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Something for nothing 

"You're in luck cuz last night it happened again,

I was feeling creative about twenty to ten.

So I sharpened a pencil, then I wore down its end,

And now soon you'll have something to share with your friends."

— Loudon Wainwright III

You know what I love? Free stuff. Free samples. Free tastes. Free desserts. Buy one get one free. Free trial offers. Mail in 10 wrappers to get a free Moon Pie T-shirt? I'll do it. Free 50th Anniversary Silver Dollar City baseball cap? I'm in. Free Organic Shea Butter Anti-Aging Cream sample? Yes, please. I want free stuff even when I don't want it.

But those are things. Tangible things. Things that if I picked them up in a store and put them in my pocket and walked out, I would feel like I was stealing. Yet when we go online, there's a disconnect. Our computers are generally a free and open forum, and somewhere along the road toward getting digitally everything we can get digitally, we started expecting to get everything we can get digitally for free.

One of the results of this expectation over the last decade was, if not the death, at least the abject leveling, of two of our country's major industries — newspapers and music. And whether the heads of the movie industry want to admit it or not, we're on our way to the third.

Don't get me wrong. The reasons the movie industry is hurting right now are legion: because of the enormous boom in entertainment options (video games, DVR, OnDemand, good TV, web video, web apps), because the big studios are pieces of huge multinational corporations that are hurting in other areas of their business even more than movies, because the credit crunch has made financing hugely difficult, and because, until recently, the studios devoted considerably more resources to fighting piracy than to exploring new distribution models. That said, piracy is an enormous factor in the current economic crisis of Hollywood and it only stands to become a larger one.

Home video has always been where the studios actually make money (due to so much of the box office revenue going to pay for costs and back-end fees for actors, directors, and producers). Home video revenue dropped 9 percent in 2009 and is expected to drop a further 12 percent this year. The industry says it lost $1.3 billion domestically and $6.1 billion worldwide due to piracy. These numbers translate into over 141,000 jobs lost and $837 billion in tax revenue and they are throwing the industry into a tailspin. And we're just at the beginning. For most people, the reason they don't pirate movies the way they do music is because it takes so much longer to download and steal. As the technology improves, this hurdle will fall and piracy will only increase.

Here's why this matters to you. Because of reduced profits from home video, executives are cutting fees across the board and making decisions of what feature films to produce based almost entirely on what movies sell well on Friday nights.

Based on ticket sales, by early Friday evening, a studio can generally determine how much money a movie will make, not only over that weekend, but through the entirety of its run. Now, sometimes these estimates are wrong. Sometimes a smaller film will surpass its estimates because of good reviews or positive word-of-mouth. But executives aren't interested in these anomalies because executives are fearful and running publicly traded companies and, instead, are looking for a fixed game. So, they put their money on black and make movies they know will sell to a Friday night audience. And who goes to see movies on Friday nights? Fourteen to 25 year-olds. The combination of hard times and home video taking such a hit has led to a change in the industry that seems irrevocable.

Coming from someone who makes the bulk of his living from the entertainment industry, I'm sure this sounds like a selfish plea. And it is. But here's why it matters for you, my entertainment-thieving friends. Quality goes down. It has gone down and it will continue to. When half as many movies are being made this year than were five or six years ago, and those movies are created more than ever to appeal only to the young (and generally male) demographic, where will you get your entertainment that is not pure product? Where will you find a movie that's not based on a comic book or video game or board game?

When writers, directors, musicians, and other creators are spending the majority of their time fighting twice as hard for half as many jobs, they don't have the time to create better work. When the creators spend their days not practicing their craft, or creating a form of their craft that is pure commerce, the quality of the work diminishes. And in those cases, it's not just the artists who suffer; it's you.

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