In the past we've discussed the Shirky Principle
, named after a statement by Clay Shirky that:
"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."
In some ways that's a corollary to Upton Sinclair's famous quote:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
I've long believed that the MPAA has this problem in spades. The group, which is supposed to be about helping the big Hollywood studios, has long taken a very different positions. Five years ago, we wrote about how bizarre it was that the MPAA had an entire "Content Protection"
division. As we noted at the time, the organization not only had a Chief Content Protection Officer, but also an Executive VP of Content Protection, a Senior VP of Content Protection and a regular VP of Content Protection, and probably a handful of Content Protection Minions or whatever they call their non-VP worker bees.
And yet, there didn't seem to be anyone at the MPAA who had a title along the lines of "Chief Open Internet Evangelist" or "Chief Digital Business Model Strategist" or something along those lines, who could have been working with Hollywood to help transition the organization into the digital age. No, instead that transition has come in fits and starts with the MPAA itself fighting against
most of the key moves and doing little to help forward thinking filmmakers and studios. In fact, if you talk to many of the up-and-coming filmmakers these days, they're just as angry about the MPAA's stance as open internet supporters -- because they realize just how counterproductive a "protection" regime is, rather than a "embrace the opportunity" regime would be.
Eli Dourado has written up a fantastic discussion of this very idea, by focusing on two key things that came out of the Sony Hack that, together, more or less highlight the point above: that the MPAA is not pro-Hollywood at all
, but rather seems entirely focused on "giving itself a reason to exist, rather than solving the film industry's" challenges. Specifically he highlights these two things:
- Leaked emails revealed the Motion Picture Association of America’s ongoing plans to censor the Internet to reduce digital film piracy.
- The hack prompted a surprise, online Christmas Eve release of The Interview that let us observe the effect of a new distribution model on film revenue.
We have, of course, covered both of these, but Dourado puts them together nicely in context, showing how the MPAA's site-blocking/filtering/censorship strategy is one focused on destroying many of the opportunities of the internet, while the digital release of The Interview
showed how embracing digital can actually be quite useful for Hollywood -- not that the MPAA wants anything to do with that at all.
When put together, these vignettes raise important questions about the future of the film industry and its lobbying efforts. Is the MPAA really representing Hollywood’s long-term interests in Washington, or is it trying to fight old battles over and over in an attempt to justify its own existence?
Dourado goes through the detailed history -- revealed by the Sony Hack -- of how, post-SOPA, the MPAA has regrouped to focus on ways to bring back site-blocking and censorship online, while simultaneously attacking Google at every turn (even when Google did exactly what the MPAA asked for and demoted sites the MPAA dislikes). As Dourado notes:
But the more striking point is what this strategy reveals about the MPAA: the organization still deeply believes in site blocking as more or less the solution to online piracy. It continues to position itself as an enemy of the open Internet.
From there, he discusses the success of the online release of The Interview
, pointing out how well it did. Of course, some of that may have been because of all the (somewhat questionable) news about the supposed threat from North Korea, leading some to choose to watch it for patriotic reasons. Still, Dourado notes that, while there was piracy of the film as well, much of it came outside the US, because Sony initially limited the release to US only online. And the movie did make a fair bit of money online and, perhaps more importantly, got people to pay attention to its online efforts:
There is additional evidence that the online release was a win for Sony: its YouTube channel gained 243,000 new subscribers in the aftermath of the Interview release. As YouTube entrepreneurs like Michelle Phan would note, subscribers are as good as cash, a ready source of revenue for future online movie releases, if Sony decides to do more of them.
The Interview episode shows that the Internet need not be viewed only as a source of piracy. With a modest change in business model, it can also be the film industry’s next great distribution platform.
And then you get to the divergence question: which strategy is best for Hollywood
and the film industry
... and which strategy is best for the MPAA
? Take a wild guess:
What is the best strategy for the film industry going forward? Should it continue to fight the open Internet, as it did with SOPA, and as it has continued to do through state AG investigations and lobbying the ITC? Or should it embrace the Internet as a potentially profitable distribution platform that is in any case here to stay?
It’s clear which strategy the MPAA, the lobbying organization, prefers. If the studios were to truly embrace the Internet, the MPAA would have a much diminished reason for existence. There is no one you need to lobby in order to release films online. Many employees, such as chairman Chris Dodd and general counsel Steven Fabrizio, would have little to do. The organization would have to go back to administering its film ratings system and asking states for ridiculous film tax credits.
He goes even further, pointing out that this stupid focus on "content protection" has been shown time and time again not to work, whereas embracing the internet seems much more likely to work. But, of course, it would leave the MPAA with less things to do. And thus, to me, it goes all the way back around to the Shirky Principle. The MPAA has to keep focusing on "the piracy problem" because it has set itself up as "the solution" to that problem, perhaps knowing full well that it's a solution that can never be solved. Yet, because of this, it guarantees a large role for itself, convincing gullible studio bosses to keep forking money over to the MPAA, so that its leadership can keep earning multi-million dollar salaries
The real issue here is that, as younger, more internet-savvy filmmakers continue to bubble up throughout Hollywood, sooner or later more of them are going to realize what a farce the MPAA has become. And just like the MPAA's "content protection" strategy has totally failed Hollywood, eventually it's going to totally fail itself as well. That's what you get for fighting the future, rather than embracing it.