You had to know this was going to happen. Now that the US Trade Rep (USTR) has fast track authority after Congress caved in and passed the Trade Promotion Authority bill, efforts have ramped up to complete the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement with meetings in Hawaii this week. Of course, with fast track in hand, the USTR doesn't need to concern itself at all with things like the "public interest" anymore and can focus on the real agenda: big corporate interests. Reports from the negotiations include one from the legal policy adviser from Doctors Without Borders, noting that the USTR organized a briefing for "US stakeholders," but only invited industry representatives. Oh, and the US Chamber of Commerce (the main lobbyists for SOPA) was allowed to book a room next to the negotiating room and got a private briefing from the USTR. Meanwhile, James Love from KEI notes that in a USTR briefing, USTR staffers are deliberately ignoring anyone representing the public interest.
You know who they are listening to, however? You guessed it: Hollywood. Politico notes that now that fast track is in hand and the USTR has more or less free rein in completing the negotiations, Hollywood has jumped in with a bunch of demands to expand copyright laws via TPP:
We've seen the Hollywood versus tech copyright fight play out over everything from SOPA to the Library of Congress. Now the major movie studios are pushing for key items on their wish list as negotiators hammer out the final details of an Asia-Pacific trade agreement. The studios hope the 12 countries working on the pact will agree to copyright protections that, in many cases, last longer than what’s currently in place, Pro Trade’s Doug Palmer reports.
The movie studios also want stricter penalties on piracy, especially as Internet access expands throughout the region.
And, because the USTR almost always gives in to Hollywood (it helps that the MPAA hired the top USTR negotiator on IP last year, so the current negotiators recognize that their next jobs are on the line with this agreement), it appears that the US has convinced a bunch of other countries -- who should know better -- to agree to lock in a life + 70-year copyright term, even as the US Copyright Office has suggested that current copyright terms are too long and should be scaled back.
There is no way to explain this as anything but selling out the public interest to appease corporate interests of Hollywood. It's a fairly disgusting display of the kind of "dealmaking" that the USTR has been pushing for more quietly for years, but now that it has fast track, it knows it can play hardball to help its friends in Hollywood. Fuck the public domain, Hollywood wants to keep getting paid for works from decades ago.
Hollywood's efforts to win political clout have always stretched across the country, from glitzy campaign fundraisers in Beverly Hills to cocktail parties with power brokers in Washington.
Last year, the film industry staked out another zone of influence: U.S. embassies. Its lobbying arm paid to renovate screening rooms in at least four overseas outposts, hoping the new theaters would help ambassadors and their foreign guests "keep U.S. cultural interests top of mind," according to an internal email.
That was the same year that the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the six biggest studios, reported it was lobbying the State Department on issues including piracy and online content distribution. Hollywood's interests – including its push for tougher copyright rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact – often put the industry at odds with Silicon Valley.
The only public indication of the embassy-theater initiative was a February 2015 press release from American officials in Madrid, titled "U.S. Embassy Launches State-of-the-Art Screening Room." It credited "a generous donation" from the MPAA.
Asked about its gifts to the State Department, the lobby group declined to say how many embassies got donations or how much they were worth.
"Because film is a great ambassador for U.S. culture around the world, MPAA assisted with the upgrade of some embassy theater facilities," said spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield. "All gifts complied with the law as well as with State Department ethics guidelines."
Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, said at least three embassies besides Madrid received between $20,000 and $50,000 in entertainment upgrades last year – London, Paris and Rome. The revamped screening rooms, she said, aren't intended to entertain U.S. officials, but rather to help them host screenings to promote an American industry and sow goodwill.
Thompson said the donations were proper and that all gifts to the department are reviewed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. "The department has explicit authorities to accept gifts made for its benefit or for carrying out any of its functions," she said.
The State Department routinely accepts gifts from outside groups, Thompson said. She couldn't provide any other examples of major gifts from groups that simultaneously lobby the agency. Thompson declined to list the items given by the MPAA or their total value, and wouldn't say whether the group had made similar gifts in the past.
There was at least one precedent. A spokesman for Warner Bros. Entertainment said the studio helped pay for the refurbishment of the screening room at the U.S. ambassador's home in Paris in 2011. "This donation was coordinated with the State Department and complied with all appropriate rules and regulations," the spokesman said.
State Department policies posted online specifically permit gifts from individuals, groups or corporations for "embassy refurbishment, " provided that the donors are vetted to ensure there's no conflict or possible "embarrassment or harm" to the agency. The posted policies include no caps on the value of donations, nor any requirements for public disclosure of foreign or American donors. The rules also say that the donations can't come with a promise or expectation of "any advantage or preference from the U.S. Government."
Obtaining an advantage, albeit a nonspecific one, sounded like the goal when a Sony Pictures Entertainment official wrote to the studio's chief executive officer, Michael Lynton, to relay a request to fund the screening rooms from Chris Dodd, the former U.S. senator who heads the MPAA. The executive writing the note – Keith Weaver – sought to assure the CEO that such a donation wouldn't be improper.
"The rationale being that key Ambassadors will keep U.S. cultural interests top of mind, as they screen American movies for high level officials where they are stationed," reads the message, included in a cache of emails hacked from Sony and which were posted online by the website WikiLeaks.
"The cost implication is estimated to be $165k (aggregate of $$$/in-kind) per embassy/per studio. Apparently, donations of this kind are permissible."
Besides Sony, the MPAA represents Disney, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Entertainment. The e-mails suggest that Sony executives decided against contributing to the project for budget reasons.
The MPAA has long been a powerful presence in the nation's capital, spending $1.34 million on federal lobbying last year, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. One of its flashier tools has been to host exclusive gatherings at its Washington screening room, two blocks from the White House, where lawmakers get to watch blockbuster films, rub elbows with celebrities, and up until several years ago, enjoy dinner – a perk scuttled because of stricter rules on congressional lobbying.
Hollywood studios depend on foreign markets for much of their profit but the MPAA's interests don't always align with those of other major American constituencies. For example, Hollywood studios have moved some film production to Canada to cut costs. American film workers have tried to get the federal government to stop the outsourcing of jobs, but have been met with resistance from the MPAA.
The trade group has also pushed federal officials to pressure foreign governments into adopting stricter copyright laws. An MPAA-funded study found that in 2005 worldwide piracy cost American studios $6.1 billion in revenue. That number has been disputed by digital rights advocates.
For the TPP trade deal, the MPAA has discouraged the American government from exporting "fair use" protections to other countries. In a hacked message from Dodd to the U.S. Trade Representative, the MPAA chief warned that including such provisions, which in American law allow limited use of copyrighted materials without permission, would be "extremely controversial and divisive." Digital rights activists have characterized the efforts as overzealous.
"They're basically encouraging other countries to adopt the most draconian parts of U.S. copyright law and even to reinterpret U.S. copyright law to make it more stringent," said Mitch Stoltz, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Broadly speaking broadening copyright law harms free speech in many cases by creating a mechanism for censorship."
The state-of-the-art screening rooms are a relatively minimal investment by Hollywood as it works to strengthen connections abroad.
This spring, the U.S. ambassador to Spain, James Costos, brought a group of foreign officials to Los Angeles for a meeting hosted by the MPAA. Among them were representatives from the Canary Islands, who came prepared to discuss filming opportunities and tax incentives for American studios in the Spanish territory. The State Department touted the trip as an opportunity to "expand bilateral trade and investment, including through ties between the entertainment industries."
It's not known whether the path to that particular meeting was eased by the new screening room in Madrid. At the theater's debut in February, the ambassador's guests were treated to a dark tale of corruption, lobbying and double-dealing in Washington – the Netflix series "House of Cards."
For many years, we've written about what an incredible scam state tax subsidies to filmmakers are. Various states shove each other aside trying to throw more money at Hollywood, if they just agree to make their films locally. Hollywood insists that these subsidies are good for the states, because they "create jobs." But the details almost always show otherwise. They are almost always a massive loss to the taxpayers. What jobs are created are temporary -- and often filled by people who fly in from out of town. What "downstream" economic benefits are created are marginal at best. Almost every study of these subsidies has found that they lose money overall. And yet, the states keep expanding these programs, sometimes betting pension funds on them.
So the big question has to be: why do states keep throwing money at Hollywood this way?
The answer, it appears, may have an awful lot to do with out and out corruption.
In the past few years, film programs across the country have been wracked with criminal charges and convictions. Louisiana is in the midst of a criminal trial against individuals charged with fraudulently collecting more than $1 million in state film tax credits for the creation of a film studio in New Orleans. Massachusetts has faced its own criminal trials over tax credit fraud. And in Iowa, a state audit found $26 million in improperly issued tax credits, and a subsequent investigation resulted in 10 criminal cases and 7 convictions. The state ultimately suspended its program in 2009. Nearly six years later, the state is still in the midst of sorting out the criminal trials surrounding its program.
This corruption has also extended to those in positions of determining how these programs work and who receives the available funds. California is currently in the midst of its own film-subsidy scandal involving a state senator, Ron Calderon, who headed the select committee on film and television and was a member of the California Film Commission. Indicted on 24 felony charges, and facing a maximum sentence of 396 years in federal prison, Calderon is accused of accepted cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent who he thought was associated with an independent film studio. In exchange, he agreed to advocate for an extension of the film tax credits.
And then, of course, there's the fund-raising hook. Hollywood scratches a politician's back? The politician scratches Hollywood's back:
Politicians also use their support for incentives, or the threat of removing them, to induce political contributions for Hollywood beneficiaries. For example, in another Sony an email dated January 6, 2014, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “people” request Sony commit to raising $50k by July of 2014. The email continues, “$50k is a heavy lift since most of it needs to come from individual contributions (only $5k can come from corp.)” There are then severalotheremails from Sony’s head of government affairs soliciting contributions. In one of them he notes “Thanks to Governor Cuomo, we have a great production incentive environment in NY…Because of all of this, I think it’s important to significantly support his reelection efforts…”
So, notice that there are three parties at work here -- but only two of whom are actually represented. Cuomo gets campaign funds he wants. Hollywood gets tax breaks they want. It's just the taxpayers who aren't represented and get shafted.
And, as Koopman notes, each year the MPAA sends out a celebratory email highlighting just how much the studios have been able to fleece from taxpayers:
As you have requested annually, attached is the State Government Affairs Department Annual Report for 2013. As you will read, this year MPAA saved the member companies collectively an estimated $110.08 million in corporate tax liability on an annual basis and approximately $86 million in potential regulatory, administrative, compliance and legal fees, also annualized, as a result of accomplishing legislative objectives in the states.
Since 2007, the aggregate annual savings secured by MPAA for the member companies in connection with key corporate state tax legislation is approximately $439.08 million. This is a result of the enactment of single sales factor apportionment in California, and New York City as well as favorable advertising and licensing corporate tax sourcing formulas adopted in North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana.
In addition, states awarded an estimated $1.5 billion in production tax credits in 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times, which MPAA either was engaged in enacting or keeping in place. The majority of those credits went to MPAA member companies as a result of motion picture and television location production in various states, with per project savings ranging from 10 to 30 per cent.
We had another successful year thanks to the hard work of Melissa Patack, Angela Miele, Sarah Walsh, Brian Cohen and Carlin Scrudato, as well as all of your tremendous support, engagement, and encouragement. Also, special thanks to the executives on the state tax, legal and IP working groups, whose expertise and involvement is invaluable. As you know, our contract advocates in the 50 states, who are critical to our success, work tirelessly for MPAA and the member companies. Our coalition partners also played major contributing roles, in particular NATO, DGA, SAG, IATSE and Teamsters.
I don't begrudge the MPAA/studios doing this. Of course, they're going to scrounge for free money from the states who are willing to give it. But it seems problematic given how these programs time after time after time have been shown to be massive failures, often leaving states in serious trouble. At the very least, it seems to deserve deeper scrutiny by the public and government officials as to exactly why states are so ready to hand out this kind of money.
If you go all the way back to when the RIAA shut down Napster, you may recall that within just a short while, Gnutella launched, providing a more distributed system that became the core of a number of file sharing programs, which ended up growing much, much larger than Napster. It's the classic hydra situation: you cut off one head, and eight more (or even more than that) come back in return. It's a message that has been obvious since the days of Napster... and yet it's one that the legacy entertainment industry and its friendly politicians still can't seem to grasp. It's why we've always said that the industry would have been so much better off looking for ways to embrace and work with the leading providers in the space, rather than shutting them down.
But, clearly, they don't get it. As the Sony email leaks showed, "site blocking" is still considered a top priority for Hollywood, even though it doesn't take a genius to realize that it doesn't work.
Now we can add some more evidence: the European Commission itself decided to do a study looking at what happened after the website kino.to was shut down, and shows that it was a complete failure if the industry was looking to stop people from consuming unauthorized videos. As we've seen before with other site blocking efforts and over-enforcement, there is a very brief impact in decreasing access to infringing works, and a very, very small increase in sending traffic to licensed offerings -- but that only lasts until alternatives come along, usually within weeks.
The overall impact on stopping access to unauthorized videos? Basically none whatsoever. And, by scattering users out to a variety of new sites, it made it even harder for the industry to track what people were doing. In the case of Kino.to, it took all of four weeks for people to find new places to go:
The results from our empirical analysis show that the shutdown of kino.to led to a
significant but short-lived decrease in the usage of unlicensed video streaming websites.
Unsurprisingly, this effect is particularly large for individuals who were using kino.to
previous to its shutdown, with decreases of more than 30% in overall piracy consumption
during the four weeks directly following the intervention. We nevertheless observe that
consumption of pirated content increases again following the fourth week after the shutdown.
This increase is driven both by substitution towards existing alternative unlicensed
platforms and by the entry of new platforms following the shutdown.
You can see how this works pretty easily in the following graph. Yes, there's a very brief decline in unauthorized streaming, but then it goes right back to about the same level... and appears to be generally climbing upward:
As for helping convince the users to suddenly start paying for content? A tiny, tiny effect that also does not seem to last:
Second, we find limited substitution into consumption of licensed offline video content,
proxied by visits to specific types of websites. Our results show that consumers do not
increase their visits to websites of movie theaters or to DVD-related Amazon webpages.
However, we find a small increase in clicks to licensed online video services (such as Maxdome,
Lovefilm, and iTunes) after the shutdown, providing evidence that the intervention
was successful in converting part of kino.to's users toward legitimate video consumption.
Perhaps more importantly, we also find that heavy kino.to users disproportionately
increase their visits to websites of licensed video services. This substitution was nevertheless
undermined by the existence of alternative unlicensed streaming websites, which
allowed consumers to rapidly transfer their consumption of copyright infringing videos
from kino.to to other platforms. In particular, we document a large increase in clicks
to the second-most popular platform - movie2k.to - directly after kino.to disappears.
Only five weeks after the intervention, we also observe the entry of a new platform -
kinoX.to - which manages to quickly appropriate a significant share of the unlicensed
video streaming market at the expense of movie2k.to and the other smaller platforms.
These results reflect both the high elasticity of supply to the shutdown, and the fact that
consumers face little difficulty in switching from one platform to another.
And, the end result is the basic hydra effect, where the audience fragments:
Third, we assess how the shutdown affected the overall structure of the market for unlicensed
video streaming. While the market was largely dominated by kino.to before its
seizure, the intervention triggered an increase in competition between alternative platforms,
ultimately resulting in a much more fragmented market. After the shutdown, the
market was evenly split between movie2k.to (the second largest player at the time of
the shutown), kinoX.to (kino.to's substitute), and a remainder of 12 websites which
cumulatively account for one third of the market. We also observe that concentration
of demand decreases after the shutdown, and that consumers diversify their unlicensed
movie consumption more as opposed to concentrating it on a single platform.
Again, you can see the impact of this hydra effect right here:
Some may argue that this is the intended impact, and that if these sites have a smaller audience it makes them less sustainable, though there's little evidence to support that.
It seems that a much clearer message from this study is what many of us have been saying all along: taking down sites does not change what people want. And if the industry itself is failing to serve the public and music and movie fans in a compelling and convenient manner, then other providers will come in and do it instead, whether or not it's legal. And that's where the audience will go. The more the industry fights against this, the harder it becomes for the legacy industry to figure out ways to work with the leading providers to build a legitimate service. Instead, it just pisses off people and sends them further and further away. That can't be good for business.
Given that, it seems like it would make a hell of a lot more sense for the industry to focus on providing what people want rather than wasting so much time, effort and money into trying to shut down the sites they don't like.
When the entertainment and broadband industries' "six strikes" anti-piracy regime first launched a few years ago, most people (outside of Hollywood) realized it wouldn't work for a number of reasons. One, data has pretty consistently shown that such graduated response anti-piracy systems -- whether three "strikes" or six -- don't work, and in fact may actually make things worse. Two, even partner ISP execs I spoke to ahead of the program's launch made it clear they knew the program wouldn't do much, with most infringers simply hiding their behavior behind proxy servers of VPNs.
Publicly, the firm created to run the program (the Center for Copyright Information) has frequently tried to claim the program is a smashing success, often using unreliable, contradictory evidence to try and suggest pushing ISPs into the role of content nannies was a wonderful idea. But privately, Hollywood and the MPAA have acknowledged the program isn't doing much, though they're quick to argue that this is only because it hasn't yet been "brought up to scale."
Amusingly, some of the very same Hollywood voices that pushed so hard for six strikes and ignored warnings that it wouldn't work, are now calling the program an abject failure. The Internet Security Task Force, a coalition of smaller studios, which counts copyright troll Voltage Pictures among its members, has come out swinging this week against six strikes in a press release, calling the program a "sham":
"We’ve always known the Copyright Alert System was ineffective, as it allows people to steal six movies from us before they get an educational leaflet. But now we have the data to prove that it’s a sham," Gill comments. "On our film ‘Expendables 3,’ which has been illegally viewed more than 60 million times, the CAS only allowed 0.3% of our infringement notices through to their customers. The other 99.7% of the time, the notices went in the trash,” he adds."
One, ISTF doesn't appear to know how the program Hollywood pushed for actually works, since users receive an "educational leaflet" the first time they're found to infringe. Steps two through six then include "mitigation measures" that may involve having your connection throttled or finding your broadband access temporarily suspended until you've clearly acknowledged you've been naughty. Users then have the honor of paying a $35 fee if they'd like to fight the accusation. After the sixth strike nothing happens, and nobody tracks offenders between ISPs, something Hollywood is surely eager to "remedy" with program updates.
ISTF notes that the five major ISPs participating in six strikes (AT&T U-verse, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon FiOS), saw a 4.54% increase in infringements during the fourth quarter of last year. Two non-participating ISPs, Charter and Cox (the latter of which is being sued by BMG for allegedly ignoring piracy), saw a 25.47% decrease in infringements during that same period. Assuming you can trust Hollywood math here (never a wise bet), the ISTF claims this is proof of the fact that ISPs aren't taking piracy seriously:
"These alarming numbers show that the CAS is little more than talking point utilized to suggest these five ISPs are doing something to combat piracy when in actuality, their customers are free to continue pirating content with absolutely no consequences," said ISTF member Nicolas Chartier, CEO of Voltage. "As for its laughable six strikes policy, would any American retailer wait for someone to rob them six times before handing them an educational leaflet? Of course not, they call the cops the first time around."
Of course if non-participating ISPs are seeing infringement drop massively while participating ISPs are seeing a slight rise, that would seem to suggest that graduated response programs actually make things worse, which is what data Hollywood ignored said in the first place. The ISTF's solution for the States is to implement an uglier version of Canada's Copyright Modernization Act, which gives ISPs safe harbor only if they agree to pass on all infringement notices. While the Canadian law caps damages, it hasn't done much to thwart copyright trolls, who appear to just be making up for the income reduction by shaking down Canadian users on greater scale.
While these smaller studios are solely focused on greasing the rails for their "settlement-o-matic" shake downs, it's only a matter of time before the MPAA and the larger studios start pushing for "improvements" to six strikes as well, whether that's an organization that tracks offenders between ISPs, or a frontal assault on VPNs and proxy services. And that's just it, these studios consistently whine about the need for aggressive enforcement policies that have been proven not to work, and when they fail the answer isn't adaptation of the business models to the modern age, it's an expansion of already-bad ideas that clearly aren't working. It's a bottomless well of dysfunction. Unfortunately for Hollywood, any expansion of six strikes is going to have a steeper uphill climb in the post SOPA era, which may hinder the program from mutating into something truly monstrous.
As the nuclear talks between America and Iran continue, perhaps one inevitability is going to be cross-cultural diffusion of a kind. After all, should the deal lead to improved relations, one would expect influence to be peddled by both sides. Since there are very real issues our two nations have to discuss, this should be an overall good thing. But there are some cultural changes that just aren't going to happen.
Take the suggestion from Iranian cleric Ayatollah Salman Safavi, for instance, that Americans combat Islamic extremism by making sure our movies and video games include only favorable representations of his religion lest they cause the very radicalization at the root of the "constantly" negative current portrayals of Muslims and Islam.
"In the Western media be it in films, games or news, Muslims and Islam are constantly associated with terrorism, violence and backwardness, they are constantly portrayed as the "other" to the white European or American and in constant conflict with it," Dr. Safavi tells the Telegraph. "This causes alienation and isolation particularly for young people, who dream of having success in life and being contributing members of society but see their way of life, their beliefs, and what they hold sacred being constantly attacked and degraded. Islamophobia in media be it films or games or news should be considered as promoting and aiding terrorism and also being [a] hate crime."
You can see the cultural differences clashing against each other here. Self-censorship isn't how America does things, after all. Which isn't to say that misrepresentation of the larger Muslim public isn't a real thing, or that action shouldn't be taken by those in the know to combat that portrayal. But those actions must operate within the framework of free and open speech. Take the work of Aasif Mandvi, for instance. The correspondent from The Daily Show has put out a new series called Halal in the Family. The show dissects and highlights anti-Muslim portrayals, using comedy as a vehicle for the discussion. That's how bad or unfair speech is combatted in America, with other, better speech. Asking us to self-censor is a non-starter.
And through real, honest, and open speech, progress can be made. If the Islamic world is being unfairly portrayed, its denizens should feel welcome, if not obligated, to step into the ring of speech and ideas, and put up a fight. They get the same rights as everyone else, after all. Engaging in that way will push the discussion onto a higher platform. It's not like the media keeps its boogeymen around forever. Just ask the Communists. These things have a shelf-life.
The ideal of free speech, on the other hand, does not.
As you may recall, at the height of the SOPA fight fallout, MPAA boss Chris Dodd went on television and threatened to stop funding the politicians who didn't support the MPAA's copyright agenda:
"Those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake."
Given that statement, this little tidbit from the Sony email archives is interesting. It's Chris Dodd more or less demanding that all of the member studios donate $40,000 to Rep. Bob Goodlatte's re-election campaign. As you may know, Goodlatte is the head of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives, and copyright falls under that committee. Even more to the point, despite the fact that there's an "Intellectual Property Subcommittee" (headed by Rep. Darrell Issa), Goodlatte has made it clear that copyright reform remains under his own personal mandate. In this email, Dodd notes that Goodlatte is coming to LA and there's a fundraiser -- and he asks each of the member studios to see if they can put together $40,000 for Goodlatte's campaign:
Subject: Goodlatte Victory Committee
As you know, for a number of months we have been discussing the political event that Chairman Goodlatte has asked our industry to host in Los Angeles. The event has now been scheduled for November 22. A copy of the invitation is attached. The Goodlatte staff is currently securing a location and I will send that information as soon as it is confirmed.
The event will be in support of the Joint Committee established by the Congressman called the “Goodlatte Victory Committee.” This event is important and in the best interests of our industry.
A number of you have had an opportunity to speak directly with the Chairman in the past few months, and I know you share my view that he is a good man and we are fortunate to have him at the helm of the House Judiciary Committee for the foreseeable future.
TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE and it is now incumbent upon us to work together to make this event a success. I need each of you to commit to attending the event and I would request that each studio raise $40,000 for the Victory Committee at this event.
So, please confirm that you plan to attend on the 22nd in Los Angeles, and that you will meet the per studio target of $40,000. It is incredibly important, in my view, that this event be a success and that we have a broad representation of studio executives in attendance. I will reach out to you later this week, but look forward to hearing from you in the meantime.
Now, to be clear, this sort of thing happens all the time. It's more a function of how money in politics works today. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that plenty of other companies in other industries do the same sort of thing -- though, generally speaking, it would be done by the companies themselves, not at the direction of a trade organization. Still, it's a bit of insight into how the process works that I figured some of you might find rather revealing.
from the this-taxpayer-money-is-burning-a-hole-in-my-common-sense dept
Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me annually and let me get my checkbook! Losses continue to mount, but some very resilient states are still willing to throw more taxpayer money at the film industry. Michigan -- a state that seems to be able to generate at least one fiscal horror story per year -- is one of the nation's most consistent losers. Two years ago, it bet the state pension fund on film-related subsidies… and lost. When the "investment" failed to generate a return, nearly $2 million was removed from the already-underfunded retirement pool. One small town pinned its hopes and dreams on a film project that promised 3,000 new jobs but instead fell apart, dragging the town towards insolvency.
Michigan has made some moves in the right direction after being burned so often by Hollywood and its fleeting, mercenary "interest" in its state. It paid out nearly $100 million in subsidies in 2011, but that number has dropped to $38 million for the coming year. Michigan House Minority leader Tim Greimel is pushing to bring that back up to $50 million, claiming that the program has been a great job creator -- an assertion that couldn't be farther from the truth.
The state has funnelled $500 million in public funds to its fledgling film industry since 2008, and has almost nothing to show for it. While some jobs were created—temporary production crews, mostly—those were offset by the losses to the sectors of the economy that had to finance the film subsidy (i.e. Economics 101).
In fact, over the past 15 years, job creation has remained almost flat. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, there were 1,537 in-state jobs in the film industry in 2001. As of 2013, there were 1,564. And in that particular year, the subsidized industry didn't create a single job.
This boondoggle currently costs Michigan taxpayers $50 million a year and even the state’s own economic development agency (MEDC) reported this costly subsidy failed in 2013 to create one permanent job,” said Tricia Kinley, senior director of tax and regulatory reform at the chamber, in an press release.
A study released in 2012 showed that for every Michigan dollar spent on subsidies, the film industry only generated $0.11 of in-state revenue. And yet, politicians like Greimel are still insisting the best way to make money is to spend money -- year after year after year.
Since the program’s inception, nearly $433.5 million in film production tax credits have been approved/awarded to film production companies under the program. These companies, in turn, have directly injected close to $1.8 billion into PA’s economy; generated an estimated $3.2 billion in total economic activity; and supported an estimated 21,700 jobs (based on 2014 IMPLAN multipliers).
There are big problems with the Department's fuzzy math, as Rachel Martin at Watchdog.org points out. For one, it grabs unfinished and pending projects and mixes them in with completed projects to up the totals for both the number of jobs and the amount of money generated. Looking at the state's financial statements reveals something completely different.
[F]rom fiscal 2007 to 2013, only $55 million in credits were awarded and 2,700 jobs were created.
A more sobering assessment put together by the state's Independent Fiscal Office takes a lot of the irrational exuberance out of the Department's fluffed numbers. There's no "anything's possible" math to be found here. The report takes a very long and detailed look at the fiscal performance of the state's film subsidies and finds that -- much like other states -- handing out money to Hollywood doesn't make it rain locally.
In terms of budgetary return, a 2013 report by the state Independent Fiscal Office, “Uncapping the Film Production Tax Credit: a Fiscal and Economic Analysis,” found the state got a return of 14 cents on the dollar for tax credits, from state taxes generated by the program.
This pitiable return rate remains completely unchanged from the conclusions drawn by the Tax Foundation in 2010. Pennsylvania's film subsidies hand out dollar bills to film producers and then follow along behind them to catch any change that might fall out of their pockets. It's easy to sell subsidies to legislators, who are often more interested in the reflected glory of Hollywood projects than in safeguarding the funds they've been entrusted with.
The report also debunks the notion that film subsidies are job creators, much less wealth generators.
Wages constitute more than 60 percent of production expenses receiving credit under the FPTC, and the economic effects of the FPTC depend heavily on the amount of credit-eligible earnings that leave the state. Nonresidents spend only a small share of their earnings in the state while working on a production, thus limiting the impact on the state economy… According to data analyzed by the IFO, approximately 70 percent of production-related wages were paid to nonresidents.
The bottom line, according to the IFO?
The net, fully phased-in fiscal impact for the additional credits authorized in FY 2013-14 is estimated to be -$46.5 million at the lower end… and -$93.1 million at the higher end of the range.
Of course, if Pennsylvania decides to limit or dump its subsidies, it will soon discover that all the money it spent in the past has purchased nothing in the way of loyalty.
As an example of the mobility and fickleness of the industry, consider the show “Banshee.” It filmed its first three seasons in North Carolina, but packed up after that state eliminated its tax credit program and replaced it with a much smaller grant program.
The show will now film in Pittsburgh, which has a built-in irony, given that the show’s setting has always been the fictional Banshee, Pennsylvania.
Given the deficit the state is facing, you'd think legislators would be more than happy to drop the subsidy, if only to prevent the leakage of another $50-90 million. But the glamour of show business -- even if only admired from afar -- is tough to resist. It's easy to mistake the busy milling around of temp workers and nonresident stars for created jobs and positive economic impact. Throwing away 9/10ths of every dollar simply doesn't make sense, especially in a state already severely overdrawn. But nothing involving both Hollywood and accounting ever adds up.
Between 2004 and 2012, the California entertainment industry lost 16,137 film production jobs. During that same period the state of New York increased its entertainment employment by 25 percent. The Milken Institute attributes this shift in employment to the billions of dollars in robust incentives from competitive states like New York, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana.
If you can keep all of the money in one place, a state might turn a profit. But with productions scattered all over the US, California will just be another state throwing money at fickle, mostly uninterested productions. A short-term "bribe" never buys loyalty, especially not in the Land of 1,000 Backstabbings. The film industry is still very cutthroat and California's decades-long slide into legislative absurdity has made movie-making within its heavily-taxed confines very unattractive. (And then there's the labor stranglehold, but we'll let that go. For now...) The solution? More taxes! But this time mostly from the little people!
The legislation will increase the annual allocation of state tax credits to $330 million per year, more than triple the current amount, starting with fiscal year 2015-16 and lasting for five years. [...]The legislation also provides extra incentives — beyond the current 20% — for visual effects and music scoring, as well as to producers who shoot in parts of the state outside of the Los Angeles region.
The industry is -- and has been for years at this point -- pay-to-play. Unfortunately, it's the states' long-term residents who are paying the most, and reaping none of the benefits.
A few years ago, the major record labels finally started to realize that, perhaps, shoveling many millions of dollars to the RIAA was a waste of good money, and they severely cut back funds. You may have noticed that, while the RIAA had taken the lead on the copyright front in the first decade of the new century, over the past few years, it's been a lot quieter than the MPAA. It appears that the MPAA may be about to go through a similar transition. Just a few weeks ago, we pointed out that the MPAA seemed to be desperately trying to justify its existence by doubling down on ridiculous and misleading claims about "piracy" and "content theft" rather than actually helping studios adapt to the modern era. We also noted that MPAA boss Chris Dodd was on something of an apology tour after the MPAA was caught completely off guard by the Sony Hack and did basically nothing about it, seriously pissing off execs at Sony.
In a behind-the-scenes drama, the Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton last month told industry colleagues of a plan to withdraw from the movie trade organization, according to people who have been briefed on the discussions. He cited the organization's slow response and lack of public support in the aftermath of the attack on Sony and its film “The Interview,” as well as longstanding concerns about the cost and efficacy of the group.
While the MPAA convinced Sony to stay in, it appears that the major studios are thinking it's about time the MPAA shift its focus -- and tighten its belt a bit:
If adopted, their still emerging propositions might jolt the group into line with the new realities of a changing entertainment business. They might, for instance, open the association to new members and expand its interests to include television programs or digital content. They might also reduce the heavy annual contribution of more than $20 million that is required of each of the six member companies: Walt Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal and Sony.
The report notes that they might even give up their super fancy DC headquarters (the "Jack Valenti Building") which is just blocks from the White House.
Of course, it's not entirely clear how the MPAA's focus will actually change. It wouldn't be surprising to find some studio execs still want to double down on backwards-thinking, anti-internet campaigns. But, at least some seem to recognize that Hollywood hasn't kept up with the times, and that's partly because the MPAA kept focusing them on the last war, rather than on updating for the internet era.
Kevin Tsujihara, the chief executive of Warner Bros., said he, like Mr. Dodd, welcomed an examination of the organization that would mirror a similar review of cost and mission at his company. “Now is as good a time as any” to look at fundamental questions, Mr. Tsujihara said in an interview. He added: “We haven’t, as an industry, evolved fast enough.”
And, as we've pointed out, it really seems bizarre that the MPAA spends so much on an entire "content protection" division. At least some of the studios appear to be questioning the value of that approach:
But those briefed on the position of several companies said virtually all the studios have chafed lately at the high cost of maintaining the M.P.A.A., along with its worldwide antipiracy and market access operations, particularly as Sony, Warner and others are cutting staff and costs.
Frankly, as we've argued for years, it would be great if the MPAA actually became a forward-looking organization that looked to help the industry adapt to the modern era. It appears the organization is going through an inevitable crisis after years of making bad bets. Hopefully, it recognizes that embracing the future, rather than fighting it, is the way forward.
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.