Why I Stopped Downloading Films

As I mentioned in my previous post, my resolution for 2014 is to watch 365 films, all acquired through legitimate means. While I made the decision to stop downloading films illegally around two years ago, the recent court ruling forcing Canadian Internet service provider TekSavvy to provide Voltage Pictures with information on TekSavvy clients who had downloaded the production company’s films – and thereby setting a precedent in the common law courts  – has made this decision even more appealing. My desire to avoid litigation aside, my decision was based on other – though arguably equally self-serving – grounds.

Since I completed my undergraduate degree in Cinema Studies in 2011, I have been working to establish a career in the film industry, and have worked with various companies and organisations in the Canadian film and media industries. The same industries that even in the less than three years since I began taking on internships, has changed drastically with major companies merging and being bought out in both the exhibition and distribution fields. These changes, along with a less than ideal economic environment, and a morally troubling dependence on and expectation of unpaid labour in the film industry makes it a particularly difficult one to break into. And yet, many like me continue to work towards finding these jobs in cinema. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I do believe that most people in this industry (and though I wont here, this argument can be extended to most other arts industries) have a passion for film and a dedication to contributing to other’s love and experiences with film. This is why I stopped downloading films.

Unlike some of my fellow cinema studies students, my public schools were not equipped with film classes, nor did I look to public arts classes for experience. Instead I satisfied myself with TVO’s now defunct Saturday Night at the Movies, and my parents’ Blockbuster memberships. Despite this lack of filmic experience growing up, I knew my interest in cinema was sincere enough to ensure I enrolled in cinema studies in my first year of university. Initially intimidated by the more worldly viewing habits of the other students, I eventually learned to ignored the pretentious looks I got after admitting I hadn’t seen a certain Russian/French/Japanese/German/Art House/cult film/experimental masterpiece and actually expand my film experience both in the class room, and in my dorm room, taking complete advantage of the excellent campus peer-to-peer file sharing platform.

But I’m not a student anymore. And although I’m not gainfully employed, I can no longer justify cannibalising the industry I am so dedicated to working in. I have seen the work it takes to bring a film to market, and while this is a drastically different trajectory for a film like The Hunger Games compared to documentaries, experimental pieces, art films, or independent films, there are still individuals working on these films that are dedicating their time, energy, and experience to the production, distribution, and exhibition of their film. As someone who would like to be one of those people, I will not devalue that labour to allow me to watch a film two months before it is released on an SVOD platform.

I admit this is a little self-righteous, but it’s also self-preserving. And part of the reason I find it easier to make – and stick to – this decision (and why I feel comfortable hectoring certain members of my family to stop buying bootlegged copies of films from Pacific Mall) now is that film companies have started to do a much better job at making their films more accessible to the public. The same public who will watch films through legitimate means when it is reasonably available to them. This brings me back to the Voltage/TekSavvy lawsuit. Voltage Pictures absolutely has a right and a duty (to their stakeholders) to protect their copyrighted material. If companies did not ensure that they were pursuing the appropriate monitisation for their material they would be unable to sustain themselves financially. (Putting aside any argument as to whether these goods are being priced appropriately according to their inherent value to society.) That being said, it is also incumbent upon a company to exploit any potential revenue streams to the best of their ability. Specifically, giving the public the opportunity to pay for the film in some accessible manner, which today frequently means through VOD, Pay TV, and SVOD models.

This is where the privilege of my decision shines through. As a middle class (ish) person living in Toronto, I am able to reach at least 10 theatres within a half hour of travelling time. Seven are walkable (more so in the summer). One theatre is across the street from me. For an individual in a rural community, or even in many small towns, physically going to a theatre to see a film that is even marginally outside of the mainstream is unachievable. Let alone individuals with any type of accessibility challenge. As our internet infrastructure is improving to these areas, fully realised digital distribution is the best way to access these people and give them the opportunity to pay for their media comsumption. And more importantly, to access them as customers, instead of defendants.

My Paradoxical Relationship with the Academy Awards

31st_Acad_Awards

For fifteen years I watched the Oscars. Despite being only seven-years-old and the tradition of a Sunday (read: school night, for those of us on the East Coast) ceremony, my reverence of the grandiosity and pomp surrounding American cinemas biggest night knew no bounds. It seemed I couldn’t have picked a better inaugural ceremony than that held on March 28, 1998: the Year of Titanic. My excitement was particularly buoyed by the fact that my Toronto-based family happened to be in Los Angeles on that particular day, as we enjoyed the final moments of a family vacation. My parents, unsusceptible to my determined, and (retrospectively) unreasonable pleas to take me to mob the Shrine Auditorium on the way to the airport repeatedly attempted to placate me with the fact that, upon returning home, I would be able to watch the Oscars on television. My life-long poor sleeping habits notwithstanding, this was nonetheless a gross violation of my bedtime, and eventually I was satisfied with the compromise.

My Oscar tradition both begins, and ends with Billy Crystal. That night, I was transfixed by all the Academy had to offer. I realistically remember little more than the general look of the gaudy set pieces, and realistically recognised no one. But I was hooked. And so I continued for the next 13 ceremonies, some years more out of tradition than interest. Until, Billy Crystal’s return to hosting in the midst of the controversy surrounding Brett Ratner’s ouster.

The stakes had never seemed lower. After the previous year’s combination of predictability and mediocrity, and still smarting from what I felt were the great injustices paid to the many films I had deeply enjoyed, which received no acknowledgement from the Academy, I came to one conclusion: I didn’t care. And for the first time, I didn’t have a place to watch the Oscars. An admittedly overly melodramatic statement, but a true one nonetheless. I was living in an apartment, and being the good Gen Y-er I am, a television cable subscription was not something I particularly cared about or needed. While I certainly could have turned to a friend, or relative, or to one of the many places screening the Oscars in Downtown Toronto, I honestly couldn’t be bothered. And I haven’t since.

That being said, I probably follow the Academy Awards – and the award shows leading up to them – more closely than ever. This finally brings me to my point: the Academy Awards both do, and don’t matter.

While I have been able to separate myself, and my personal annual favourites from the monotony of the frequently (though, certainly not always) bland cinematic offerings lauded every year – mostly, if I’m being completely honest it still stings – the mechanics of the award show are more visible to me than ever, and so are the financial consequences for the winners and nominees.

I once heard that to get nominated for an Oscar is an accomplishment, to win is luck. While admittedly this statement does not reflect the myriad of ways the Academy ignores quality films, I would also like to amend this slightly by adding “and marketing” to the end. This year’s nominees were amended last month, when Bruce Broughton was disqualified for emailing Academy members reminding them of his submission for the Best Original Song nominee “Alone Yet not Alone.” What is so striking about this disqualification, is not the apparent abuse of power, but that the rules of Oscar campaigning had actually drawn a line at all. More than one statue has been given out to the best marketing campaign. The moral of this story ultimately is: when in doubt, call Harvey.

So, where does that leave us? To watch, or not to watch. While I can’t dictate, or really even point to one strategy over another, I do have a few recommendations:

1. Do not get upset when your favourite film doesn’t win. This one can be hard as many of us have very emotional attachments to the films we love. But that affection is in no way reduced by the lack of a statue. You already liked the film when it had nothing, realistically nothing has changed.

2. Do no get upset when your favourite film doesn’t get nominated. See above.

3. Do find some way to enjoy yourself, if you do decide to watch the ceremony. Whether you come for the fashion, to see Jack Nicholson sit front row in sunglasses (though unfortunately not as much recently, come back Jack!), or if you have a top notch bitchy drinking game to play with your friends, if you’re going to commit three-plus hours of your life to something, you might as well have a good time. 

4. Do question the categories. How would our understanding of film change if we had only a “best performance” category, instead of the somewhat arbitrary gender split? Can we do better than best “foreign language film”? And,

5. Don’t look to the Oscars to dictate your film watching. In any given year countless films (sometimes the best ones) come out that will receive absolutely no attention from the Academy. If you’re primarily interested in the struggles of solitary, English-speaking men against society/nature/themselves/etc., then the Oscars is probably your best bet. But you’re going to miss out on a lot.  

Or don’t do any of these things. I’ll be too busy not watching the ceremony, and obsessively refreshing the list of winners.