I trust you are all in good health. I return once more with another lengthy debate. I hope you enjoy reading it. Feel free to e-mail me with your thoughts and comments, and I’ll post the most interesting ones. My contact details are just to the left of this paragraph.
There’s been a recent news item, doing the rounds in the UK media and press. Originally posted on the Moviemail website at here it’s all about a proposed new addition to British government legislation that has the potential to threaten to harm independent UK-based DVD and Blu-Ray labels, such as Manga Entertainment, Second Sight, Arrow, 88 Films, Third Window Films, and Eureka / Masters Of Cinema.
At the moment, every item on a DVD or Blu-Ray has to be classified by the British Board Of Film Classification. That means not only the main feature itself, but all of the various subtitle tracks, all of the menu screens and options, and any extras/bonus content you may wish to include, such as trailers, audio commentaries, featurettes, documentaries, music videos, etc. For major studios, like Fox or Paramount, that’s not much of an issue. After all, most of their products will sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies. So, the costs to them for certificating all materials on a disc, are negligible, against the profit they will eventually make.
According to the BBFC Fee Calculator on their website, an average 90-minute film costs around £738 (about $1244 US or about 896 Euros). That’s just for the film, with one audio track (normally English for most UK and US films), without any subtitles, or for one film not in English, but which does have accompanying on-screen English subs. For a smaller company, such as Eureka Films, they may only sell a few hundred of some of their more obscure and niche titles. So, £738 is a huge whack of cash to spend, without the guarantee of hundreds of thousands of sales to offset it.
I’ll give you an example. A film such as HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004, Alfonso Cuaron), which has a running time of 136 minutes, would cost Warner Bros the slight sum of £1070 ($1800 US or 1300 Euros) to be classified by the BBFC here in the UK. On top of that figure, there was an additional few soundtrack and subtitle choices for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases, which would probably have bumped-up that figure by another few hundred pounds, and then you had the various extras and additional content that also came with the film.
When it was eventually released on DVD/Blu-Ray in the UK, it was selling something like 40,000 copies per week in its first week just in high-street retail outlets. At an average of £10 per copy, that’s an astronomical amount of cash, being generated, from just one title. Just under half-a-million pounds in your first week. Suddenly, that £738 BBFC fee seems small-fry by comparison.
Not so, for the smaller, independent companies like Third Window Films.
Third Window Films is a one-man-band. They have no offices, per se. It’s just one man, Adam Torel, working his socks off to do everything to get unusual and esoteric Asian films out for release on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, using his own contacts, time and money. To date, he has released films from across Asia, as diverse as LOVE EXPOSURE, VULGARIA, CONFESSIONS OF A DOG, HIMIZU, TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, and TURTLES ARE SURPRISINGLY FAST SWIMMERS. (For a full list, go to the official site shown here and see their eclectic range of films, which are – in my view – all pretty damn good!)
Some of their titles, might only sell 200 copies over the space of six months. In some cases, they’ve sold less than a handful of copies, in as many weeks! So for them, £738 is proportionally much, much higher, against what they will make back. (See the links here and here from September 2013, in which Adam posted about sales-figures of niche films on the Blu-Ray.com Forums. It’s the posts at 09-20-2013 – 2:28 PM on the first link, and the post at 09-20-2013 – 11:52 PM on the second link, that you want to read. Apologies, but I can’t link to either of them directly!)
Third Window films released the excellent Japanese drama from Sion Sono LOVE EXPOSURE. The film has a running time of 4 hours! (Almost double that of HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN.) For the BBFC classification, the theatrical fee was £2136, as the film was given a brief cinema release to generate interest amongst Asian Cinema and Extreme Cinema fans. It was then reclassified for DVD, which incurred another fee of £1818. It had to then be viewed again, for the Blu-Ray release a year or so later, for another fee of £1818, when Adam found that the film was becoming successful and profitable enough to warrant an HD reissue. Therefore on that one film alone, Adam had already paid out £5772 in classification fees. Warners paid just £1070 for the home video examination (for both Blu-Ray and DVD, as they were released at the same time), and another £1263 for the theatrical examination, totalling £2333 – or about a third of LOVE EXPOSURE’s classification costs!
Does that seem fair or right? Why should a company as huge and financially successful as Warners, get to pay a third less, than a one-man-band, for the exact same process of film classification?
Is it Warner’s fault they are as big and rich as they are? Well, no.
Is it Warner’s fault that their film only ran 136 minutes? No, of course not.
Is it Warner’s fault that they got HARRY POTTER classified for both DVD and Blu-Ray at the same time? Again, no.
But, there’s a sick irony that the monolithic corporation gets charged the same amount as a (metaphorical) small mom-and-pop store, for the same service, yet the corporation make millions more in revenue, because proportion-wise, the costs are much easier to absorb. There’s a direct correlation here to the saga of Starbucks not paying their fare share of UK Corporation Tax, whilst an independent coffee shop based directly opposite them on the same street, in the same area, would be hauled over the coals if they didn’t pay their full amount of the same tax! Yet, because Starbucks allege that their UK-based coffee stores don’t make any profits, they don’t need to pay any tax! (For more info, go read here for more info on the story.) If it were you or I, i.e. ordinary members of the public, underpaying our taxes by even a pound or two, we’d be rightly punished, and probably prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, with the end result being we’d have to pay the tax we owed, plus a fine, and if the offence was severe enough, potentially time in prison for tax evasion as well. Hmmm!
The new proposals – which you can read in full at here from the British Government’s Department Of Culture, Media And Sport, suggest that:
(The) government announced that it would legislate so that music, sports, religion and education products will have to be BBFC classified in future if they contain material unsuitable for younger children.
As you can imagine, this is so open-ended, as to literally encompass anything and everything. Putting aside the issue of “suitability for younger children”, there’s the issue of what age range “a younger child” is considered to be between? Five and eight years perhaps? Maybe somewhere between five and ten years? What about anyone under the age of 15?
Then, what constitutes “educational products”? Is an audio-commentary or behind-the-scenes Making Of documentary sufficiently educational enough to warrant avoiding the extra charges? What about trailers or interviews with a film’s cast and crew? Will they count as “educational” material? Will cast and crew talking about their participation in Dario Argento’s PROFONDO ROSSO (1975, aka DEEP RED) be considered more “educational” than the director providing an audio commentary on, say, Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE ACT OF KILLING? Does the film or documentary itself have to be “educational” for the extras to avoid the new classification charges?
Similarly, how can THE ACT OF KILLING be given a 15 certificate for theatrical viewing, because the film contains – according to the BBFC website – “graphic descriptions of torture and killings, and strong sex references“, yet not have to be resubmitted to the BBFC for home viewing formats, because the film is now self-defined by the film-distributor Dogwoof, as “educational” and becomes Exempt, thus avoiding the second set of classification fees mentioned above? In other words, the film is only suitable for over-15’s in cinemas, but the same work, can be bought, viewed by, and shown to anyone of any age, in the home, without any ramifications whatsoever? Likewise the excellent nature documentary BLACKFISH (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite), which I’ve written about in previous blog entries. In cinema’s it was given a BBFC 15 certificate because it “Contains scenes of sustained real animal attacks and sight of injuries“. On DVD and Blu-Ray however, it was self-classified by the distributor’s (Dogwoof – again) as Exempt, resulting in anyone being allowed to view it. That doesn’t seem just or right, that film’s like these two can sidestep the BBFC classification process.
Ironically, Dogwoof is not a big company, but they are a company that predominantly deals in documentary works, not fictional films. That still doesn’t justify their products being classified as “Exempt”, when the BBFC classified them for cinema release, with age-restricted ratings. And I’m not singling-out Dogwoof over or above other companies. It’s just that they have released two major films in recent months, that I’ve personally seen, and which have then been given Exempt status for home-viewing, which I found quite shocking, bearing in mind the content of both works!
In theory, the controversial sex documentary THE GOOD OLD NAUGHTY DAYS (aka POLISSONS ET GALIPETTES) (2000, Michel Reilhac) which was an hour-long selection of silent French pornographic short films, originally shown in Parisian brothels, could potentially be given an Exempt status, and released as “Educational material”. The distributor stated that whilst the work was pornographic in nature, and does feature scenes involving children and animals, the naive tone of the work, and the fact it was really being used as something to laugh at, more than be titillated by, was enough of a justification for it to be seen purely as a form of historical educational material – namely that porn isn’t new, and existed before the turn of the 20th Century!
Yet, the film was effectively banned in the UK. For cinemas, it was given an R18 rating, a classification usually reserved for pornographic works on DVD/Blu-Ray. However, an exception was made for this film for its brief theatrical release, and cinemas wanting to show the film had to invoke the rarely-used “Members” conditions. Conditions not utilised since the 1970’s and Pasolini’s SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1972) sought certification in the UK!
Essentially, customers had to prove they were over 21 years of age, when purchasing their tickets, and tickets could only be bought 24 hours in advance, not on the day/time of the show. The same classification was given for the DVD release, but the UK distributors decided against this, and shelved it as unviable, as the DVD could only have been sold in sex shops in the UK, resulting in minuscule sales. (There are about 50-60 such stores in the UK, though many more exist in a kind of clandestine nature, in Soho, in London.) I doubt the BBFC would appreciate such a film being released onto DVD/Blu-Ray, without an adults-only certificate, but the potential to try and set a precedent, is certainly there. So why are other similarly age-restricted works bypassing the classification system?
Although I’m not keen on the proposed changes, as they do seem to be so badly thought-out, in the end they will only penalise those companies who can least afford them (as is so typical of so much of our current British Government’s policies these days), whilst simultaneously benefiting those whose works can be reclassified as “educational”. It’s not much different to the Swinging Sixties, when sex films couldn’t be shown in cinemas in the UK. So what did film distributors do? They simply filled their works with scenes of sex, and then added an “educational” slant to the resulting work, and then you miraculously bypassed any legal pitfalls, and avoided prosecution for obscenity at the same time. The “slants” were usually book-ended moments about history, or a narration or some other similar piece of filler. Thus, Britain’s cinemas were soon screening endless “sex-education” films such as the 1961 film from George Harrison Marks, NAKED AS NATURE INTENDED (aka AS NATURE INTENDED), starring Pamela Green, or the equally infamous 1967/68 Swedish films I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) and its sequel I AM CURIOUS (BLUE) by Vilgot Sjoman!
No one wants that to happen again, but it kind of already has. If BLACKFISH and THE ACT OF KILLING can be age-restricted in cinemas, but remain unrestricted on DVD, surely any film that can be remotely classified as “educational material” can bypass the BBFC’s doors, and self-classify as “Exempt”, can’t it? And if these two works, which most people would classify as “educational material”, but the BBFC decided the content required being restricted to adults, then where do you start drawing the line?
Alas, there is another aspect to this debate. Sadly, that angle is more volatile. The debate has turned (once again) into a downloaders vs purchasers discussion, with both sides blaming the other for the faults as to why UK independent film companies don’t include many extras. You see, the school-of-thought seems to be, that if UK-based film companies such as Eureka or 88 Films cannot offer extras onto their products, that companies from other nations can, but which don’t incur extra classification fees, then UK products will be seen as inferior to other nations:
Why pay £10 for a bare-bones UK release, when I could pay £15, but get a lovely region-free, double-disc version from the USA, brimming with extra content, and maybe also being in a Steelbook case as well? This currently happens, when one country bans or censors a film, only for that same film to be released uncut and uncensored in another. Eventually, the country with the uncut version, gets sales from those of us who live in a country that doesn’t! (Of which I am one of many who do this!) THE GOOD OLD NAUGHTY DAYS being a case in point. I couldn’t see it theatrically, as it was only showing in Scotland and London, and it was then banned on DVD, so I imported it from the USA, where it was legally available on disc from Strand Releasing. A lost sale to the UK distributors, more’s the pity, who I would have more than happily spent money with.
Frequently in the case of a lot of independent cinema, such rights will often be locked to a specific nation or territory. This is so the film’s distributor can maximise sales. Thus, you’ll have Company A chasing the rights for the United States. Company B, chasing the rights for the United Kingdom, and/or Europe. Company C, chasing rights for the Asia market, and maybe another chasing the rights for Russia. Some or all of these companies may release the film at different times, and in different versions, with each version (1-disc, 2-disc, Steelbook, uncut, censored, etc) tailored to their own country. Discs will be Region Locked:
Region A for The Americas (except Greenland) and their dependencies, East Asia (but not mainland China or Mongolia), and Southeast Asia;
However, for many Hollywood films, some of the big studios don’t lock their discs. Warner Bros are a classic case, where almost all of their US Blu-Ray’s are Region Free. As these tend to come out three months or more before the equivalent UK releases, I’ve often imported the US ones, and also saved money, as even importing can work out cheaper than the cost of getting the UK disc from Amazon or a high-street store. (The Special Edition of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was half the price of the UK version, to import from the USA. A crazy scenario!)
The only downside, is that Region Codes can be bypassed by simply purchasing a Region-Free drive for your computer, or getting a Region-Selectable DVD/Blu-Ray player, that lets the user select whichever region they want, depending on what disc they insert into it. I’m multi-regional, and it makes far better sense for me to have that much greater choice of films available to me, bearing in mind I tend to collect banned or controversial works that are often cut or simply not available in own country, as well as unusual, cult or independent films.
For the average film-fan, Region Coding probably isn’t an issue. You just buy whatever becomes available in your territory, and that will suffice many people. Importing is alien to those folks, and that’s fine. But for major film connoisseurs, having that luxury of being able to buy any film, from any country, and still be able to watch it, opens up a whole other set of avenues. (It doesn’t even have to be expensive to do so, either.)
Region Coding of discs was meant to help combat piracy. It was meant to try and limit what films you could access, and view, in your country, to help protect the copyright owners, and to maximise money for the distributors. Sadly, we now have the additional problem of downloading, to tackle. “Why should I buy your release, when I can just download it, and get it for free“?
For some, extra content on a disc, is irrelevant. They just want to watch the film itself. That’s all fine-and-dandy, but for many others, the extra additional material is what makes us decide where to spend our money. That bonus featurette, or that accompanying audio commentary, alongside some trailers, might just be enough for us to swing our votes from Release Version A in the UK, to Release Version B in the USA, or vice-versa. Alas, if extra content now has to be classified, and charged a fee for, many smaller companies simply will not bother adding that extra content, resulting in what all film fans will have heard of many times before – the infamous “bare-bones” releases. The price (usually) stays the same, but you get just the film, and very little else. (The day of VHS and Betamax appear to return!)
Everything else is irrelevant to them.
The excuses vary. Some downloaders say: “Well, I don’t know if I’ll like it, so I want to see if I do.” Others say: “Well, I can’t afford it.” Another perennial excuse is: “It’s not harming anyone. Hollywood will still keep spending millions-and-millions of dollars making crap no one wants to watch. So why should I fund them, when I only watch a few films every now and again.” (Or: “So many bands make crap, populist music, that’s manufactured by the likes of Simon Cowell. Why should I keep him in business? I want real music, from real musicians, not auto-corrected boy-band pap.” Similarly, people say: “Well, if I like it, I’ll eventually buy it.“
All of these are excuses. Nothing more, nothing less. And anyone who downloads anything, is breaking the laws in most countries. It’s copyright theft! You’re directly removing sales from the very people you claim you want to support and fund. Most music can be listened-to on Amazon, albeit in 30-second snippets. Most films can be rented. So, there’s not really a justifiable excuse to download stuff, except to save money and effort. Even when an album or film isn’t out in your country, you can probably still buy it legally from another one. I do this all of the time with films. Many films come out three months earlier in the USA, than in the UK. Stuff I can see in UK cinemas, will often then be out one month later on US DVD/Blu-Ray. As I’m multi-regional for both DVD and Blu-Ray’s, there’s no reason for me to illegally download any film, because 99.9% of what I like, will be out in the USA.
It’s the same analogy for thieves who steal from stores. Thieves don’t care that stealing may cause a shop to up its prices for the other, law-abiding customers who shop there. Nor do the thieves care that their stealing may cause great personal distress to the owners of the shop. And they certainly won’t care if that store has to shut up shop entirely, because it can no longer survive on the high street. I’m sure we can all name many companies that existed just five, or even ten years ago, that are no longer around. In the UK, I can think of Woolworths, Volume One, Borders, MVC, and Our Price who all sold music, books and films!
It’s the end-result that matters. Namely, cheating the system, and getting something for free, without getting caught by the same system and prosecuted for it. As great as the Internet is, it has enabled large numbers of normally decent, law-abiding citizens to become thieves. Whether it be a single MP3 file, a complete album or film, or an actors or bands entire 25-year catalogue, the Internet has allowed people to get what they previously would have had to wait or pay for, to obtain it instantly, with no questions asked and no one telling them you have to wait until it’s available in your neck of the woods. Then the Internet let people import stuff from other countries. Good for the customers. Not so good for film companies. Then customers were able to upload and download entire albums and movies legally. Then someone discovered a way to do it illegally. Next thing, you have the likes of The Pirate Bay linking customers to millions of digitised music and video files, from all over the globe, so that said can be traded for free with each other, all at the click of a few buttons on a computer.
Unfortunately, the proverbial Pandora’s Box has now been opened, and people working in the creative arts and media industries, are seeing the results – and those results aren’t pretty. Less films being released in the UK, due to costs involved in getting films classified by the BBFC, and lower sales because people download or import stuff. Jobs being lost. Bands/film-makers no longer willing to pump money into their work, because it’s no longer financially-viable for them to do so, when they get so little return for it. And customers, now insisting that they have to have everything right here, right now, this very second. And if they can’t, then they’ll simply go online and download it, so they can watch/listen to it right now!
It’s all a big fuck-you from (mostly) extremely selfish customers to the media industry.
So, I fully understand why film and music companies don’t release more stuff onto CD, DVD or Blu-Ray, when only honest, decent people will actually buy it, yet many more will simply download it illegally, and say “Fuck-you, mate, I’m not paying £10 for that!“
The irony, is that those same downloaders, who may enjoy that album or film, don’t usually end-up going out and purchasing a legal proper copy of the thing, despite what they claim. They just keep their illegally-downloaded copy, and then pass that computer file onto all their friends and family, resulting in more lost sales. It’s a nasty, vicious circle, but all that illegal downloaders say, is that “If big, bad, behemoth media company gave me the films and music I wanted now, when I want it, and at a cheap enough price, then I wouldn’t have to resort to other means to get what I want“! There are some studies that claim that illegal downloaders are the people most likely to purchase material they like, but the emphasis there is on the words “people most likely to”. It’s not definite. It’s not certain, or absolute. Merely a maybe, possibly, potentially!
There is, also, the issue of age. Whilst downloading occurs across all age groups and socio-economic ranges, the younger someone is, the more likely they are to illegally download music or films. Youngsters today, have grown-up having the Internet, and P2P services, as well as online services like Amazon, iTunes, and the like. So, for many of today’s youth, downloading illegally and swapping computer files with their friends is considered the “norm”. Those of us who grew up, in the days before the Net, remember that collections of music and film, were things we took enormous pride in. Owning lots of LP’s or VHS tapes was a wondrous and most beautiful joy, that you shared with friends, with family, with loved ones. The pleasure in browsing your collection, of collating it, looking after it, watching it grow, followed by the horrific anxiety of what to jettison when space became a premium, are all emotions keenly felt by people in their late-30’s, 40’s and older.
But all of that is just side-stepping the real issue, and is ultimately a pathetic excuse by people who – 20 years ago – would’ve simply had to do without, if they couldn’t get a specific album of film in their country. Now, with a basic computer, and a reasonable internet connection, the world is your oyster, and so it’s allowed everyday people to take whatever they want, and do it with impunity. You don’t even need a computer and broadband. Most high-streets and towns have Libraries offering free or low-cost Internet access. So, as long as you have the time and a USB memory stick to save the files you download onto, you can still get free films and music, should you be that way inclined.
I’m one of those people that buys every film I want. If I’m not sure if I’ll like it, I’ll rent it. I have made a few mistakes, and have even occasionally paid for some real turkeys over the years. But most of the time, the film’s I buy – sight unseen – have been really good, and I’ve even reviewed many of them for this very blog.
What I won’t do, is download something illegally. Yes, it does mean I may miss out on some great pieces of cinema, but at least my money is going back to the people who created the products I enjoy, and thus is my “Thank You” to them, and a way of getting them to keep reinvesting in more products for me, that I may buy. For me, it’s the principal that counts! I’m saying to the creators and film-makers, that I value what you do. I value your time, your work, your creativity enough, to actually give you money for it, so you can go off and make more great works of art for me, and others, to enjoy!
Alas, the problems even occur with TV shows. Take the hit HBO TV series GAME OF THRONES. Here in the UK, it’s shown on Sky Atlantic, and is broadcast just 24 hours after the USA. Sky Atlantic is a channel only available from Sky. You can’t get it via Cable or any other TV providers. It’s an “exclusive” channel. Season 4 started about two weeks ago. UK G.O.T fans fill Sky Atlantic’s Facebook page with complaints that they can’t see the show at the same time as the USA, and without adverts. They bitch and whinge like infants, and then say “Well, if Sky won’t give me G.O.T. when I want it, and in the form I want it, then I’ll just find other means of watching it – illegal ones“! So these so-called fans can’t even be patient for 24 hours! I still remember the day, when we UK fans wouldn’t see some US shows for years after their US broadcast! Now, we can see many of the major US TV show hits, days after the USA. That’s a major improvement for fans, and one I am very grateful for!
But what kind of message does that send to HBO, to Sky, to the cast and crew of GAME OF THRONES, that you can’t even wait 24 hours to see the latest episode?!
It sends the message that some of the show’s fans are utterly selfish bastards, who don’t value any of the effort that the cast and crew put into making this show! Sadly, people like me are becoming rarer and rarer. We are the few. The many, are the people who just download everything, and say “fuck-you“, and don’t give a damn about anyone else! No wonder film and music companies don’t release stuff, when this is the ungrateful reaction they get from their (supposed) fans!
We seem to have created an age, in which patience isn’t a virtue any more. We’ve created a society, where everything has to be had in an instant. Social Media, iPhones, e-mail access. We no longer switch-off. Waiting is unacceptable, not even minutes or hours. We’re just constantly connected, wired-up, 24/7, 52, 365, because we need that fix; that instant hit to keep us going from day-to-day! Whatever we want, we can get it. Amazon has done much to aide this. So have eBay and Facebook. We’re in an age of automatic and instantaneous gratification, where everyone has to respond immediately, without delay! Any delay, and people start getting twitchy and irritable and moody with one another. “How dare you not respond to my Tweet last night, until this morning?” “Why didn’t you reply to my e-mail, which I sent you three hours ago?” “I want to watch that new TV show, that starts tonight in America, but it’s not being broadcast until next week. I know, I’ll just download it!“
No one has any patience any more. Why?
I know this is going to sound really obvious, but fans need to realise and accept, that music and films don’t just appear out of nowhere. Hundreds and possibly thousands of people are often involved in producing these items. And it’s not just the big-name talent that needs paying, but all the small, unnamed people who toil behind-the-scenes. From the people providing catering, through to technicians, manual labourers and the assistants/gophers – people who “go-fetch” things for various people. Musicians and actors may spend months crafting something, before it goes on sale to the public. Months or years of time, energy and creativity are combined to produce a film or album. And that all has to be paid for! Actors and musicians don’t generally do this work for free, out of the goodness of their hearts! Acting and composing songs is a talent: a vocation no less comparable to that of being a doctor, teacher, customer service agent, or I.T. worker! It’s something worthwhile, and that we should all pay for! Moreso if you want to be able to listen to more music and see more films in the future.
ADDENDUM: Thanks to Dave at the Melon-Farmers site, for linking to this article.