Is a Hollywood Blackout on the Horizon?

Here’s the thing about SOPA and PIPA:  they were never – at their root – about piracy. Not really. With the F.B.I. recently raiding and shutting down the mammoth file sharing site, Megaupload, and with sites like FileServe and FileSonic running for the hills, disabling their file sharing features, it makes it even harder to argue they ever were. No, these bills were about – always about – relevancy. The two bills were conjured up by powerful corporations looking to corner a monopoly (like GoDaddy – who not only helped write up the Stop Online Piracy Act, but also had immunity to its rules! Hey, I see no problem with this at all!) Then there’s the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. Let’s call them what they are. They are dinosaurs. They’re on the way out, but they aren’t going to go down without a fight. In order to stay relevant they needed more control and that’s what these bills would of given them (For a nice breakdown of the SOPA and PIPA bills, click here).

If they are dinosaurs, the asteroid was the internet. Movies aren’t going anywhere. Music isn’t going anywhere. But how movies and music are distributed, how movies and music are made and how the public finds and enjoys them… that is changing. And that scares the protectors of a business model that does not, will not work ever again. This panic you see from the MPAA and the RIAA, it's just the death rattle.

And now – thanks in part to the smug response by the Motion Picture Association of America’s chairman and CEO, formerly disgraced senator Chris Dodd – could a Hollywood Blackout be on the horizon next?

The January 18th online blackout was organized quickly. It didn’t take months of planning. It took hours and snowballed from there. The internet and the speed at which information can be disseminated and organized is the game changer here. Over at Reddit, a “Boycott Hollywood” thread has already sprung up, trying to think tank some sort of Hollywood Blackout. One of the ideas raised is Black March. Since March 2012 marks the end of the 1st quarter in economic reports, the idea is ending the quarter with a dramatic decline in profits would serve as an effective act of protest. Another, slightly more focused idea is a plan to boycott The Dark Knight Rises opening weekend. Nothing against the movie, really. In fact many of the people planning the maneuver can't wait to see the film. It's just the biggest target and they can afford to wait a week (or two, or three etc.) Others have called for the boycotting of websites like Fandango or IMDB but I’m not sure how any of these options actually hurt Hollywood or get them to care.

A boycott is designed to hurt a big industry to change their ways. How does hurting IMDB hurt the studios exactly? All you’re doing is hurting IMDB and killing jobs for a company that can put no significant pressure on the studios and really have nothing to do with the studios except maybe marketing a few banner ads. They are information suppliers. That's it. And in what significant way do studios rely on Fandango? There are a number of ways to purchase tickets just as there are numerous sites where you can retrieve information about films. They are small fish in a large pond and the big fish don't need them to survive.

As for the Black March idea, I’m not convinced this would work either. The demographics aren’t there. The same crowd that can convince sites to self-induce a blackout cannot affect a film’s box office. Not to an effective degree anyway. I’m all for changing studio mentality and I am no fan of the MPAA but these are old hat ideas lacking in imagination or sound thinking. Boycotting is trickier territory than the online blackout; it’s an entirely different animal. The blackout consisted of major traffic sites like Wikipedia, Reddit, Imgur, Wired, Tumblr and Wordpress all participating in some form of self-censoring. These were actions taken upon themselves, supported by a bulk of their users. It educated other users as awareness spread. Citizens across the country inundated the offices of their senators with signed petitions and scores of calls. Google – which showed solidarity by blacking out its homepage logo – reported 4.5 million people signed their linked petition against the controversial two bills. 18 senators overcame their initial shock of witnessing voters exercising their rights as citizens and withdrew their support for the two bills (specifically PIPA as House’s SOPA bill has been shelved). This didn't happen because we boycotted Google. It happened because the Reddit community was outspoken against the bills. It happened because Wired censored it's own headlines in protest. It happened because Google had an interest in making sure SOPA and PIPA were stopped and not simply  because they put a giant block covering their company logo.

If there is going to be change in how Hollywood works, it has to come from within Hollywood. It has to come from writers and musicians and directors and actors and comedians not named Bill Maher.  These people were noticeably absent in their support for the MPAA and RIAA during their SOPA and PIPA campaigns because they are largely sensitive to the censorship and free speech issue.  Who can blame them for not showing their support? The MPAA and RIAA are Senator Palpatine. How did they respond to the blackout? Did they have a newfound respect for the fears and concerns of those protesting? Nah. Instead, the MPAA’s Dodd called the acts of protest by the likes of Google and Wikipedia “an abuse of power." You see, throwing money at senators in return for support of their precious bills = free speech. Anyone who oppose with peaceful protest = abuse of power. After the serious hit PIPA took last week, Dodd lashed out in embarrassing fashion at President Obama and everyone else he feels is taking Hollywood for granted.

"I would caution people don't make the assumption that because the quote 'Hollywood community' has been historically supportive of Democrats, which they have, don't make the false assumptions this year that because we did it in years past, we will do it this year... These issues before us -- this is the only issue that goes right to the heart of this industry."

It’s no wonder the same individuals who helped orchestrate the January 18th blackout in the early stages are looking to give a what-for to Hollywood. The people spoke in an overwhelming fashion. And Dodd’s biggest argument as proof that piracy is a problem? Avatar’s 21 million illegal downloads. Hey, you all know Avatar, right? Biggest movie in the world? Biggest moneymaker ever? That Avatar. A movie that nearly made three billion dollars worldwide in theatrical sales alone is the film Dodd chose to make a case as an example of how piracy is hurting the movie industry. Didn’t exactly bat away those “illegal downloads lead to more purchases” arguments, did it?

The other irony, of course, is Avatar was the massive success it was because it embraced technology and because it embraced innovation. The video game industry has surpassed Hollywood’s revenue. Again, largely because of innovation. To be fair, the next day damage control had set in. A more concilliatory Dodd appeared open to “rethink” the issues and the MPAA’s strategy. No doubt this was in response to his initial, short-sighted response to the blackout throughout the Internet. Even if a Hollywood boycott of some kind does not lead to significant losses in profits, does the industry really want to upset increasingly emboldened, internet-generation customers?

They can hide behind the piracy argument all they want. Dodd and his cohorts will tell you this isn't about millionaires getting richer. You see, it's about the carpenters who design the sets. It's about the people who thread and needle costumes. Who work on the visual effects. Who carry around trunks of lighting equipment. It's about the actors who barely have speaking roles and aren't guaranteed that next job. This is the argument the MPAA wants to get across. Only its a lie. Because if they did care about those people, they'd stop fraudulent accounting practices that say a movie that made a billion dollars worldwide somehow lost money.

The MPAA and RIAA need to tread lightly here. The problem Dodd suffers from is he's concerned about preserving an outdated business model, when he should be looking toward the future. He’s talking to politicians, when he should really be talking to us. He concerned with threats and votes, when he should be concerned about "we the people".