• THE ETHICS OF “POPCORN TIME” (and others like it) -

    Just as music listening evolved through an open “pirated” platform into more industry-friendly technologies like iTunes and Pandora, movies and TV seem to be headed in the same direction, nudged into a new order by anarchist pirate “torrents” like Popcorn Time, where you can watch HD versions of many recent films—for free. 

    We’re talking films that are just now reaching your video and Netflix shelves, as well as older “classics” (e.g. THE GODFATHER trilogy, a lot of Disney animation, etc.).  It’s the less pricey–and ethically problematic–alternative to the paid services offered by Netflix or on-demand streaming services (or for you few remaining Luddites, your local video store).

    I recently found myself making use (a lot of use, I must admit) of Popcorn Time while I was in France with my wife and three year old son, who around once a day benefited from its easy access to the Disney canon of animated features (which are, if you haven’t seen them, just for kids). And I found myself thinking…I’m a long-standing member of the entertainment industry; I’ve made a good living working on feature films and television series that paid me well for my services. Why am I willing to stoop so low as to engage in watching what some could describe as “pirated” video?

    For one thing, my wife and I, often exhausted by the 24 hour a day energy of a toddler, needed a moment when he wasn’t in some way figuratively “walking into traffic” (I’m sure the parents out there understand what I’m talking about). For another, these films are not readily available when traveling abroad; as of this writing, you can only access Netflix in Europe using a VPN  (Secure Thoughts, April 2015)And most video stores in foreign countries only rent features dubbed into the home country’s language.

    Popcorn-Time-servicio-de-pelic_54403160135_54028874188_960_639But now that I’m home, I’m wondering about the ethics of continuing to use sites like Popcorn Time. And I’m coming down on the side of…yes. I’m going to keep using it. Why? Because there’s another, more subtle reasoning, a dirty little secret that the media congloms don’t want all of us to realize.

    The most potent argument that these corporations dredge up is the financial threat to the “artistic community”—those who actually create films and television series. When you watch torrents like Popcorn Time, according to their argument, you are taking food out of the mouths of the creative teams who have spent years forging these works of art.

    I’d always subscribed to the banner of artistic crusade—until recently. Then, I asked myself where I’d made most of my money over my three decade career; and as most of you know, the answer was NOT in back end profits. As a matter of fact, the only “profits” I ever saw were from a film back in the mid1980’s, a small independent film produced by the late, great (and professionally ethical) Bobby Newmyer and his partner, Jeff Silver, despite a drawer full of contracts that promised me monopoly money wealth as soon as the film was in profit.

    popcorn_time-100388662-origAnd this is not only for us mid-level production guys with a mere point of three of back-end profits promised. Several weeks after the blockbuster opening of a studio feature I’d cast, I spoke to its producer, congratulating her on the film’s (then) record breaking numbers. Casually lobbing a joke about the imminent arrival of her first profits check, I found myself stunned to hear that the studio had, in fact, claimed the film was not yet in profit territory—nor would it be any time soon.

    Shocked? It’s called creative accounting, and of course we’ve all heard of it.

    Which segues me back to Popcorn Time.

    The sudden realization that slammed into my guilt ridden gut was that I wasn’t taking food out of the mouths of the creative team at all. The studio accountants were doing a far more efficient job than Popcorn Time could do.

    maxresdefaultThose who actively participated in the making of these films had already been paid salaries (healthy ones, by most standards) by the studio. And most of the time, that’s all the money the “creative team” is likely to ever see. Whatever back-end “profits” they had been contractually promised were drained by equally creative studio accountants (Mike Masnick, TechDirt, October 2012).

    So now, when I watch Popcorn Time, I’m taking money away, yes…from mega-corporations whose net worth is currently measured in the trillions. Not from your local gaffer, cinematographer, or editor. Probably not even from the director, producer or movie stars. Because creative accountants make sure that these films almost never end up in the black. At least not on balance sheets.

    The studio execs still fly first class (or more likely, private jets) these days. And the end-of-year studio bonuses still dwarf the lifetime earnings of most Americans, many who, making minimum wage or on fixed income, cannot afford $15 ticket prices.

    So am I saying that it’s great to use pirated torrents? I don’t think I’m going that far. But if you do indulge in Popcorn Time, I suggest waiting on that trip to the confessional; the studio execs who only grudgingly yield profits (or industry wages, for that matter) won’t be seen doing penance any time soon.

    – Rick Pagano