Hollywood’s Cheapskate Secret

Last week on a soundstage on the Disney lot in Burbank, the feds held a press conference to announce that they had taken down some Web sites that were providing illegal free and paid downloads of TV shows and films. Dramatically called “Operation in Our Sites,” this collaboration between the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a passel of warrants and took down sites with names like Planetmoviez.com, Thepiratecity.org and NinjaVideo.net.

This is a worthy fight. Say what you will about our cultural drivel, but big Hollywood movies and TV series are among the few things that America still does demonstrably better than the rest of the world.  

And yet here’s a not-so-secret secret about Hollywood that is at odds with the message sent by the studios and the piracy police: No one actually pays for anything here because this is the town that has turned the freebie into an art form. Whether we’re talking about an Oscar swag bag, the preposterous “gift rooms” around award shows or the “celebrity outreach” emissaries of luxury and gadget companies, a mark of success in L.A. is getting things gratis (in inverse proportion to how much you actually need something for free) and showing the world how awesome that is. Practically no one I know who is tangentially in the biz goes to the movies as a civilian on a regular basis-the exception being if they have small kids and a Toy Story 3 comes along. Instead, there is a steady stream of buzz-building advance screenings that are the preferred mode of cinematic consumption by many, along with deep gift closets full of the latest DVD releases. And some people who receive Oscar screeners have practically set up lending libraries (complete with waiting queues and due dates) because their friends are shameless about asking to borrow them. The rest of the country might say, “I’ll wait for Cyrus to come out on DVD.” In L.A. we just say, “I’ll wait until Dave gets his screener.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tried to crack down on this practice by putting watermark codes in the screeners and even giving out special DVD players to watch them on, though the latter moved proved to be a bit of a bust. Still, it’s notable that this year, far fewer screeners were leaked online than in previous years, according to Andy Baio, a journalist and programmer who has been tracking these trends for sport since 2003. “Are studios doing a better job protecting screeners and intimidating Academy members?” he wondered on his blog Waxy.org. “Or was this year’s crop of films too boring for pirates to bother with?”

Regardless, all across the media, the tide is turning in the quest to disavow people of the notion that everything should be free-provided you have given all your pocket money to Steve Jobs and some kind of broadband provider.

One minor but interesting local example of this was the opening a few months ago of a branch of Soho House in West Hollywood. Founder Nick Jones insisted on keeping the club true to its London roots by charging a membership fee, but he initially faced resistance from celebrity handlers who expect their clients to be granted free access (and everything else) in exchange for their illustrious presence and the good publicity that would bring. But Mr. Jones held fast with a no-freebies policy, and the celebs have turned out in volume nonetheless.

But even beyond the velvet rope, the idea that everyone should pay their freight equally is one whose time has come. I have more to say on the matter, right after I see about getting invited to a screening of Inception.

rsiklos@observer.com