Ya Blew it!


A week before the premiere of Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, I watched Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones sign the "Tim and Eric Billion Dollar Movie Pledge." When the camera focused on the paper, I casually scanned it and caught the words "bit torrent."

The internet was ablaze with SOPA discussion that week, but even without SOPA's spotlight, Hollywood celebrities signing a pledge about bit torrent was relevant to my interests.

Here's what they were signing:

The pledge itself was obviously a promotional joke, but if it's true that every jest contains hint of truth, then it's clear that this joke was designed to say something pretty serious. Despite it's absurdity and obvious lack of consequences, the contract still presumed to to have "teeth." You only need to look at the clause about reporting your friends to the local police. It seems to nudge up against the line of "so ridiculous, it's serious."

It might seem like a stretch to take Tim and Eric seriously, but if you care to look you'll find they're pretty serious about themselves and their work. Tim Heidecker is pretty serious about Twitter. He's also pretty serious about piracy and his movie. Here's a sampling from around the time B$M premiered:

There's little excuse to be mean or insulting to people on twitter. It's easy to lose track of the fact that you're dealing with real people behind those twitter handles and forget that twitter is a very public (and permanent) form of communication. It's also true that the fans who really matter aren't the ones giving you grief on the internet, it's the ones who see you giving it back. Too many cases to count have cemented the fact that just one negative tweet can undo a metric ton of good ones.

It's always a problem when your twitter exchanges go south, but there's something really wrong when a foreign fan offers to mail you the admission price as a sign of goodwill and your first reaction is "where did you pirate it from?"

This brings me back to the pledge: All of the videos of celebrities signing the pledge seemed to say "Celebrities are doing it, so should you!"

Something didn't sit right. I certainly wasn't PLANNING on torrenting the movie. In fact, quite the opposite was true; My friends and I had a viewing party scheduled for later that week.

Now here I was being asked to sign this pledge. I felt inclined to borrow Walter's words in The Big Lebowski: "AS IF WE WOULD EVER DREAM OF TAKING YOUR STUPID [MOVIE]." My friends and I were excited about paying to see the movie legally, conveniently and in high quality. Being asked to sign this pledge, however ridiculous, seemed like an insult.

After reading the pledge we all agreed we'd be far more likely to torrent the movie as a result. Offended by the presumption we'd steal their movie, we switched from wanting to support Tim and Eric to "just because you don't want me to, I'm going to." Childish as it may be, it works. Presume to take a right away from someone, and they'll want to exercise it even more.

I'm not talking about the right to torrent, but the right to choose when, where, and how to view entertainment. The internet has built the expectation over the last few years that the user deserves almost complete control over the media that they consume. Hollywood Luddites would be loathe to oppose this trend towards greater availability and convenience.

Instead, it'd be best for the entertainment industry to do something unprecedented: embrace the future. Fighting tooth and nail has only delayed VCRS, DVD, or DVRs, not stopped the inevitable. I won't parrot the cliche "adapt or die." Instead I'd suggest it be revised to "adapt and profit." Services such as YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu are moving in the right direction (albeit at their purposely glacial pace), but ultimately it's not about the tech, it's about the attitude.

Despite the doubts Tim and Eric clearly have about their fanbase, audiences are more than willing to choose a quality paid product over a free one. Fans really do want to support the artist; they just haven't been given the proper channels to do so. The perfect example of providing a better choice than bit torrent is Louis C.K.'s wonderful experiment with digital distribution.

Was it a success? You betcha. There's not enough information available to make direct financial comparisons (and a movie isn't the same as a comedy special), but Louis C.K's philosophy of trusting the customer and treating them with respect surely purchased immeasurable amounts of goodwill and positive media attention whereas T&E's celebrity pledges embroiled them in a bitter debate and caused considerable backlash. A simple change in attitude and a little respect for fans can go a long way towards success. It's a lesson Hollywood would do well to learn.

At first I thought that the big shot celebrity versions of Tim and Eric in the movie were created to mock Hollywood and all of it's corpulence, but I've started to suspect they're closer to their creator's true selves. I don't blame T&E for believing piracy poses a threat to their celebrity zillions and I understand they're trying the best they can given the limitations of the studio system, but neither of those factors gives them an excuse to attack their consumers in the name of combating piracy:

I probably won't stop enjoying Tim and Eric's exquisite brand of anti-comedy, but I think twice before paying for the privilege.

Andrew Davis. Feb 14, 2012.