Fall 2007

Someone Stole My Sofa

The director of Sicko says filmmakers should worry more about the creation and exhibition of their movies and less about piracy.


Gus Van Sant
(© Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA/Corbis)

I was driving along a desolate road in northern Michigan when my cell phone rang. It was the perpetrator.

“Mike, I don’t know how to say this. I am so sorry. I’m the one responsible for your movie being pirated on the Internet.”

It’s not often that the perpetrator of something like this contacts you to let you know he’s the one.

Rarer yet when he turns out to be someone in the entertainment industry—and, quite shockingly, not just some low-ranking schmo at a lab.

As this magazine goes to press, various detectives and investigators are dealing with the matter and I am not allowed to reveal any more of the specifics, though they will all come out in due time. Suffice it to say that it may have cost the studio that produced Sicko millions of dollars (I have heard estimates of the number of illegal downloads being anywhere from 2 million to 20 million worldwide).

I oppose the prosecution of any individual—especially teenagers—who comes across pirated items on the Internet and shares them with their friends. But that is not what happened here. The person responsible here should have known better. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I make movies to be seen on the big screen in a darkened movie theater. If I wanted to make Sicko to be shown on TV or a laptop computer, that would have been fine, but that was not my intention. Part of going to the movies is to have a communal experience, and I felt the objectives I wished to accomplish in making this movie would have a better shot of being realized by having people sitting in a room with hundreds of their fellow Americans and sharing the rage they would feel. But I, and you, know all too well why 50 percent of the country NEVER goes to the movies anymore (and I will address these reasons in a moment).

So, if 150 million Americans won’t go to the movies, then I guess I am happy they see my work any way they can. I believe in the easy access and sharing of information and art. When I was a teenager that’s how you learned about new bands. Someone gave you a cassette tape they made of an album they thought you’d like. It wasn’t illegal. Recently, I read Don DeLillo’s new novel, Falling Man. I liked it so much, I gave my copy to a friend so he could read it. In doing so, I did not break the law. Why not? I just denied Mr. DeLillo and his publisher $25 that my friend would have had to pay if he bought it at a bookstore. So why is it different for music and movies?

Perhaps it’s because the person I just gave the book to can’t go into his dining room and print a bunch of copies, bind them in a hardcover, and send them to all his friends. Just like years ago you couldn’t go into your basement and press vinyl records, or into your bedroom and print a 35mm movie.

But then one day the industry decided that these two art forms should be digitized for public consumption and, on that day my friends, we lost our right to bitch about people stealing our work. If I put my sofa out on my front lawn by the curb, I cannot wake up the next morning, see that it’s gone, and then start screaming, “They stole my sofa! They stole my sofa!” Uh, yeah, idiot. You set it out there. What did you think was going to happen?

Someone decided vinyl records weren’t good enough (of course, they were better, but there was a new way to make a buck), so we were forced to re-buy all our albums on CD. We were told the outrageous prices for these CDs (at $17 a pop) would soon come down once everyone got rid of their records and bought CDs. The prices never came down. Karma’s a funny thing, and it wouldn’t be long before the grim reaper of Napster would knock on the industry’s door.

And what was wrong with seeing a movie in a movie theater? Sure, old movies were shown on TV, but a new movie could only be seen in a movie theater. If you missed it the first time around, you could catch it at the second-run house, or even later at a repertory theater. But then someone thought there was more money to be made, so movies were put on tape. There was some piracy, but a tape of a tape looked like mud and it didn’t kill the movie theaters.

But then the decision was made to go digital—and why not! The movies on your home screen would look and sound exceptional. More money could be made. You could watch them on your computer. And now you can watch them on your 2-inch iPhone! When art is reduced to a series of ones and zeroes, don’t be surprised if eventually what you’re left with is zero.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the digital revolution is the most democratic thing to hit the planet since democracy itself. It has allowed the citizenry to communicate with each other without any middleman. Information can be shared and found in ways we’d never dream possible. And when it comes to music and movies, it has allowed people to create their art in easy and affordable ways. This is all good.

But let’s go back to that book I read and gave to my friend. I guess he could Xerox it and sell it to others. And more and more books are now available online. But book readers like to hold a book and read the words on pages they turn. They don’t want to read a book on a computer screen. And the stories they are reading have value. Book editors and publishers are there to help, not get in the way. They don’t have a committee of publishers giving notes and they don’t hire re-write authors to put your book through seven different permutations. They don’t have test readings and you are not required to write alternate endings to see which ones score in the highest two boxes.

So maybe all this worrying about piracy is distracting us from the real issues. It’s not the teenage kid in Scarsdale who is hurting our ability to practice our art. It is a system that has debased it over the years to the point where most people simply don’t want to go to the movies anymore. We can talk about record box office summers all we want, but we know the dirty little secret: attendance is down, and has been down, for the past 20-plus years. Why is that?

Is it because we work in a system that sucks the life out of what would be otherwise exciting, provocative, entertaining movies, movies that would send audiences home with such a feeling of exhilaration they couldn’t wait to tell their friends and neighbors, “You MUST see this movie!”

Is it because the distribution system is all about how a film does on its first weekend? If we knew that our films were of exceptional quality, we wouldn’t be worrying about the first weekend because we would trust that those who saw it on Weekend One would tell 10 people each that they had to see it on Weekend Two. Box office would go up, not down, in the second week.

Michael Moore directing SICKO

Or is it because the movie houses that show our films are simply the most god-awful places to spend a Friday night? All that time and money we spend at the labs and at the sound mix, only to have shoddy prints run through out-of-focus projectors that can’t fully read the digital soundtracks. And the audience has been conned into thinking they are more comfortable in “stadium seating.” OK, the short people can finally see the screen and the tall people are no longer kneecapped. But the concept behind stadium seating is to cut you off as much as possible from the rest of the audience. The reason that the movies have survived the inventions of radio, television, the VCR and the Internet is because people want to go and sit in the dark with a few hundred other strangers and have a communal experience. Nothing beats the laughter as those in the theater join in a loud roar when Borat wrestles his Kazakh producer in the nude. Nothing compares to the silence of hearing a pin drop as Jodie Foster hides in terror from Anthony Hopkins. Who can forget the collective gasp of the audience as the Nazi soldier gives Sophie her choice? You don’t get that from watching a movie on your Razr phone and you never will. But building high seats on steep steps that reduce the communal experience (not to mention how it reduces the sound of the audience—which, of course, was its intent, what with all the cell phones, the texting, the chattering, the nacho-munching, etc.—but the stadium seats also mean you can’t hear the swell of laughter five rows back).

It’s no wonder then, that the public, especially the young people, have perceived that the movie business doesn’t much care anymore how its product is made or presented. And if we as a union continue to allow our work to be treated like so much junk, a sofa pieced together by bean counters instead of artists, exhibited in unpleasant rooms, and made obsolete and disposable after 72 hours, let’s not be so surprised when, after we put it out on the digital curb, that someone has come by to pick it up and use it for a while before they too dump it in someone else’s garbage heap.

In My Opinion

Members share their strong opinions on industry issues in this occasional column.

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