What the Film Industry Can Learn From the War on Drugs

By  · Published on June 2nd, 2010

Early last month, an elderly woman named Helen Pruett was hospitalized when a dozen federal agents began banging at her back door, front door, and kitchen windows believing, wrongly, that they had the house of a drug suspect. Despite making several arrests attached to that particular investigation, what happened to Pruett is a sore eye on the face of the entire War on Drugs. It also came at the worst time possible. Only a week prior, a Missouri drug bust was caught on tape so that the entire world could see that the police were so inept that they shot guns in the presence of children and ended up killing a family dog.

When I heard about Nicolas Chartier’s and The Hurt Locker’s pursuit of those who had illegally downloaded the Oscar-winning film, I couldn’t help but see images of inept police officers engaged in a similar situation. Minus the canine killing.

There are more than a few similarities between the War on Drugs and the way the film industry currently goes after pirates. For one, there’s the schmaltzy advertisements that either liken what you’re doing to running over a child on a trike (if you do drugs) or liken what you’re doing to stealing a car (if you download films without paying for them). For two, there is the behemoth nature of both – they’re both cultural realities that sweep wide across the population and, in most cases, people who participate see little to nothing ethically wrong with what they are doing. For three, both the government and the industry are absolutely awful at solving these problems.

The third is perhaps the most meaningful if one believes that pirating is negatively affecting the industry. It’s important because, so far, they seem to be following what the music industry tried and failed at doing when piracy hit them the hardest.

The correlation here is striking. Much like how the War on Drugs often targets those who use drugs or possess small amounts (a situation which usually leads to fines and community service), the film industry is beginning to target the recipients of pirated materials instead of the pirates themselves. The outcry seems to be that if the penalties were lower, the industry would have more ground to stand on, but the industry seems to believe that stiff penalties are the key to deterring would-be downloaders.

This is also the best lesson that the industry can learn from the struggles and failures of the War on Drugs. Unlike that protracted, decades-long absurdity, the film industry is in a position to save itself a ton of money on pointlessly going after the millions of downloaders out there and, instead, hitting the root of the problem.

That root of the problem – like the drug cartel leaders and the main traffickers – is the small number of individuals who take material from post production offices and post it online for all to steal. Why we haven’t seen more announcements about studios working harder to get their own post houses in order is beyond me.

Going after these individuals and threatening them with fines (and the far worse fate of losing a career) seems to be the first step in creating a foundation against the world of stolen goods. To put muscle into this effort would, I think, have a noticeable effect. With respect, this does nothing to solve the problem of the DVD or Blu-ray ending up online after distribution, but it could go a long way in curbing the availability of films online before theatrical release. Unfortunately, all the numbers out there would suggest that DVD sales are the more affected sales aspect.

To that end, it seems like the film industry has taken a few steps toward doing what would be the film equivalent of legalizing marijuana. More and more, movie studios and smaller outlets are making their films available to stream straight to a television or laptop. The problem is that once the movie has played, it’s no longer available (unless you pay again). This is somewhat solved by a monthly subscription system, but the movie is never truly yours to do with what you want, and not everything is available at all times to be downloaded. It’ll be a slow walk, but eventually the industry will need to learn its second lesson from the War on Drugs: legalize downloading. Completely. Create a system where one can acquire the film through the computer (speed won’t even be an issue in a few years (unlike the War on Drugs which continually battles against speed)), own it, and be able to access it accordingly.

This would, seemingly, answer all of the main complaints of pirates who seem at least rightful in stealing (or infringing copyright law if your fragile sensibilities are hurt by admitting you’re a thief) because 1) the films aren’t available for download 2) the films aren’t available for ownership post-download and 3) they aren’t available close to the theatrical opening. That last part is tricky, and theater owners may have to sacrifice the most in the coming years, but a compromise can still be worked out. Pirates who feel they are somehow crusading against a broken system will still be blissfully ignorant of how anything actually works, and they’ll continue to steal, but at least the industry will have answered the call in a meaningful way.

In summation, the failures of the War on Drugs can teach the film industry at least two important lessons. One, go after the root of illegal activity and the branches will fall off. Two, legalize what you can in a responsible way, and the bulk of the buyers will respond to it favorably.

These lessons, if put into practice, won’t solve everything. With the proliferation of internet technology, it’s only going to get easier for Frat Guy Ian to download X-Men: First Class, but hopefully the perceived threat of piracy will be calmed, the studios can reap more profit, the indie world can breathe a bit easier, foreign buyers can become a little less risk averse, you can buy movies online at an affordable price, and your grandmother can avoid that heart attack from when the Feds burst down her door and kill her dogs because you torrented Get Him to the Greek on her computer.

Or at least that’s what she claims. We all know she loves Russell Brand.

How wrong am I?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.