On Piracy and Promotion

Charlie:  Dad, how can you hate The Colonel?

Stuart (Scottish accent):  Because he puts an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes you crave it fortnightly, Smart Ass!

– So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993) –

As mentioned in much older posts, my father was an advertising professional, principally a creative director but also a manager.  And one lesson he preached to his colleagues, employees, students, and even to his clients was that good advertising can only sell a bad product one time.  In particular, there was one client I remember that probably danced with every agency in Los Angeles at one time or another, convinced that a fresh campaign could sell a particular offering to a certain audience they were simply never going to attract.

I think Dad’s axiom remains sound. If consumers really don’t want something, advertising can’t make them want it—at least not more than once.  In fact, I imagine this principle is more acutely understood in the digital age, given the diffuse nature of all communications; scattered consumer attention; and the capacity of social media to provide rapid-response word-of-mouth that either endorses or criticizes a specific product or service.  This does not mean, of course, that advertising is unnecessary.  Apple, which is arguably in a class by itself as a brand, also had a reported advertising budget of $1 billion as of early 2013.  Anyone who thinks Apple can just turn that spigot off and let social media platforms enable consumers to “market for them” is smoking both ends of his crack pipe.

Interestingly, marketing a theatrical feature film is a bit like selling a product just one time. The production cost of big movies can be so high and the attention span of the market so brief, that opening weekend, box-office revenue has become an even more critical threshold for many films than it was just ten years ago.  Naturally, Hollywood studios did not create the pressures of this market alone; they had help from the same digital technologies that today provide us consumers with myriad other options to entertain ourselves on any given weekend—or even the opportunity to pirate films rather than to see them in theaters.  So, yes, the marketing urgency is fraught with the need to capture the fickle audiences that remain willing to go to the movies. But advertising is still not going to drive consumers to do anything they don’t want to do.

Nevertheless, a strange, complementary sentiment to the trope that piracy is good for promoting movies is one that wants to believe that the official marketing of theatrical features is nothing but a grotesquely expensive effort to “cram lousy entertainment down people’s throats.”* Some readers may immediately notice the contradiction that if the entertainment product itself is assumed to be lousy and unwanted, there’s really no point in discussing its promotion, either by traditional or piratical means. Yet, this rather obvious hypocrisy is overlooked when the pirate user or promoter effectively says,  “I hate Hollywood and its terrible movies, and besides piracy is good for promotion.”

Surely, if both of these statements are true, then one would want to avoid “helping” the industry one hates. But of course both statements are not necessarily true; and in a macro sense, neither statement is true.  If millions of viewers had, for example, no interest in seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, these same uninterested viewers would surely not be eager to watch ripped versions of the film on little screens. No, the reason the widely reported, pre-release piracy of this movie was a big deal is because the film is already a big deal—and it’s not the piracy that made it big.  Tarantino’s track record and his cast of famous actors were not exactly suffering from obscurity when the group calling itself Hive-CM8 decided to leak the film ahead of its theatrical release. And the suggestion that this kind of blockbuster film needs the pirates to “promote” their movie is adorably silly.

Fueling this rationale, though, it seems it has become more common for consumers—or at least piracy apologists—to feel they have been “ripped off” whenever a film is disappointing.  This trend, if it is a trend, is a strange way to approach the experience of moviegoing.  A film isn’t a fifteen-hundred-dollar appliance you rely on in your home every day; it’s two hours of entertainment shared with family or a date or friends.  It’s an experience that, even if it’s bad, provides a basis for discussion or thought or criticism or ridicule. I say this as someone who likes far less mainstream fare than many viewers; and so I don’t really understand the “consumer protection” attitude being applied to entertainment through the filter of rationalizing piracy.  After all, I would never walk into an Avengers film expecting anything other than spectacle and fight scenes and banter; but I would also never walk into a Spike Jonze movie thinking, “Man if he doesn’t deliver as well as his last film, I’m going to demand my money back.”  That just isn’t how it works.

When I took the family to see the new Star Wars film, I was exactly as entertained and ambivalent as I expected to be because I have never been a big Star Wars fan (cue hate mail). Yet, despite knowing this about my expectations when I entered the theater, I didn’t haggle with the guy at the ticket booth and say, “Look, I’m only half as eager to see this film as that dude wearing the wookie shirt, so I think I should pay half price.” Neither did I go see The Force Awakens against my will because its marketing made me do it. General curiosity and something to do with the kids is ample reason to go to the damn movies.

Cultural experiences, whether high or low-brow, don’t come with warranties. They are, by nature, experimental.  And, it’s very rare to find creators who produce great stuff without also producing not-so-great stuff. Meanwhile, audiences differ on their views about the “best work” anyway. So, as with most advertising, motion picture marketing is largely about letting consumers know the product is out there, while a prospective viewer often knows his/her own interest level the moment a film is announced to be in pre-production or even development.  Beyond that, it’s a huge damn gamble, and when it comes time to release, the marketing professionals are asking themselves, “How do we get a critical mass in the seats on opening weekend?” But they still know that if that first wave of viewers walks out tweeting “This film sucked,” that’s the ballgame.  A $100 million investment that can be DOA in a single night—whether you love or hate the film itself—is a marketing challenge predicated on exactly the opposite logic of “forcing” unwanted products onto the consumer. It’s knowing the consumer will make or break you with the swipe of a thumb and praying you’ve met or exceeded her expectations.

If piracy were really about promotion or exposure, then the pirate sites would ignore Hollywood blockbusters and pre-releases of big films—which are apparently all bad products “forced” onto the public anyway—and the most-pirated films would be independent, small, and obscure works that are simply never going to be hugely popular. (Not that I advocate pirating these works; I’m simply alluding to a hypocrisy in the promotion argument.)  I recognize of course that there are viewers who use pirate sites to access harder-to-find or “out-of-print” titles, but if the piracy market were limited to these audiences alone, the entire ecosystem would shrink by orders of magnitude overnight; and this whole conversation would be very different.  As it stands today, though, there would be no movie piracy without Hollywood blockbusters; and those films really don’t need help with their marketing.

*One finds this theme more often in comments sections than in the body of articles and posts, but it is not an uncommon theme.

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Oh there is an infinite capacity for self-delusion and latching on to some justification to do what you want to do anyway. Back in the day we said that it wasn’t the tobacco that was harmful it was the chemicals in the cigarette papers, so hand rolling, cigars, and pipe smoking was OK. That our drug of choice was no more harmful than alcohol, etc. The p2p addicts have a similar pile of justifications.

  • David–
    “Anyone who thinks Apple can just turn that spigot off and let social media platforms enable consumers to “market for them” is smoking both ends of his crack pipe.”

    It’s been known to happen.

    In the US, Japanese animation and comics became popular largely through the efforts of pirates. True, there were a handful of legitimately imported series (Speed Racer, Star Blazers, etc.) but there was a vast amount of material which didn’t make it over here. American fans set up groups, originally using Laserdisc as masters and distributing on VHS through the mail, which would identify good shows and movies, translate them into English, subtitle (or in rare cases, dub) them, and provide copies to other fans at cost.

    This would popularize works which the creators never ever intended to market here, and which they never tried to market or sell here. The pirates were the only marketing because they were fans and fans like to share things with other people and build up fanbases. In a number of cases, they built up enough interest that official distribution arrangements were set up. The pirates, being gigantic fans (who else would bother with all the effort for niche works?) typically would stop work on and distribution of a particular series once it was licensed, since the pirated version would no longer be necessary.

    Even now that there is a reasonably viable market for these works, a great deal of material still doesn’t get distributed here, so fans continue to step in where the market will not. The response by the original rights holders in Japan and international licensees has generally (though not universally) been tolerant or welcoming of this, even thanking fans for their efforts.

    Of course this isn’t a phenomenon limited to bringing in material from Japan to the US. All around the world you can find people interested in foreign media that is not available to them by means other than piracy or unauthorized importation (which is sometimes the same thing or at least is argued to be). As a result, they go ahead and do it anyway.

    It’s not surprising. Fans are going to do fan things come hell or high water. Copyright can be used to make money from their interest in works, but cannot effectively be used against them; it’ll either be ignored or worse be so successful that the fans turn to something else, harming future attempts at monetization.

    • Anonymous, sorry I never responded to this. While there are exceptions to rules, and it cannot be denied that unauthorized access to products can reveal a hidden market, this doesn’t necessarily refute the larger point. And I’ll stand by what I said about Apple; it doesn’t lack for market penetration or global recognition of its brand, but that doesn’t mean it can stop its professional marketing campaigns. To the contrary, the computer market changes too rapidly to not be communicating constantly with consumers.

      On the moral question, the fact that fans want what they want is not justification for an outside party to take it upon themselves to make products available, no matter what those products are. Moreover the pirates in this case aren’t doing anything altruistically, they’re in it for profit; and the growth rate of piracy indicates that it has not slowed (at least on a large scale) with the concurrent availability of legal access to works.

      I get the obscure works argument; I’ve heard it many times. But it’s largely gibberish. If pirates limited their “offerings” to obscure, out-of-print works, the entire conversation would be very different. We’d be talking about a tiny black market comprising niche fans and a comparatively small volume of infringements. I’m not saying that would suddenly justify piracy, only that referring to the obscure works argument in a paradigm of massive piracy of mainstream, headliner material is disingenuous.

      • Another way. Someone might grow a couple of cannabis plants for their own use and a couple of friends. Few would get worked up about it. Once they’ve converted their basement, attic, garage, spare bedroom, into a hydroponic production unit and have a constant stream of people at their door then there is something different going on.

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