Monday Morning Critic – What The Massive Pirating Of Sony’s The Interview Says About Us (And Why We Can’t Have Nice Things)

MMC

The big to do over Christmas in the world of cinema was that Sony was dropping The Interview online outside of the handful of theaters that had wanted to screen it. I had thought they’d wait until this spring and try to release it again but they opted to strike while the iron was hot, so I can see why. You do risk having a film without nearly as much free publicity as it’s getting now, on one of the traditionally biggest weekends of the year, debuting with much smaller fanfare than it would now. After turning down an offer from a Torrent website, they dropped it onto YouTube (and their own website) for a fairly reasonable price.

It was actually significantly cheaper to rent it on YouTube than to buy a ticket to see it in theatres.

Predictably it dropped into the usual illegal torrent websites, and for free on YouTube, within a couple hours of its release. It’s been estimated that it was downloaded more than a million times. Sony, trying to make the best of a bad situation, is on track to lose a ton of cash before insurance, et al, kicks in. And even then it won’t cover all of their costs. The $50 million it spent on publicity, marketing and advertising is all gone and the film’s $50 million or so production budget might be a long shot to cover. No matter what happens the film is going to most likely be a significant money loser.

The film may wind up getting close to profitability after DVD sales but significant margins in that market generally only happen on films that gross north of $200 million. That market isn’t nearly as lucrative as it used to be. So far this is an eight figure loss for Sony at the highest on the production budget alone; my guess is that it winds up somewhere near the $8 to $12 million mark as a loss on the production alone. Marketing, as well as the P&A, are a sunk cost and aren’t going to be recouped anytime in the near future.

To go along with the profound level of embarrassment that came from the leaked emails, plus having Al Sharpton on the payroll in more than just his usual “taking graft money from someone embroiled in a controversy” role, now they’re going to lose a crap load of money on their two big releases of the winter 2014. One thing forgotten in the dust up of The Interview is that their remake of Annie is looking like it’ll really need a big foreign sales push to get into the black as well.

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The Interview, which I found time to view (and thought it was absolutely hilarious), is going to be the linchpin of a fourth quarter that will be one for the record books for Sony. They’ll never forget this one, to be fair, as this is going to be one that dictates their behavior in a lot of ways for decades to come. But the one thing that this whole debacle has shown them, alongside the Expendables 3 leak earlier this year, is that the world isn’t ready for the next step forward in film distribution.

The massive pirating within hours of its release, and a public much more willing to download it instead of paying a fairly nominal ticket price (especially in light of the skyrocketing of prices at the theatre), has shown us that when a studio releases something substantial online that people are much more willing to download it illegally than they are willing to actually pay for it.

It’s not quite an unmitigated disaster, as it had a great opening for a film that mainly played online … but it’s pretty close.

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If this was going to be the digital breakthrough that transforms the film industry overnight than the particular narrative of the digital wave of big releases would’ve happened already. It would’ve been the silver lining in this dumpster fire of a situation. It has cleared $15 million, apparently, but in theatres with a wide release it could’ve reasonably double or tripled that number with a wide release given a wide release. It’s been getting good word of mouth, et al, but two million rentals/purchases against one million downloads isn’t enough to make this something anyone will try again.

For years people have openly discussed how that the digital world requires entertainment to rethink its distribution model. The world of cinema has been one that still follows the same model as it did in 2004. Theatrical grosses, DVD sales and any ancillary money you can make fuel the industry’s coffers. It was the same in 2004, when Shrek 2 ruled the box office, and for good reason. The fact that people immediately opted to pirate a film, instead of paying as little as $6 on YouTube to watch it legally, has shown us that for all the bluster of “We want you to change” that comes the online film community is just that.

A major release going the digital route and being profoundly pirated almost immediately makes it all talk, nothing more.

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If I’m anywhere near being in charge of a Hollywood studio I’d advise business as usual right now because the public doesn’t really want to pay for a film online that’s of any substance. They want to talk about it and talk about it, but this particular case study has shown that people aren’t ready and that the market isn’t there.

Nearly a million illegal downloads, and nowhere near that amount of legal purchases, shows you exactly what people think when it comes to vote with their wallets. When we make fun of Hollywood for running PSAs about piracy during a weekend when a film like The Avengers crosses $200 million in less than three days let’s look at a moment like this for the reason why. No film of note is going to be released digitally at the same time as a major theatrical release as long as piracy remains such a part of the digital commerce of film and entertainment.

When you hear people complain about how they don’t go to the movies anymore for any number of reasons, or why Hollywood is always for the worst bills when it comes to the internet, look at what happened with The Interview and realize that until Hollywood has assurances that the internet pirates won’t strike immediately they’ll continue to make the theaters their annual battlegrounds. It’s the same argument you have when people complain about Transformers films and complain why Michael Bay can’t make a ‘good’ film.

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People want the appearance of being able to rent/buy a film off YouTube or another service but the handful that would pay good money for the right to see a high level, first run film are outnumbered by people who’d rather find an “alternative” means of viewing the same film. No studio is going to try to intentionally sell a big production with the hope of online revenues matching what they could make in a theatre. Not now, not within the next decade or so.

The key to releasing something like this will be some guarantee that they amount of people who see their film won’t be lopsided on the “didn’t give us a dime” category when breaking down the viewership.

One million people seeing a film without paying translates to potentially $8-10 million in lost revenues. Eight to ten million dollars in lost revenues talks much more loudly than online petitions and circlejerks wanting Hollywood to “get with the times” and move to at least partially embracing the digital era. That’s enough money to get every major hip hop act from 1980 to 2003 to do a dignity destroying commercial for GEICO. That’s also enough money for someone like Amy Pascal to go to Chris Dodd “Write the most destructive internet piracy bill you can” and not be wrong in her motivations to do so.

The piracy involving The Interview this past weekend, when it could’ve been a game changer, is why we can’t have nice things.

Stuff for General George S. Pimpage, Esq

I reviewed 7 Assassins and unboxed it, too. Apparently unboxing is a thing and we’re doing it now, so give me some clickage love because it’s the wave of the future here.

I saw The Gambler and it could’ve been great … without Mark Wahlberg in it.

The Entourage film trailer is here and … well … it’s looking more like a fail.

The Imitation Game should win Benedict Cumberbatch an Oscar, as he’s exceptional, but the film itself isn’t all that good.

Mike Noyes drops it real with an inspired look at the Hobbit trilogy finale.

Travis drops some box office bombs.

And now, for the final time in 2014, on MMC we drop a slow jam with my boys at Uncommon Records. A buddy of mine from back in the day is on their label, for full disclosure, and indie music needs its support too. Give them clickage love, too.

If you want to pimp anything email it to me with a good reason why. It helps to bribe me with stuff, just saying ….

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

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This week’s DVD – Veronica Mars

I had never watched the television show that inspired this film, nor did I see it in theatres, but a gift card combined with a fairly reasonable price tag made me want to take a chance on this film with a blind buy. Normally I’m not the blind buy type, picking something up only if I’ve seen it in theatres or on Netflix, but a gift card is like the ultimate pass for DVDs. If you don’t like it … well … it just feels like a bad Christmas present you pass off to someone else after six months.

Oddly enough it turned out to be one of my favorite films of the year, a solid honorable mention underneath my Top 10 of 2014.

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) was a teenage detective who dealt with her best friend’s death by becoming a PI, like her father. Spending high school and her freshman year of college as an investigator, she would leave it all behind to transfer to Stanford. Now, 10 years removed from high school, her detective years remain in the past as she’s now a newly minted attorney looking to get into corporate work. But things from her home conspire to get her to return, just in time for her high school reunion, when her ex (Jason Dohring) has been accused of murdering his musician girlfriend in a highly publicized way.

Veronica, only there to provide advice on proper legal representation, winds up picking up the detective instincts and now has her newest case. Sprinkle in some danger, and some angst from her days in high school, and Rob Thomas has crafted a film that is a valentine to fans of the show but can stand alone as a neo-noir thriller on its own.

The key is that the film establishes Veronica’s past, the three seasons of the show, with a quick montage early where the essentials facts are presented. The rest is following Veronica as the lifestyle of the PI draws her in against her stated desire of being a high powered corporate attorney. It’s against her father’s wishes and her desire to leave Neptune, CA, is a big thing especially when she goes to her reunion.

The film works on a lot of levels because it combines the best parts of 10 Years, about going back to a high school reunion when you’re not the same person you were back then, with a great pulpy crime film. Veronica Mars works because it takes a past already established and gives us a character using genuine introspection about it. Bell is an interesting choice for a noir detective, even on a TV show, but it works because they keep a feminine edge to her while making her a hardened detective (even after all these years of not being on the job). She’s conflicted, seeing the life almost preordained for her (being a detective) and the one as far away from it as possible.

There’s a strong conflict, as we feel why her becoming a PI is such a profound disappointment. It’s exceptional that this gets established so early; for someone with no working knowledge of the show I can say that it wasn’t hard to get into the film despite not being a fan or having watched the show. Veronica Mars works more effectively for that audience, I imagine, but as someone without it I got into it and enjoyed it markedly.

Strong recommendation.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound

The Woman in Black 2 – After killing Harry Potter, she’s back!

Skip it – This has that January “dumping” feel to it; it’ll be on Netflix in early March, if you can wait.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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