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The Hollywood crisis that isn't

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Analysis Barely a week has gone by without reports of Hollywood's great box office slump of 2005. So our thanks go to screenwriter John August for pointing out that on closer examination, the 'slump' is as elusive as missing Weapons of Mass Destruction.

"Every Monday brought new speculation about just what was causing the downturn, and What It Really Meant. Could the problem be the poor state of movie theaters, the growth of DVD, the price of gasoline?" observes John.

"What makes this self-flagellation so annoying and unwarranted is that the 'box office slump' is basically a myth," he points out.

In fact 2005's box office returns mirror 2004's very closely, and box office receipts are down just six per cent this year. One more blockbuster would have turned the slump into a boom.

"Is there really an industry crisis if just one movie would eliminate it?" asks John.

Of course not. But a better question is why do so many people want you to engender this panic?

Because it suits them, that's why.

Phony crisis

Listening to our old friend Lawrence Lessig and former MPAA boss Jack Valenti debate each other on National Public Radio last week, it became clear. The dears sounded like a couple of senior citizens grumbling their way a cold day trip to Brighton Beach - but in reality the phony crisis suits them both.

Representing the pigopolist lobby, Valenti wants to instil widespread panic so he can outlaw new technologies of storage and distribution. History tells us that rights holders have always profited from such new technologies, and it's a point Lessig has himself made superbly in the past.

Representing the technology determinists, Lessig also wanted to tell us the sky is falling, because copyright was the real obstacle to technical innovation. The favorite narrative of today's techno-utopians goes "X is the end of Y as we know it!" (or "Z changes everything!") - it's a recurring adolescent fantasy.

History tells us that copyright has always bent to accommodate the new technologies, and the social contract always engineers new compensation models. Instead, Lessig concluded with a little Hallmark Card homily to the power of creativity, citing "14 million blogs" as a testament to human ingenuity. No, really.

The geek lobby sees the power of computer networks being frustrated by rights holders, and wishes those rights away. The rights lobby sees its value being eroded by the lack of new compensation models to go with new technology, and so wishes the technology away. But neither those rights, nor the technology, are going to be wished away.

So a permanent war suits both lobbies.

"We'll make every sample an infringement!" cry the rights holders - as if to encourage the view that looking at something is a crime. (For technophobes like Jack, that's probably true). "It's the end of creativity as we know it!" scream the nerds - encouraging the view that creativity is defined by the computer (For literalists like Larry, that's almost certainly true).

But it's a very phony war. The MPAA is only too happy to play the cartoon role the techno utopians have created for them, in a narrative dominated by fear, domination and control. Like small children playing a game of ghost, they've succeeded only in frightening the bejesus out of each other.

And this thoroughly dishonest debate - you could call it the artistic versus the autistic - is lopsided to begin with. It's Jack, not Larry, who has Sin City and Mean Streets. But only by taking the long view can you see how irrelevant both of their phony stances really are.

Don't Panic. ®

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Slump? [screenwriter John August] ... [more comment]

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