A Pirate’s Life For Me


A few weeks ago, Bollywood actress Kriti Sanon was on a flight to Delhi with her mother, and just so happened to peek in the direction of the passenger sitting next to her, who was watching a movie on his phone. She couldn’t help but notice that she was the star of the movie that her neighbour was watching, and she also couldn’t help but notice that it was her most recent movie, the big budget Bollywood blockbuster Dilwale, that he was watching on his phone. The problem here was that Dilwale had only been released in cinemas the previous week, and therefore the passenger sitting beside Ms. Sanon was obviously watching a pirated version of the movie, badly filmed from the cinema audience. She was annoyed, and did what any girl in her mid-20’s would do when annoyed: she vented on Twitter, posting a picture of the passenger to her (almost half a million) followers.

So, this guy, in the course of a plane flight was shamed online by one of India’s most popular actresses, all for simply watching a(n admittedly terrible copy of a) movie on his phone. This story stuck with me for a while, as I myself was at the time enjoying the spoils of this year’s DVD Screener season (a late December/early January online release of every movie hoping to be nominated for that year’s Academy Awards. The movie studios send DVD quality ‘screener copies’ to those who vote for the awards, and one of these always leaks online, meaning that it is possible to download a perfect copy of the years “best” movies often weeks before the movie actually opens in cinemas). I didn’t really see anything bad in downloading these movies: for one thing, I already had purchased a ticket to see The Hateful Eight in the cinema when it was released at the end of January, and I knew full well when purchasing the ticket that I would have seen it already by the time the ticket is validated.

It did get me thinking however. I am someone who keeps track of every movie I see, and by my Rotten Tomatoes reviews, I saw 75 movies released in 2015. I paid to see 9 of them, and of those 9, 2 were on Netflix and therefore included in my subscription plan, leaving me with 7 movies in the past year that I have paid to see as an individual product in a cinema. I paid around €85 to the movie industry in 2015, yet by their estimates the bill would probably run closer to €1000. Am I, and Kriti Sanon’s unfortunate airplane buddy, destroying the movie industry?

What is a Cinema?

A movie is made, it is promoted, it is released in cinemas, and then a few months later it is released on DVD/BluRay/Digital Download for purchase. This conveyor belt model of a movies product life cycle is common knowledge to us all, as we grew up with it as part of our lives, yet really the truth is that the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense. To us it is natural that a highly reproducible and distributable product like a movie remains available only for viewing in a few select physical locations for the start of its life cycle, and that a premium must be paid to watch this copy at that location.

For a very long time, this was actually true. Before TV, before video, before the internet, a movie theatre was the only place anyone could watch a movie. The building was a necessary physical infrastructure to any community, built big and expansive so that as many people as possible could fit in a room and watch the same movie. Obviously since there were so many people there, a social aspect developed, as well as the idea of a trip to the cinema being a classic ‘date’ event. For decades, cinemas held a monopoly in access to movies of any kind for the general public, and this was only threatened once VCR/video players reached critical mass in the late 1980’s. Since most high-end movie markets could now choose to watch movies at home, cinemas emphasized the social aspect of physically ‘going to the movies’, and differentiated the singular experience of seeing a movie as a large group rather than in your own living room. However, once DVD’s replaced VCR and HDTV’s replaced screen static with clear digital images, cinemas faced a new challenge: the home copy of a movie was actually better quality than the one shown at a premium in the local crappy fleapit. The social experience argument wouldn’t win this one, so the product differentiation had to come in the form of a switch in movie production from film to digital, and most abhorrently: the rise of 3D movies, an experience which (unless you are an idiot who bought a 3D TV) could not be replicated at home.

What A Cinema Is Now

So the humble cinema/movie theatre has come a long way in its existence over the past century: from acting as an absolute monopoly for many decades, to qualitatively differentiating its product due to the threat of competition, and more recently to being forced to invest in new technology in order to actually make the act of going to a physical location to watch a movie worthwhile, and perhaps even good value relative to the cost. Nowadays a cinema is merely a way to watch a movie, rather than the way to see a movie. If you want to see the movie in 3D, you pay a ~€15 fee, and you are ok with it because there is no other way to see it in that format. Plus, it is genuinely more enjoyable to see a movie with a large crowd of people (if that movie is actually entertaining). I have watched The Force Awakens twice now, in 3D and in IMAX, and it was worth every cent of the circa €30 in total I spent to see this movie.

The same could not be said of Spotlight, a film I had been looking forward to for a long time, and yet one I knew I would never pay to see in the cinema. The movie tells the story of a Boston newspaper that fights to unearth the culture of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s obviously not in 3D. It was filmed digitally, yet the digital rendering would probably be crisper on an average HDTV than a large cinema screen. Therefore the only reason I would go to see Spotlight in a cinema was if I enjoyed the social aspect of the experience. I’m going to state this for the ages: I don’t necessarily want to be in a large room full of people who want to be in a room full of people who want to watch a movie about child abuse. The only reason I would ever pay to watch this in a room full of people would be if this were the only way to watch it, and due to the DVD Screener season, it obviously was not.

The pressing issue here is that in 2016, there are precisely two ways to watch a copy of a highly reproducible, highly distributable, new movie: either pay €10+ to watch it in public, or else download it illegally. Cinemas obviously are not the only way to watch a movie, they are a way to experience one: either through advanced technology (digital 3D, IMAX etc.) or the social aspect of seeing a movie in a large group. If this is the case, then the movie itself is not the product, and therefore cinemas actually sell their own specialised qualitative good (as well as expensive popcorn) that cannot be replicated outside their walls. If this is actually the case, then it follows that as well as being released in cinema on opening day, a good copy of the movie should be available to download online for a reasonable fee, directly from the movie distributor, free from the moral dilemma of piracy. The technology to price discriminate certainly exists, and it is only the industry power of cinema chains that maintain the antiquated monopoly power of their business model. I for one would certainly consider paying €5 to watch a newly released movie, especially without the threat of being unable to pause it in the middle to go to the bathroom.


There is definitely a romantic aspect to the cinema, we all remember the first time we were taken by our parents, and we all remember some iconic scene in a movie like Cinema Paradiso that celebrated the escapist power of a movie theatre within a community. What needs to be realised however is that even when most people reading this paragraph first visited a cinema, their business model was out of date. The movie theatre industry has been redundant for over 30 years, and has kept on going as if nothing has happened, as if it still owned monopolistic access to a movie for the first few months of its life cycle. A cinema obviously does have a product to sell, in its social aspect and high resolution 3D display, yet still it exists now as a slightly unnecessary middleman in the otherwise straightforward distribution of a single mp4 file. Some might say that it is unethical to engage in movie piracy, and that all should pay the market prices for a unit of entertainment such as a movie. The thing is, the market price for a product is dictated by the price and ease that product is available for, and therefore for example if it is a choice between paying €15 for a movie that starts at a specific time and in a specific location, or downloading a good copy for free and watching it whenever you want, the real market price is probably closer to €0 than it is €15. Something else must be inflating the cost, and it is probably worth the industry’s time in discovering what that something is. Answering my moral dilemma, in the wake of Kriti Sanons Twitter shaming of a man who didn’t want to pay to see her movie in a cinema: in a capitalist society, it is not the duty of customers to ensure the profit pools of an industry, it is the industry’s responsibility to adapt to a market disruption and find new ways to extract profit from its customers within the new business environment. Don’t blame the customers, blame the business model. We are already there, you just haven’t organised us yet.


A Very American Pornography

Donald Trump is an endlessly quotable guy: his straight-talking, no-nonsense, ill-informed speeches are analysed both by his critics and supporters for lines of dialogue to either ridicule or celebrate him, respectively. Unlike much of the internet, I don’t get much from learning each of the new stupid things the man has recently said, but in all honesty I must admit that one thing he said a few months ago (and then repeated it every time he had a microphone) on the US Presidential Nominee circuit really stuck with me, and it was one of the few things he said that did not spawn articles and outrage, and it probably should have. Back last year, in the middle of any speech he was making, he would proclaim with pride that he was personally funding his own campaign for the Republican Nomination for the 2016 US Presidential Election. In one of the televised debates last year, he boasted to his rivals that he was the only one among them who was paying his own way in the campaign.

We’ve all heard this fact, so it seems pretty innocuous to hear it again, but it is worth pointing out exactly what it means. By saying that he uses his own money to pay for his campaign, Trump is saying that he did not need to use the traditional (democratic) means of campaign funding, did not need to raise money from individuals and groups that liked what he had to say and would like to see him in office representing them, and did not need any support from the hierarchy of the political party whose nomination he wished to win. He would bypass all of this, because he was insanely wealthy and could pay his own way. And he was very, very proud of all of this. Trump was in effect boasting about being able to buy his way into consideration for the biggest job in the country, and considered this a point of honour: to him, his rivals for the Republican nomination were smaller people than him because they relied on donations while he was self-sufficient.

With his self-funded campaign, Donald Trump purchased for himself a platform with which to shout at us from, and ensured there would be no escaping the man for the foreseeable future. In the US, you don’t necessarily have to have something to say in order to be given a voice, you merely must be able to pay for the microphone. This of course ignores the fact that people in America always listen to Donald Trump, and not because he is loud and says funny things, but because he is a billionaire, and Americans worship billionaires.


When viewing a billionaire, or merely a millionaire, an American pair of eyes would not just see a very rich person, they would see a successful, great, powerful and wise person who could maybe have wisdom to impart to all of us about how to achieve similar success. This is the only way I can possibly rationalise the sudden sainthood achieved by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once his wealth passed a certain level and he claimed his place among the richest people in the world. Zuckerberg is obviously very good at what he does, and was very clever at building his product at a certain time and in a certain way that proved very successful. He engages in sizeable philanthropy, and strives towards a better American workplace in his own employment policies at Facebook. That’s all very good, but does it really make him worth listening to? Apparently so, as according to the World Economic Forum, he has some lessons to teach all of us through his choice of literature.

This type of post is so ubiquitous on the internet, we hardly even notice them anymore. A simple browse of LinkedIn will bring up posts about “7 things some rich guy says you should do before 7am”. Donald Trump himself originally achieved fame in the US by publishing his business strategy manual ‘The Art of the Deal’, which aimed to simultaneously teach the reader how to be better at business while also acting as printed evidence of how great Donald Trump is at business. Books like this, where a very successful person reveals their secrets always sell well. There is thus a direct link between the success of an individual and whether that individual is worth listening to.

The real issue here is the link between wealth and virtue in the US. While it is not explicit, in American culture it is highly apparent that success (measured by wealth) is considered a high virtue, and one to aspire to. If someone is rich, there is an unsaid understanding that that person works very hard and deserves everything he/she has achieved. The successful individual is seen as the sole author of his/her success, and therefore this person is an authority on success and can impart wisdom to others in and help them achieve similar success. The problem here is that there is no role given to luck or good fortune in the success story. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t benefit from being born into an intellectual family that encouraged education. He didn’t benefit from being born at the exact right time and right place to take advantage of technology and resources. Donald Trump didn’t benefit from being born into a rich family and honing his business acumen with massive private wealth as a safety net in the event of failure. Both these men are great successes, but it is difficult to argue that they both have not been incredibly lucky also.

Many reading will see aspects of this mentality in their own cultures, and indeed it is prevalent worldwide, but this is only a by-product of globalisation and the Americanisation of culture. The link between wealth and virtue is an almost uniquely American idea. Asking a Russian billionaire for tips on how to make money would involve merely a few sentences about being friends with Putin. Similarly, for the Chinese super-wealthy, all the tips would be about cultivating ties with the ruling political party. But even in ‘free’ democratic countries, there is an understanding that wealth and success are a mix between good fortune and hard work. The graph below shows how far the US is out in front of other countries with regard to individualism (The UK is in there too: that’s what Margaret Thatcher did to the country).

Americans Stand Out on Individualism

The stand-out statistic is the 26 percentage point gap between German and US opinions about the role of luck in success. Similarly, 73% of Americans see the sole act of working hard as the driving force of individual success, while other developed countries are far more cautious.

This idea that any American can achieve individual virtue through success (obscene wealth) by simply working hard is the American Dream in abstract, yet unromanticised terms. It is the reason brash billionaires are not only tolerated, but celebrated. The super-rich are the chosen few who have reached the highest level of American society. There are people who listen to Mark Zuckerburg and Donald Trump and dissect everything they say, in order to gain wisdom on how it is they became so successful, and then attempt to apply this to their own lives and achieve the same success. This is the same with the books written about success stories: Steve Jobs’ autobiography didn’t sell millions because people were interested in his life, it sold because people want to know his secret to success. This is why his profound quotes litter the internet, as people attempt to use the life of Jobs to sow the seeds to their own success. He wasn’t good, he wasn’t great, but he was rich, so there must be something he did right.

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.

John Steinback

The reason Donald Trump is tolerated, and admired, in the US is solely because he is obscenely wealthy. His admirers like him because they have dreamt of being in the same position themselves, and can imagine all the sort of crazy things they would do in this situation: be mean to people, say stupid things on TV without caring, attempt to buy the presidency of the country. It’s a fantasy, a uniquely American fantasy, and this is why I see this billionaire worship as just another form of pornography, playing out in the minds of millions all over the United States of America, and probably beyond.