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.

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