Thursday, November 07, 2002

The joys of being a non-American movie buff

One of the great frustrations of enjoying popular culture and of living outside the US is that one has to wait for movies, television programs, and a great deal else until the copyright holders deign to release them in the world outside the US. Movies and television programs tend to be released or shown in the US, and the US market judges how successful they are before deciding when and if we are going to get to see them. (One thus misses out on some of the more obscure and sometimes interesting detritus of popular culture entirely. The custom of starting lots of new series in the US in August and September and forcing them to suffer through a Darwinian struggle over the next few months, with only the high rating surviving, is something we don't see. Those that don't survive the struggle just don't get seen outside the US. This doesn't matter usually, but once in a while a cancelled series like My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks becomes something of a classic, and we don't get to see it, which is annoying).

Anthony Lane was discussing in Slate the other day how he couldn't get a ticket to a London screening of the new Harry Potter movie, as the people handling the tickets had never heard of the publication for which he reviews movies (The New Yorker). He also mentioned that movies are now coming to the UK from the US faster than they used to, and in many instances open on the same day, and it therefore is easier for he, a critic for a US publication, to live in the UK.

This is both true and untrue. Certainly in the bad old days we often had to wait a very long time before seeing even the biggest movies. And it is true that the very biggest releases, the Harry Potters and the Lords of the Rings, do now often open on the same day. Many other big budget Hollywood films open in the UK within a couple of weeks of their US opening. The studios claim that if this didn't happen, pirated versions of the movie would appear throughout the world within a few days, and they would lose their business. Therefore they need to open the movie simultaneously. (It's also that case that legitimate copies can make their way throughout the world after a few months too, as the DVD release of films in the US can sometimes occur before the theatrical release abroad. The studios tried to stop this with their silly regional coding scheme on DVDs, but that failed completely). In addition, there is the fact that the media now works in such a way that if you advertise and hype a movie in the US, then the hype will be heard around the world, and close release dates are needed to take advantage of this. News cycles are much shorter and the film will appear stale if released six months later elsewhere. So we get blockbuster movies quickly.

In my native Australia, the biggest time of the year for movie going is summer, just as everywhere else. However, summer in Australia occurs during winter in the US and Europe. It used to be the case that the biggest summer movies in the US were actually held over until the Australian summer before being released there. This is unthinkable now, because the hype would have died completely by the time the movie arrived in Australia. (Plus, many of us would have bought the DVD over the internet). In any event, many more big budget popcorn movies are released between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the US now anyway, so there is a good supply of material. The biggest movie season in Australia is January rather than November-December, but the studios can cope with this. Still, this year the new Harry Potter movie will be released in Australia before Christmas (although two weeks after the US release), although the Lord of the Rings movie will be held over until December 26, which is the biggest day of the year for film releases in Australia.

However, for lower budget studio movies, it can take six months or longer for a film to get to the UK or Australia. In a lot of instances the distributors want to see how the film does in the US before deciding on their marketing strategy elsewhere, so we have to wait. It is even worse at the level of marginal and independent films, where they wait to see how a film does in the US before deciding whether they are going to release it in the rest of the world at all. Occasionally, this leads to something ridiculous. Ed Harris' Pollock wasn't released in the US until more the 18 months after being released in the US, despite having won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden. The most annoying situation is for small films that get good reviews in the US, and then may or may not ever be released anywhere else. The situation in London is much better than in Australia, because if films are going to be released anywhere outside the US then London is the place, but still, the experience of reading a US review of a film on the internet and wondering if I am ever going to get to see it, remains a common one. One can now usually buy a US DVD and watch the movie, and I have taken somewhat to doing this, but this is expensive compared to buying a ticket and the experience isn’t the same as seeing a movie in a cinema, the way God intended. It also occasionally leads to the experience of deciding that a film isn’t going to get a release in this part of the world, buying the DVD, and then discovering that the film is going to be released after all, merely two years after it was released in the US.

The existence of the internet also makes the situation worse, as we are tantalised by reviews of films we cannot see, or will not see for a couple of years, and if we join in the discussion of these movies on the internet, someone is certain to spoil the ending for us. Also, there is what might be called the “Mosiac Theory”. If a film has been released in the US that for some reason you are particularly looking forward to, and you are unable to see it, the temptation is to read twenty seven different American reviews on the internet. None of these will give away the ending, but if you read all twenty seven, you will discover that they all offer slightly different comments on the ending without actually giving it away, and if you put these all together the combination may well give it away.

While the response to this of many people might be “Well, don’t do that then”, I keep doing it, because by following films and film reviews, and film discussion on the internet, I get a much richer experience of film in general. By forsaking all spoilers, I would forsake this, and I do not want to. If I did not to this, I would probably not hear about many of the movies I wanted to see in the first place.

So much for movies. Television is just as bad. Of US programs, we only tend to get to see those programs that have been successful in the US: this means approximately those programs which have made it to the end of their first seasons and have been renewed for a second season. As I said above, this means that small gems tend to not be seen. (If they are seen at all, it is normally at two O’Clock Sunday mornings in summer). As for successful series, they tend to be shown around six months after their US showing. Australian TV networks never show new, first run material between November and February, so new seasons of US shows tend to commence being broadcast in Australia between mid-February and mid-March. This has one or two odd consequences, such as the fact that usually see Christmas episodes in May. It also has the same internet problem as form movies. If you want to follow the internet discussion then the content of the episodes is spoiled for you. This is annoying. If you have a broadband connection, it is possible to illegally download the episodes of your favourite program over the internet, but this is a nuisance, and is, well, illegal.

British network television has traditionally been even more lax than that of Australia, probably because the British TV market was traditionally much less competitive than that of Australia. American series tend to be shown at the same time of year that they were originally shown in the UK, but a year later. This has led to an opportunity for pay television in the UK, in which cable and satellite channels frequently split the cost of buying the program with a terrestrial broadcaster, and show series nearly simultaneously with the US network. The show is then broadcast on terrestrial television a year or so later. This means that you do not have to have episodes spoiled for you if you are willing to pay for it. I suppose this is something.

What I would like is for Hollywood to abandon its division of the world into international markets entirely. I would like to be able to watch the same movie in the UK, and in Australia, and in Botswana that I can see in New York, during the same week. If a program is being shown on NBC in the US, I would like to be able to tune my television and watch the same NBC in the UK, or in Singapore, or in Tokyo. With television, the technology to offer this to mere is here now. What I am asking for is technically pretty simple. With movies, it is possibly five years away, but it is no more than that.

However, the structure of the movie industry is entirely opposed to this. Their model involves selling product to the US market, and then having foreign subsidiaries to distribute content to foreign markets. It involves selling specific national rights, All these middle-men get their cut, and changing to global systems of distribution would require abolishing these middlemen and completely restructuring the distribution model. There are simply too many vested interests to change it.

Even if technology means that the existing distribution model is no longer viable (it isn't), and even if the existing distribution model is massively contrary to the interests of consumers (it is), the copyright industry is determined to cling to it, and is using intellectual property law to attempt to do so. (It also attempts from time to time to use technological measures to do so, such as DVD regional locking, but is so clueless about technology that one doesn't expect this to be effective). Intellectual property law is being used to attempt to maintain specific monopolies for distributors on importation, to fix prices, and to add legal force to technologically ineffective measures such as DVD region coding. This is once again about maintining existing business models, and protecting existing middle men from technological change, much more than it is about privacy.

There is plenty of fine coverage about how the music and movie industries screw people domestically, but the way in which they use the segmented structure of the international market and the way in which national copyright laws interact with each other to maintain monopolies and fix prices has good less publicity. And this is a shame.

(Sadly this article is a little long and rambling, I think. Maybe I will write a tighter version and attempt to sell it to Salon, or something).

Replacing these with single, worldwide distribution systems requires their model to be

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