Viacom shouldn’t have lost its $1bn law suit yesterday, but it was sadly inevitable.
If I’d spent three years working on the latest Shrek or Toy Story movie only to find it up online and downloadable for free I’d be outraged. I’d be outraged because my next job as an animator depends not just on sales of Buzz Lightyear slippers and Donkey Happy Meals. And, of course, I’d be even more outraged if I was the studio owner who was in the hole to the tune of scores of millions of dollars and wanted to show the shareholders a return. Nicking these films is theft in the same way as the Brinks Mat bullion job or pilfering from the shelves at Oddbins is theft. But it’s a war that is lost and Viacom knows it. It has other battles to fight.
What’s also true is that snippets of ‘I like to move it’ sung by Sacha Baron Cohen in Madagascar and watched with wide-eyed wonder by my two year old on YouTube got him into such a bouncing frenzy that we had purchased the DVD within days. YouTube has its uses for film studios.
Quite apart from the morals of the argument, I think there’s something subtler amiss in the aesthetics of ‘something for nothing.’ Things are devalued if you don’t pay for them. They are disposable. You sling out that Primark shirt but not the Prada pants. A diamond is just a load of squashed carbon but their relative rarity, sparkle and a vigorous De Beers marketing campaign over many years have made them treasured. If you don’t pay a month’s salary for your girlfriend’s engagement ring, you’re a cheapskate.
The best of the animated features films of the last 75 years are our modern equivalent of Gothic cathedrals: they take an age to construct and are the product of huge team efforts of labour. One of the highlights of my career was interviewing the remaining old boys who made The Jungle Book. Such films are fascinating in that – although there is an original architect or director – there are the end result of a collective imagination. They are, in my opinion, the most marvellous of modern works of art of infinitely more interest and value than anything Hirst, Goddard or Fifty Cent. I want my two year old to continue to feel they’re special and be willing to pay twenty pounds to see them in a cinema when Ice Age 12 comes out in 2023.
I don’t want to come over all Nick Hornby on you but I do think 21st century Youth has lost something that people of our generation had when it comes to music. This loss is partly born of the fact that they don’t need to pay for it. When I went out as a kid to Smiths and paid my 79P for a T Rex single, took it home and played it to death on the music centre all weekend. And then repeated the exercise the following weekend. Now when their iPod or phone is filled to capacity with free tunes kids just delete a few and forget about them. Easy come, easy go.
Of course I’m just an old fart. Things have changed. The web has changed everything. (Just ask Alan Rusbridger who is fiddling on his iPad while the Rome that is Guardian Media group burns.) And I’m not saying kids have no taste or good sensibility. But the fundamental point remains the same that consumers have a different attitude towards something they’ve paid for. Something they’re invested money and emotion in.