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Making money the only way they know how

What do the gramophone, radio, cable TV, video recorders, and MP3 players have to do with the distribution of Sebastián Gutiérrez's latest film "Girl walks into a bar"?

On the face of it, not a lot, however they are all example of content providers viewing technological development as a problem for their industries, not opportunities.

At the turn of the last century John Philip Sousa argued that the gramophone was a grave threat to musicians. How could musicians earn a living if the public were free to listen to music in our homes?

In the 1920's the music industry argued that radio would “undercut opportunities to make money from live or recorded performances.”, ignoring their previous objections to the recorded performances.

In the 1960's the content industry argued that unless cable television was shut down no one would bother to produce new TV shows.

In the early 1970's the Motion picture association argued that the video recorder would make the film and television industry “bleed and bleed and haemorrhage.”, their president, Jack Valenti, claimed the VCR was as great a threat to film producers as the Boston strangler was to women home alone.

In the 1970’s, photocopiers were viewed as a menace to print media, in the 1980's the audiocassette and home taping were going to shut down the music industry, in the 1990's it was argued that the MP3 player could only exist to infringe copyright and in 2001 TV broadcasters claimed that the ability of DVRs to fast forward through adverts was "the theft of programming".

Despite predicting their imminent destruction for over 100 years the music, movie and TV industries are still very much with us. Whilst many other companies and entire industries have adapted to, or been created thanks to new technologies, the content industry has continually resisted their own development, despite the undeniable fact that once each of those technological threats was embraced they became valuable new streams of profit. This is an industry that has spent 100 years crying wolf.

Last year I watched Sebastián Gutiérrez's film Women in trouble. While not the best received film, in a year of Twilight, Harry Potter and Avatar it was an enjoyable character driven story free from special effects. It has now become the first of a trilogy of ensemble comedy films. Having watched it I then discovered Gutiérrez's latest film Girl walks into a bar.

While 'Girl walks into a bar' follows a similar basic outline, an ensemble cast of characters in interlocking stories during the course of a day, what makes this film more interesting than most is that while it appears to have followed a traditional development and production route it took a very different route when it came to distribution. Rather than being distributed to cinemas, the studio chose to screen the film for free on YouTube's Screening Room, the first time a major film has been exclusively distributed on the Web. Despite the lack of a theatrical release more people saw 'Girl Walks Into a Bar' in its first week than some of the top ten cinema releases the same week. In fact, had the same 250,000 people that watched it on YouTube seen it in the cinema the film would have been one of biggest box office earners the weekend it opened, and is certainly the best opening for one of Gutiérrez's films.

Having enjoyed his earlier films I went to and searched for 'Girl walks into a bar', clicked on the link, and got the following message;

Despite the fact that YouTube's Screening Room is a platform designed to showcase top films from around the world, it seems that it's not designed to showcase films to the world.

I realise that these are studio restrictions but it's important to point out that these are artificial restrictions. The industry will be quick to point out most films are available to illegally download worldwide shortly after they're released. The fight against piracy and copyright infringement is portrayed as a financial issue, but this ignores the fact that pirates do a vastly better job of distributing films to audiences than movie studios do. There is a ready market for this product and right now the only group filling this gap in the market are the pirates.

Despite the fact that the film is available to watch for free in the US, 'Girl walks into a bar' is available to download illegally. The studio have created demand for a pirated version of a free film, a version free from sponsorship or adverts.

The time has come for the content industries to move beyond an outdated distribution model and meet the real demand for their product, There is no technical reason to restrict the release of films, the industry is fighting a losing battle to enforce arbitrary distribution restrictions because that's how they've done it in the past. I want to see them do a better job of getting content to consumers than the pirates are doing because piracy isn't always about watching a film a for free, sometimes it's simply about being able to watch film at all.

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