One more thing that Jack Valenti was wrong about

Hello, everyone! Sorry for the recent period of silence – I was in a cabin with no cell phone service and terrible Internet connection, so I decided to take a break from the web. It was nice; I got some good reading done (No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald, which I recommend to everyone). Anyways, I have returned today to discuss one of my favorite topics: wrong statements by Jack Valenti. But today, the wrongness is more subtle, so I’m giving it a more thorough discussion.

Jack was worried about the rising cost of making movies. In this article from 1998, he said: “Costs remain a great shaggy beast prowling the movie forest, a fiscal Godzilla slouching toward our future”. And in this article from 2004, he compared costs to a “tapeworm nibbling and chewing at the fiscal molecules of our business”. He was right to be worried; films these days seem to be really expensive! Just look at Wikipedia’s list of most expensive films. Even if we adjust for inflation, only 6 of the 50 most expensive films of all time were produced before the year 2000.

Why is the new stuff so costly? Given that technology is constantly improving, it should be getting cheaper to make movies, since the improved tech makes it faster and easier. Why do costs so rapidly outpace inflation? To me, this suggests inefficiency. And it’s an inefficiency that isn’t necessary.

Look again at the lists of most expensive movies. What I notice is that these costly films are all American. Seriously, all of them – correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t see a single non-American film on either of the all-time lists. But America is not the only country making movies; in fact, America doesn’t even make the most movies. India and Nigeria make more than America does. They seem to have plenty of movies to go around, but they don’t spend nearly as much on each individual movie as American companies do.

What is their secret to achieving greater efficiency? I believe that it is lack of copyright. Those countries lack the will and the power to enforce copyright the way America does. Economist’s article on Nigeria notes that it takes just 2 weeks for unofficial copies of a film – sold for profit, no less – to saturate the market. And India’s film industry has no qualms about copying other people’s films. They can’t enforce it, and they don’t want to, and the numbers suggest that they don’t need to.

This baffles the American copyright maximalists. Techdirt sums up their confusion nicely in this article, in which Mike Masnick notes that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is calling for India to strengthen its copyrights to save their film industry. They say that India needs to “seize on this opportunity” to protect their “fledgling industry”, even though they already have the largest film industry in the world (which also happens to be one of the country’s largest employers). Given that Bollywood has come this far without “deference for protecting and enforcing creative rights”, why should they start now?

Alas, the maximalists do not understand this. They continue to call for greater control, even as that control stifles themselves. They seek to rule everything, and choke to death on their own red tape. Jack couldn’t see a solution to the “fiscal Godzilla” driving costs upward because he was unwilling to even consider the best solution: giving up control. His own drive to control his “property” was the very tapeworm eating his business.

I do not know how long American films can continue getting more expensive. They can’t go up forever, though I expect things will get worse before they get better. But I know that things could get a lot better, starting today, if they’d stop doing things the Valenti way and loosen up. And that is why I say once again that Jack Valenti was wrong, not for what he said this time, but for what he didn’t say. He could not see that the “great shaggy beast” preying on his beloved industry was, in fact, himself.