Free movies?


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I’m umming-and-ahhing about an offer from Lovefilm. They’re offering six months for £9.99 via the xbox, which is £2 per month – less than the price of a single rental from Blockbuster. It’s a sweet deal, but I already have Netflix and I’m making good use of that. Netflix is all inclusive but doesn’t have any brand new titles. Lovefilm has a flat subscription rate but if you want to watch the newer films, you have to rent them on a pay-per-view basis.

I was chatting about this with a friend, and they made the comment that the deal was unfair: they’d been illegally downloading films so didn’t see why they should pay for what they had hitherto got for free. This irritated me, because it’s pretty much exactly the same as me saying that I used to shoplift sweets from Woolworths and now I buy sweets, so if I have to pay more for Lindt chocolate than I do for Snickers, that’s unfair because I used to get either for free.

Where do your shows and movies come from? Yes, via your TV set, or via your PC or xbox. Yes, via the internet, but how did they get there? Someone had to make them. Someone had to invest millions upon millions to make them happen. The only way they get to fund the next episode, let alone the next series, is via licensing rights, and that means finding a channel to broadcast them.

Some TV channels recoup the hundreds of millions they spend on buying content through subscription (Sky, and in a roundabout way, the BBC) and some through direct advertising, but the latter’s purchasing power has been diminished because they don’t have as many viewers as they did. Part of that is through legitimate on-demand services like Netflix, Lovefilm and Hulu, and part of that is the eye-watering impact of illegal downloads.

When people download films and shows for free they are devaluing the content: it’s not worth as much to the networks because they can’t ask for as much to sell the broadcast rights, and it’s not worth as much to the broadcasters because fewer people are watching, which makes the channels worth less to advertisers. Less advertising means less original programming, which means less content. 

People talk about business models, but a good business model doesn’t cannibalise itself the way piracy does, because eventually the cost of producing the content vs the chance of actually recouping those costs becomes prohibitive. That means shows and films having their budgets cuts, and eventually, no more content. Look at my recent post about how the promising-looking BioShock movie was shelved because the studio wouldn’t take the risk of funding any big-budget R-rated movie. Think about that for a moment: R-rated films with high production values are simply not being made any more. Eventually, the only type of films that will be made at all will be the likes of Transformers 8: Buy More Merchandise.

You are not entitled to free films. You are not entitled to free television. The studios and networks who produced them did so on the understanding that the users would pay a fair contribution that would allow them to continue in business and when you illegally acquire that content you break that deal.

Your subscription to Lovefilm – substantially less than you’d pay for Sky TV – is just a basic subscription that recoups some of the cost of buying in that non-premium content. For them to include films that even the BBC can’t afford – the latest blockbusters – they’d have to charge maybe £30 per month, which nobody would pay. So, logically, the premium pay-per-view service makes sense. Even Sky do that.

Yes, it’s annoying since it’s not clear from the advertising that the only films you get with your regular subscription are the cheaper ones that you could watch on TV anyway, but you pay for the convenience of on-demand viewing. Once your expectations are more realistic, it’s not such a bad deal.

The first expectation that everyone needs to shed is the idea that anything is truly free – and after that, that it should be.

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