The 10th Anniversary of the Death of the Modern Film Industry


A long time ago...

Ten years ago, I posted on usenet that I'd watched a bootleg of The Phantom Menace. I discovered the post recently and it got me thinking about how little progress has been made in the digital download arena.

The actual resolution of the bootleg
The actual resolution of the bootleg

Picture the scene, it's my first year at university and, like any good geek, I am obsessed with Star Wars - Episode I.  So much so that I help run a fan site, ThePhantomMenace.co.uk.  The guys on my corridor are similarly hungry for Star Wars.  We all grew up with it and we all love it.  Yoda's benevolent gaze eases us through our homesickness.

With Yoda watching over us, we can't possibly fail our exams!
With Yoda watching over us, we can't possibly fail our exams!

George Lucas is a visionary when it comes to what we now call social media. Huge, detailed websites chronicle every development in the world of Star Wars. Behind the scenes movies, proto-blog posts, forums and chat rooms all blossom around this incredible social object.

Then, at the last minute, it all goes wrong. The release date for the movie is set to 19 May 1999. For the USA.  or those of us stuck in the UK - where the movie was filmed - we have to wait 2 months.

How I felt
How I felt

I can't accurately describe the sense of betrayal that many of us felt. Not only were we going to have a needless wait - we were excluded from our new-found social life.

We couldn't frequent any of our favourite haunts lest an American blurted out a spoiler. Going online at all was going to be perilous - a casual glance at the wrong website could accidentally reveal something as momentous as Luke's parentage.

A few days after the première, I was ranting about this imposition when I received and anonymous email.

"Heard you couldn't see the movie. Click here. "

I clicked. It was in the innocent days before 419 scams and rampant malware.  This is what greeted me:

TPM1.mpg - 650MB
TPM2.mpg - 650MB

It took over 24 hours to download. The whole corridor kept a vigil, counting every bit as it matured into a byte. We ran out of disk space at one point and had to delete all sorts of important coursework. I missed lectures. I didn't care.

With popcorn, beer and inflatable sofas we gathered in the room with the biggest monitor - 17 inches.

The Most Profound Cinematic Experience Of My Life.

Much has been written about the merits - or lack thereof - of The Phantom Menace. But for me it was the culmination of 18 years of waiting. The grainy picture & tinny sound didn't diminish my enjoyment. I was with my friends and we were watching the movie months before anyone else in the country.  It redefined my relationship with cinema and content consumption.

The next year, Napster exploded in popularity. Those of us on blazingly fast University connections were already downloading TV shows and movies using the humble Windows File Sharing utility.

Since that day, ten years ago, I've paid to see The Phantom Menace - once on VHS, once on DVD, a few times in the cinemas. I've bought the books, the t-shirts and the video games.  I know it doesn't excuse the fact that I downloaded an illicit copy, but it is the perfect example of supply and demand being coupled with the disruptive power of the Internet.  Once my demand could be satisfied with "official" source, that's where my money went.

We've moved a long was since then. We can now download perfect quality copies of movies which play on any of our devices. High definition, surround sound, DVD extras downloading in less time than it takes to view them.  The movie industry writhes in pain, wondering where this viscous assault on their livelihood came from.  They missed the boat ten years ago. They try - but I still can't legally download The Phantom Menace. The movie downloading "problem" is caused by demand far outstripping supply - this is not a threat; it's an opportunity!

We're living in a fantastic multi-media landscape of limitless possibilities.  Can someone please tell the movie studios?

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