[30 March 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
My, oh my, do the studios really hate piracy. Actually, that’s far too subtle a sentiment. They loathe the illegal activity, despising it with a passion born out of copyright concerns and fathomable financial realities. While they still refuse to acknowledge the technologically progressive forest for the old school trees, they do have a valid fear and a duty to protect their interests. But for the professional film critic, the individual supposedly catered to for their opinion and their influence, a literal line in the cinematic sand has been drawn. On the one side is the journalist who gets the privilege - albeit fleeting and sometimes flawed - of seeing a movie in advance. And sitting directly across from them are the screening reps, dead convinced that among the reviewing rabble, a bootlegger lives.
Before you scoff at such a suggestion, listen to this - every awards season, studios send out complimentary copies of their titles (some before they even hit theaters), in an attempt to prime the publicity pumps. The hope is that by writing a positive piece and via word of mouth, a wrongly overlooked effort will earn a gold statue or two. Now, in the days before computers, digital files, and massive hard drives, executives didn’t have to worry so much about piracy. Sure, some lesser scribe would make a few duplicates of a videotape for friends, but for the most part, the ingenuity required was inversely proportional to the number of knockoffs. And besides - VHS looked crappy. But thanks to DVD, and science’s ability to manufacture pristine, perfect reproductions, a veiled vigilante justice has taken over.
Now, all screeners come with various copy protections like watermarking, registration numbers, extreme warnings, and image-destroying security scrawls. From the moment you open a UPS box or FedEx envelope, the latest prestige picture sitting inside, you’re bombarded with do’s, don’ts, better not’s, and don’t even think about it’s. Even worse, the scolding makes it sound like you’re already a criminal - no need to actually make a facsimile; just thinking about it is enough to piss Paramount off. And don’t even consider loaning one of these sacred discs out. Imagine the judiciary repercussions if one of your friends’ children (or chum) decides to download an image or two onto their blog. The celluloid DEA will be busting down your door in a heartbeat.
This means that most critics enter the screener arena with a mixture of trepidation and determination. And most are nothing but professional, watching the film and then destroying and/or returning the DVD, as instructed. But producers still palpitate whenever its time to put their product into a human’s home theater set up. They just know that, for every 1000 honest members of the Fourth Estate (or its online equivalent), there’s one bad egg that’s going to post their preview version of Daddy Day Camp on BitTorrent. Now, they have legitimate reason to be concerned. Piracy from foreign regions is rampant, and a few years back, an actual Academy member was charged with uploaded banned content to the web. But just like those doggerel days in elementary school, Fox and friends are prepared to punish the entire class for the actions of one - or a couple - felonious types.
It’s a feeling that carries over to the public screening arena as well. Most word of mouth presentations have their fair share of security - men dressed in suits (or in some cases, black ninja garb…seriously), night vision goggles poised to capture cellphone use and/or camcorder activity. They can be personable or arrogant, taking their job far too seriously or simply taking up space. There have been times when a single Nokia noise gets their undivided attention. At other times - the Cloverfield preview, for one - a dork sitting right next to you can text their buddy over how “AWESUM” the movie is and no one notices. Yet their presence is felt, especially when the studio rep goes out of their way to make everyone aware that the movie police are in the house.
For the most part, critics are immune to their public persecution. We get to know the people in charge, relating to them as like minded co-workers. After all, we are reminded each and every time that our very existence among the rest of the moviegoing public mandates a certain level of individual decorum. As such, we typically don’t get ‘wanded’, aren’t subject to bag searches or body pat downs, and rarely have to wait in line to enter. Most of the time, it’s a wave of recognition, a whispered sentiment to someone new (“they’re with the press”) and a good time is had by all - depending on the film.
Yet there are those odd moments when you’re not sure what planet or plane of existence you’ve just arrived on. During a preview of the Diane Lane loser Untraceable, the rep actually took out a piece of paper, indicated that she was ordered by Lionsgate to read it, and then proceeded to scold us over issues of piracy, copy protection, and file sharing. It was like listening to Metallica lament the MP3 all over again. By the time she finished the two paragraph pitch, eyes rolling back in her head more than once, the audience was uncomfortable. Nothing like browbeating a prospective demographic before they witness your latest mediocre torture porn thriller, right?
Or how about the time that a Spanish speaking security guard, hands decked out in the finest black murderers’ gloves, walked up and down the entire press row, shooting daggers into the eyes of each and every member of the local critical community. As his dark, depressing gaze met theirs, you could literally hear him thinking “Seguir adelante punk. Hacer mi día.” On a side note, one of our loveable lot actually ran into him while in the bathroom. It apparently was a rather memorable exchange. We were assured that, once our commandant hit the urinal, the gloves did indeed come off.
Critics must contend with all types when it comes to doing their job - the curious, the fame seeker, the self-appointed rebutter, the ‘who do you think you are’ anarchist - but the security guard is the most interesting and potentially aggravating of them all. Rarely do they actually escort anyone out. Usually, they are sitting by the side of the theater, idly waiting for the movie to end. Many times this is their third of fourth screening for the week, and no matter how much you love the medium, seeing several films in a short period of time is draining. Most are friendly and personable, doing their job while respecting that you are also doing yours.
But there can be times when power turns the position, and then things get uncomfortable. During a recent screening of The Bank Job, a local radio personality was confronted for turning his cellphone “OFF”. He had just checked his messages before entering the theater, and was making sure the device was disabled before the feature began. Before he could hit the button, an angry hulk of a guard came meandering up, causing a scene where one was not needed. It didn’t matter that the reason this critic had his phone on before was that his father had just passed and he was trying to make funeral arrangements with the rest of the family. Rent-a-cop was going to do his job, no matter how inappropriate the reaction turned out to be.
And just like law enforcement, there are always times when these brutes are nowhere to be found when you actually need them. Audiences nowadays are a chatty, inappropriate bunch. Families bring babies to hard R rated fare, and couples clamor over missed dialogue and living room inside humor. Yet I have never seen a single security guard tell this loud, obnoxious lot to quiet down - or better yet leave. Instead, the audience must police itself, adding their own choruses of “SHHHH” to the fray. If we are to believe that studios hire these people to prevent piracy, that’s all fine and well. Yet anyone hoping they will moderate activity outside of such illegal videotaping are clearly living in a real rube’s wonderland.
The fact remains, sadly, that bootlegging is out of control. Look at any download or P2P site and you’re bond to find the latest releases ready for your camera-in-theater, mixing board soundtrack enjoyment. Studios aren’t actually stopping the activity, just putting on a brave game face for the stockholders come quarterly profit sharing statements. From awards screeners to advance previews, there will always be someone who thinks they can bend the rules to benefit their like minded geek peers. No matter the level of attention they give it, they can never win the war. Apparently, making battle weary those least likely to bootleg is the current strategy. Nothing like a failed approach to cramp one’s style.