Cory Doctorow, who can often write and speak quite convincingly
concerning copyright issues, has written a new article for The Guardian in the UK that is unfortunately unconvincing. The discussion surrounds the question that has been asked
of me in the past when discussing copyrights and movies: if there were no copyrights, how does the $200 million blockbuster movie get made? Cory's answer is that it doesn't get made... and that's okay
. His argument is, effectively, that there's a tradeoff. And, instead of a few $300 million blockbusters (inflation, apparently, has driven up the price), we'll get many more smaller, independent films or amateur creators creating their own works. In other words, the long tail takes over and the "short head" disappears. He has some well known company, by the way. As we've mentioned, George Lucas seems to believe the era of the $200 million blockbuster is over
. To Cory (and to many others, I'm sure) the idea that there would be more, cheaper indie films and less Hollywood blockbusters, seems like a worthy tradeoff. I have no opinion on whether one scenario is better than the other or if it's a worthwhile tradeoff. I don't think there's really any tradeoff to deal with at all. In fact, from everything I've seen, the blockbusters can still stick around without freakishly worrying about copyright -- and
you'll still get more of the quirky independent films. In other words, everyone wins (and yet, I'm quite sure the big movie industry folks who frequent this site will insist what I'm describing means the death of their films).
First of all, it's important to separate out the $200 million (or $300 million) part from the "blockbuster" part. I have a problem with anyone phrasing the question in terms of the requirements on the cost side. First of all, studies have shown that while the biggest costs for most of those blockbuster movies is the fees paid out to the name-brand stars, those stars don't help a movie do any better
. In other words, movie makers are overpaying for stars. That shouldn't be a surprise, actually. When you come from a world where "$200 million" is automatically attached to "blockbuster" there's little reason to think about ways to make a movie more efficiently. You just think about driving up the budget so that the movie is considered a blockbuster because
of how much is spent. This doesn't mean, by the way, that you don't hire stars. You just figure out ways to pay them more reasonable rates. At the same time, in just about every other part of the creativity world, the cost of making content is decreasing
. Better tools and technologies are making it much cheaper
to make much higher quality movies every day. So really what we have is a situation where adding a little competition to the market doesn't mean that the blockbuster, super high quality flicks go away -- but that perhaps they get a little more dollar conscious on the spend side, allowing them to make movies more intelligently to save money. We had hoped that with Wall Street's new found interest
in investing in films, that perhaps they would force some of this to happen.
At the same time, there are still plenty of ways for big, expensive movies to make a ton of money -- even if the focus isn't on copyright. It just requires a shift in thinking. We've been saying it for years, for example, but the movie industry has never really
relied on the sale of its content to make money before. It thinks it has, but it's always been selling a combined service with the theaters. It's been selling the "experience" of going out to the theater and having a good time with dates, friends or family and getting to watch a new flick on a big screen in comfy seats and a great sound system. It's only more recently, with much of the industry being confused about what they're actually selling, that the movie going experience has declined -- which is a hurting the industry much more than a few downloads ever will. So even if you were in a world without any copyright, there would still be demand for people to go out to watch movies in the theaters -- and the movie industry can continue to make an awful lot of money that way. The restaurant business isn't suffering from the fact that people can cook much cheaper food at home. People like to go out and have a good time -- and they're willing to pay for it.
Furthermore, there are a ton of interesting business models that you can start to build on top of this. These include doing things like selling a DVD with a bunch of extras of the movie people just saw as they leave the theater. That's the point at which they're going to be most interested (assuming they liked the movie) and if the DVD comes with a ton of extras in a useful format and a convenient interface, that's going to be worth buying -- even if they could download the content for free online. Or you could start to include other incentives. Since sequels are so popular these days, why not offer a discount on admission to folks who have the movie stub from the first movie in the series? Or offering a contest where a ticketstub or DVD purchase receipt gets you entered into a raffle to be an extra on another film? These are small examples, but it doesn't take long to come up with a hundred more examples, where the focus is on providing additional value that people will pay for -- even if the content itself is available for free. When you start to look at those models, and start to put a few of them together, you begin to realize that there are more ways than ever to make a lot of money in the movie business, even if copyrights are not an issue at all.
Finally, long tail markets don't exist in a vacuum. They follow the power law curve, meaning that there will remain blockbusters -- it's just that the bottom part of the market does open up for many more producers to enter with more niche-focused content. However, demand will still remain for blockbusters, and that's great. With the demand there, smart business people will start to adopt the business models that allow those people to be satisfied with the next big blockbuster flick. And, don't underestimate other sources of funding films as well. BMW realized that it made sense to make short films a few years back, without worrying too much about monetizing those films directly. Don't think they (or others) couldn't do the same for much larger films as well. So, yes, blockbusters will remain -- though the business models to support them may start to look a little different.