at most brick-and-mortar retailers.  So in many respects, at least with iTunes, there was a chance you’d “up sell” your customer on getting the whole album, rather than just a single song.

iTunes made it easy and people flocked to it.  Does music piracy still happen?  Absolutely, but now, people have a reasonable, viable alternative that I’d argue most people consider before pirating albums.

Steam did the same thing for the gaming industry, making it stupid simple to download a digital copy of a computer game without having to search through seedy sectors of the internet looking for a pirated copy (that could include viruses or other malware).  They can even upgrade your graphics drivers and more for you when you install the game, streamlining the process further to make life for the consumer that much better.  Many PC games are released day and date with their “physical media” counterparts.  In many cases, you can actually have the game downloaded and then get it “unlocked” at midnight on its release day.  For PC games, you can’t get much more convenient.  You don’t even have to get out of your pajamas…

If piracy has taught us anything it’s that the movie industry thinks that an audience watching their movies on a computer or TV screen, while that same movie is still out in theaters, is important.  If this is really the case, the movie industry should do the smart thing and release movies online day and date with their release in theaters.  Charge $10 to rent it, making the cost comparable with a ticket to the theater (though that $10 is then divided up among the number of people watching the movie in your living room).

Obviously, some people don’t care if the movie is in IMAX or has super-duper Dolby Digital Sound or smell-o-vision: they just want to watch the damned movie.  They don’t want to deal with crappy popcorn prices.  They don’t want to deal with screaming kids or people talking through the whole thing.  They don’t want to fight for a decent seat in a packed theater.  They don’t want to drive their car and park in a lot.  They don’t want to pay upwards of $30 to see a movie on a Saturday afternoon.  There are any number of reasons folks don’t want to go to a movie theater, while others still like going.  There’s no reason the movie industry can’t cater to both demographics and make money doing it.

So, take heed, Movie and TV Industry. You’re being surpassed by other content purveyors.  Make it easy to access your content and I assure you, people will return to you and buy more of your stuff.

And stop taking your anger out on Netflix…that isn’t helping anything…

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