Unless you want to see the kid from David After Dentist grown up and self-aware of his fame, this weekend’s ROFLcon convention on internet humor offered scant intellectual discourse. An exception was an impassioned lecture by Ben Huh, impresario of the lolcat sweatshop Cheezeburger Network on the future of intellectual property law and the web.
4chan harbors a resentment that Huh profitted from the Lolcat images and ideas that they created for free, and he's long been plagued by accusations (and even death threats) that he’s a ripoff artist profiting from the work of the exact kind of people in attendance at ROFLcon. In light of this, it wasn’t surprising that his stance is that people should just relax and not get so worked up about stealing intellectual property.
After a heckler was escorted out of the panel, Huh explained how culture and media moves and grows so much faster in countries like China where IP law doesn’t really exist. Sure, the people might be oppressed by their government, but they can make all the advice animals memes they want.
Of course, the flip side of China’s freedom to enjoy “remix culture” of funny internet pictures and videos is that the lack of copyright laws make it a hotbed of piracy of everything from electronics to clothing, and of course, pirating movies and music.
I worked at major movie studios for years, and I know exactly the consequences of movie piracy. I was around for several rounds of massive layoffs at studios where thousands of jobs were eliminated. There is a direct and real effect on a large American industry. While Tom Cruise or the president of the studio doesn’t see a dent in his paycheck, you might see the entire accounting department outsourcedto trim overhead.
If that sounds too much like a sad Detroit auto industry sob story -- the fault of an industry that failed to evolve – here’s the sobering truth that film executives won’t outright say: they ARE adapting. They’re adapting by making terrible movies. And it’s actually a sound business move.
First, several studios shuttered their arthouse imprints like Picturehouse and Warner Independent in the past few years. So no more “good” movies that don’t make huge profits. Then, they cut their slates, meaning that they used to release about 15 movies and year, and cut that to around 11. That’s why sometimes you look at the movie listings and it seems like there’s nothing new and good out that week. It also means each movie has to be more of a sure bet.
That’s why there’s turd torpedos like Battleship based on a toy franchise, and that’s why there will be endlessly unneeded sequels like Hangover Part III. That’s why Katherine Heigl could drive a Lamborghini off a cliff every month for a year if she wanted.
It’s piracy’s fault. Don’t pirate. Don’t give Katherine Heigl a Lamborghini.
Ben Huh is not really endorsing people illegally downloading full length movies. He’s onto something – that the legally loosey-goosey “remixing” can live happily along side a thriving and lucrative entertainment industry. At least, in some cases.
Take the 2010 movie Inception. This was a massive hit, and made tons of money. However, there was definitely a big pile money left on the table in terms of merchandising because Leonardo DiCaprio didn't agree to any merchandise with his image. Director Christopher Nolan was in favor of making merchandise, since he knew from the Batman films just how lucrative it can be. I respect DiCaprio for being a true artist and not selling out by having his face plastered on lunchboxes. I can only speculate he’s suffering some psychic scars from having his face on a poster in the bedroom of every girl in the '90s. However, there were plenty of people who really wanted an Inception t-shirt or a replica of the spinning top, and it just wasn’t going to happen.
What slightly tickles me is that though DiCaprio prevented his face from being plastered on a coffee mug or t-shirt, a goofy version of his likeness became a meme he had absolutely no control over.
The people who made and spread these memes were fans of the film – the movie was good enough to stay in their minds the next day, and they knew their friends would have seen it and could understand the reference. If Inception sucked, it wouldn’t have become a meme.
Did the Inception memes help the box office of the film? Certainly. It made it become a must-see, the kind of thing where everyone you know has seen it and you’d feel left out if you hadn’t seen it yet. I’m sure that there were box office dollars that were generated by people who were influenced by seeing the images on Reddit everyday. Not as big an impact as traditional movie marketing (Inception had a $100M marketing budget), but surely it had some effect.
This is the kind of organic publicity that can’t be generated by the studios themselves; they might be aware of it, but they can’t force it. The only way they can hope to get fans to spontaneously start making remixes of their films to create organic viral marketing is simple: make really good movies, like Inception.
The perfect sweet spot in the middle is exactly what Ben Huh advocates: stop real piracy so movie studios don’t have to make shitty movies, and then allow people to do the kind of remixing that actually helps and promotes those movies. Everyone wins.
I think Ben Huh incepted me.