Veteran film and TV producer Martha De Laurentiis was on Capitol Hill yesterday to take part in an event called Meet the Producers, presented by CreativeFuture in conjunction with the Creative Rights Caucus. Specifically, De Laurentiis has been motivated to speak in opposition to the false belief that piracy doesn’t cause harm to real people. As the executive producer of the hit TV series Hannibal, she notes in a corresponding OpEd in The Hill that the show was the fifth-most illegally downloaded program and suggests that the level of piracy was just enough to contribute to the cancellation of the series after three seasons. “With more than 2 million viewers watching our show illegally, it’s hard not to think online pirates were, at the very least, partly responsible for hundreds of crew members losing their jobs and millions of fans — who watched the show legitimately — mourning the loss of a beloved program,” writes De Laurentiis.
To put two million viewers in perspective, a hit like The Daily Show has had roughly one million regular viewers at its peaks. So De Laurentiis is hardly being whimsical when she implies that Hannibal had technically earned enough viewers to sustain itself, but that if too many viewers choose unlicensed platforms, they can kill off production. Above all, I’m glad to see De Laurentiis focus her attention on the skilled workers who make these shows happen. The “small screen” is indeed enjoying a golden era, with writing and production values that were historically the exclusive bragging rights of feature films. But nobody should kid themselves into thinking those production values are cheaper to achieve today because of digital technology. They’re not. And anyone who says otherwise simply has no idea what the hell he’s talking about.
The number of skilled technicians involved in achieving a specific look, mood, and style—and then maintaining those qualities consistently for the hours of footage that become a TV series—would still surprise most viewers. Their names go by in credits we don’t read, in type that can’t even be read on a tiny screen, if that’s how you view; but there is absolutely no way to produce quality shows without these people. And some of their skills take years to develop under the apprenticeship of master technicians and craftspeople.
Skilled workers don’t get cheaper over time, and neither should we want them to. We want wages for everyone, no matter where they work, to keep up with the cost of living. To wish otherwise is self-destructive. And, as I have tried to argue in the past, killing off otherwise viable TV shows through piracy isn’t just about the shows themselves; it’s about the lighting crew guy in your neighborhood who tightens his belt and doesn’t patronize your place of business as a result. It’s how we kill a whole segment of the middle-class economy. And we have enough problems in that regard as it is.
We know what the middle-man pundits usually say to observations like those of De Laurentiis. They say, “adapt”. They say, piracy can’t be stopped, so change the business model to adapt to the market we have. But there is only on rational response to these voices, and that’s to tell them to shut the hell up. These people are idiots, and it’s time for more professionals who know what they’re talking about to call these pundits out for their idiocy. If with my zero years of experience in aircraft manufacturing, I told executives at Boeing that their supply chain management needed retooling, I would sound like an idiot. That’s what people who’ve never been anywhere near a film or TV production sound like when they say “adapt”.
Martha De Laurentiis is herself a part of film industry royalty, if you will. The widow of legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, cynics and piracy-apologists could choose to dismiss her as just a member of the Hollywood elite. But where does that excuse get us exactly? If there is to be film and television at all, there will be producers and executives and studios and networks of one type or another. And these producers will still need to hire thousands of skilled workers with years of training in lighting, camera work, production design, wardrobe, make-up, post-production, and the management skills to oversee the insanity of coordinating all the many departments into an on-time, on-budget delivery of the show you want to watch.
I’ve been on a fair number of shoots. And whenever these have been location shoots, I’ve noticed a consistent habit among passers by. Film crews attract a crowd, but people rarely stop for long because they quickly realize there’s nothing to look at most of the time. It’s a bunch of people doing what seem like uninteresting tasks; maybe a guy is carrying some cable while another adjusts a light by an inch and half; a handful of people are discussing the next setup or a change in the schedule; a few guys wait on the backs of open trucks while some grab coffee. If it’s really exciting, the 1st AC is marking focal points on the lens while the DP looks through a filter at the clouds passing overhead. If onlookers were able to watch a montage intercutting among each individual or group doing their jobs, it would seem fast-paced, which is how it feels as a member of the team. But the wide shot from the outsider’s view is usually slow and static. It’s like watching a construction crew. It’s just a bunch of people working hard, doing things that not everyone knows how to do. And it’s the only way this stuff winds up on the screen.