A man in Sendai was arrested recently for making the U.S. film "Wanted" available on the Internet to users of the file-sharing software Winny before its official release in Japan. It’s one of the few cases I can recall of someone actually being arrested for such an offense. At the root of it, of course, is the movie industry’s attempt to clamp down on piracy or unauthorized copying of their films. Whenever you go to see a movie in Japan, they always show an ad asking people not to view pirated or illegally downloaded copies. “Save our movies” is the mantra.
However, the studios and cinema chains are facing a big challenge from file-sharing and digital downloading technology. It is not a battle they can win in an era of Internet-delivered movies and video on demand (VOD). Online movie download services from iTunes, Amazon and others give consumers a choice of building their own HD library of movies. But you don’t have to wait for a movie to complete its theatrical run; digital downloads can be obtained (illegally) of movies not even in cinemas or before they are released on DVD by the studios.
Some movie distributors go to great lengths to protect their products. I’ve been to movie premieres in Japan where audiences are subjected to body searches at the door, and while the movie is screening, security personnel with night vision goggles patrol the aisles looking for anyone making an illegal copy.
What does all this mean for the future of the motion picture industry? For one thing, the movie-going experience will change radically … which is too bad for people of my generation and older. I have many fond memories of cinemas. But going to a theater today is a vastly different experience from my youth.
Recently, a friend and I went to see "The Dark Knight" one evening. First, we had to wait in a long line. Then when we got in, we couldn’t get an aisle seat because they were all taken. Once the film started, for the first 20 minutes, we were juggling our Big Macs and drinks, trying not to make a mess. Also, that night, there seemed to be an inordinate number of people coughing and clearing their throats. At the end of the movie, we wanted to leave quickly but were stuck in the middle because everyone else in the row decided to sit through the credits (which took seven minutes). It was not a very enjoyable experience.
I contrast that with going to the movies when I was a kid growing up in Australia. Those were the days of double features. Can you imagine a movie theater today showing a double feature? Saturday afternoon at the movies was always fun. Being a bit mischievous, I used to get a kick out of rolling Jaffas (chocolate balls coated with orange candy) down the aisles.
By high school, the action on the screen took a back seat to action in the seats with cuddling and necking (what a quaint expression) – pausing only when the usher came along with his flashlight. Does anyone kiss and cuddle today when they go on a date to see a movie? Of course, the exception was movies like "Ben-Hur" -- everyone stopped what they were doing to watch the chariot race. The smooth guys used this time in their lives to hone their skills for when they could get their driving license and make out at the drive-ins. Alas, what happened to drive-ins?
The advent of home videos took a lot of fun and anticipation out of going to the movie son a Saturday night. You'd hear the buzz and read about upcoming movies for weeks ahead of their release. If you didn't go to the cinema, it would be a couple of years before it would be shown on TV.
The challenge for studios and cinemas is how to keep people coming to theaters. They will need to radically alter their way of doing business. I'm less inclined to go to the cinema nowadays. For one thing, there is too much crap coming out of Hollywood. Second, there is very little original. We’ve seen it all before. Look at this year’s big releases -- how many were sequels? Third, movies come out in the States sometimes up to six months before they are released in Japan (giving rise to cases like the one in Sendai). Fourth, admission is too high. Who wants to pay 1,800 yen or 2,000 yen for a mediocre movie? Fifth, Japanese cinema chains need to offer more late-night shows. Most working people cannot make it to the 7 p.m. screening in time, and if they do, they have the problem of juggling their fast food I described above.
Beyond all that, though, is the technological challenge. In Japan, with its high-speed broadband and unlimited downloads, you can download virtually anything you want, be it music or movies. In the U.S., the issue has an interesting history. Congress granted movies copyright protection in 1912. In the 1970s, the movie industry tried to stop people from copying films on video recorders. But consumers won a victory in 1984 when the U.S. Supreme Court exempted video home recording from copyright infringement.
The stakes are high. A motion picture industry report in the U.S. last year estimated that internet users download 350,000 movies every day. I think studios stop fighting the Internet and embrace it by collecting royalties as part of the Internet connection fee. They also need to realize that consumers want to receive their content in different ways, and cater to that. Some will still want to see a movie on the big screen, while others will want to digitally download the movie so they can watch it when, where and how they wish.
It won't be too long before movies are made primarily for home entertainment, especially as more households get large-screen TVs. Controversial U.S. director Michael Moore released his latest film, "Slacker Uprising," for free on the Internet last month, and broke download records during its first 24 hours on the web, according to Hypernia Hosting Corp.
For now, the studios are ahead in the battle. Digitally downloading is still a cumbersome process and user unfriendly. Download times are long and the picture quality is sub-par. But one day, the technology will be as simple as popping a disc into a player. Then the only battle will be for the remote control at home.
Chris Betros is the editor of Japan Today.© Japan Today