Posted by David Kalat on April 5, 2014
Recently, a number of classic film-oriented message boards and blogs have gotten bogged down in absurd arguments with some commenters, whose petulant sense of entitlement was somehow enraged when their favorite movie wasn’t scheduled for screening on TCM, or made available for free download, or somesuch. I’m not going to repeat the specifics of their complaints, because they’re too ridiculous to properly summarize, and I won’t link to the discussions either because they’ve already gotten more attention than they deserve. This isn’t meant as a specific rebuke to any one person’s argument–there’s no good that can come from getting into fights with anonymous posters on the Internet. Like boxing a shadow, you can’t win and will only end up looking foolish.
That being said, I do have some strongly held opinions on these underlying issues, so here’s my personal mission statement.
To start with, let’s be clear about the principal issue here: movies were not made to be seen. They were made to make money. And for most of the history of movies, the business model under which they made money was a brief period of mass distribution (to theaters, or maybe TV) surrounded by long stretches of enforced scarcity.
You are not entitled to see a movie just because you want to. The argument that the filmmakers made it because they wanted it to be seen and enjoyed is a fallacy. It is true that many films were made by individual artists who also brought an ulterior aesthetic or communicative motive, and in many instances that additional non-cynical, non-commercial attitude is what gave those particular films an added oomph. But it wasn’t universal nor was it essential. Many films made under the most cynical and programmatic of intentions are immensely entertaining, and remain beloved after generations.
You could say that food is meant to be eaten, but that doesn’t give you the right to go into any restaurant you choose and expect to eat for free.
It is also a recurring meme among the internet-enabled anonymous film fans to argue that the intellectual property ownership rights of the original filmmakers are superior to the rights of corporate institutions that just buy or own movies. In other words, video piracy is morally repugnant if you’re denying a royalty to the original filmmakers, but if all you’re doing is depriving a corporation then the bit torrent crowd can be considered modern day Robin Hoods.
This is insane. If someone breaks into your home and steals all your stuff, are they committing one kind of serious crime if they steal furniture you made by hand but a different and lesser crime if they steal furniture you bought?
Let’s go back to first principles: movies are commodities, assets brought into being because investors believe they can profit from them. The people involved in making them did so because that’s their job, and as professionals they were paid.
Once upon a time… no, wait, I can be more precise than that: it was 1978. I was a Godzilla-obsessed child, avidly consuming every piece of Godzilliana that I could. But being a small child, I was dependent on the adults in my life, and the vicissitudes of fate. For example: my parents willingly took me to a drive-in theater in 1976 to see a double-bill of Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, but I was unable to persuade my grandmother to take me to Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster.
TV was easier–you didn’t need to convince someone else to drive you somewhere at a specific time and buy a ticket, you just had to tune in at the right time. Which is where I am in 1978–in front of Turner’s then flagship cable channel, WTBS, for a night of Godzilla. There is the original 1954 classic–or at least its reconfigured American variant, Godzilla King of the Monsters. It’s followed by Rodan. Then, Destroy All Monsters.
Except there’s a problem. I’m just a little kid, with a bed time, and three straight Godzilla movies are going to run on into the late night past that curfew. But my parents, being reasonable people who loved me, gave me a choice: I could watch Godzilla and Rodan and then go to bed, or I could go to bed early and they’d wake me up for Destroy All Monsters.
It was a tough call–seeing two movies versus seeing one was a slight advantage, but I’d seen Rodan before and I knew TBS had it frequent rotation. The other two I’d never seen before–so it was the choice between the first ever Godzilla movie, or one with 11 different monsters having at each other in a sprawling world-smashing melee.
Even at age 8 I knew the importance of film history, so I opted for Plan A, and watched Godzilla and Rodan. When I was forced to turn off the TV and go to bed, I comforted myself with the knowledge that TBS played everything lots of times, and so I’d just wait to catch Destroy All Monsters on its next cycle round.
Flash forward 20 years. That’s not a misprint. 20 years I waited for another chance to see Destroy All Monsters. I kept watching the TV Guide–if it ever cycled back around again, I missed it. It never came to any drive-in near me, and for years it was overlooked on VHS. Eventually in the late 1990s I discovered a subculture of gray market video bootleggers who ended my long dry spell. I’d feel guilty about patronizing bootleggers, but I’ve purchased three properly licensed DVDs, two laserdiscs, and a Blu-Ray since the film became available to me legally so I feel I’ve done my penance.
My point here is that, prior to the 21st century and the current media revolution, watching what you wanted to watch was a hit-or-miss affair. You could spend 20 years waiting for a movie. Or longer–I knew to track Destroy All Monsters because it came into my line of sight in a way that made me pay attention to what I was missing, but the legions of enjoyable, important, satisfying movies I’ve seen in the last 20 years of my life that weren’t available to me in my first 20 are beyond counting.
No, not everything is available. Some movies have ceased to exist. Some remain inaccessible because their owners haven’t worked out commercial terms to their satisfaction yet. And admittedly some require me to expend a fair bit of money or effort to see. But to gripe about any of that in the face of what has been given to me is the pinnacle of selfishness.
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