This is the 21st Century, Paging Mr. Valenti…

Jack Valenti is at it again. He reckons digital piracy is the biggest single threat faced by the film industry. The man never ceases to amaze me – if he’s not lobbying for an increase in copyright duration that is both entirely unjustifiable and unnecessary (except to the movie studios’ bottom lines), he’s railing against the terrors of the Internet. Has the man no clue at all? Let’s look at some facts here, shall we? Last year, in North America alone, the box-office take was a record $9.5 billion dollars. That was more than ten percent up on 2001, and marked the biggest increase since 1957. Hardly symptomatic of an industry at death’s door.

Valenti also invoked comparisons with the music industry, which are extremely wild of the mark. If you download a song off the Internet and listen to it on your computer, it’ll sound just the same as if you bought the CD – this is the major appeal. Does anyone really think that seeing, say, The Matrix Reloaded at the cinema will be identical to watching a grainy copy on your computer screen? Hardly. Figures show that half the cinema audience are between 12-29 – exactly the same people most likely to have broadband access and be engaging in all this supposed piracy.

Okay, but what about the impact on sales to the home market, which make up a sizable chunk of returns these days? True, except there are still a whole plethora of differences. In our house, we have three TVs and four computers – the biggest TV is roughly ten times the area of the biggest computer screen, and has a much better sound-system. Until computer downloads come with THX sound, commentaries, featurettes and so forth, there is simply no competition.

I will happily admit to having watched downloaded movies. I can also say, with a perfectly clear conscience, that not one less cinema ticket or DVD has been bought as a result. We regularly acquire films ahead of their Hollywood release too – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for one – and if anything, that simply made us more eager to go and see it at the cinema. We’ll certainly still be in line for Shaolin Soccer whenever it comes out, though no doubt Miramax will be raping it with a bad dub and funky rap soundtrack.

The Internet poses no more of a threat than television, or even borrowing someone else’s copy of a film – which Valenti would probably also like to ban, since it reduces the return. Taken to its logical conclusion, he would like to insist that we pay every time we watch a DVD, and the amount would be determined by how many people are in the room. Dammit, every single person should have to buy their own personal copy!

Ludicrous? Absolutely. But Valenti needs to realise that technological locks will not be the answer he hopes, since there are a lot of people out there who regard encryption as a personal challenge. The music industry has shown just how well lawsuits work i.e. not at all (I suspect lawyers’ fees are equally responsible for the drop in profits as Napster and its offspring!), and if the film industry wants to avoid going the same way, it should embrace technology.

Video could have meant the death-knell of cinema – instead, it proved to be its resurrection, providing a whole new stream of funding. If Valenti wants to look at the real biggest threat, he should look at the cost of making movies, which jumped by almost a quarter last year, to just shy of $59 million. That kind of inflation, in a relatively fixed market, simply cannot be sustained. Paying Adam Sandler $25 million per movie is far more dangerous than anything I could do with a cable modem.