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Dear Hollywood

Hollywood. Is it worth the trouble? A letter to the big “H” to ask why it’s been acting like this.

Dear Hollywood:

It seems like lately you’ve been out of touch. I know that you’ve been busy, of course, what with your summer blockbuster season and all. Heck, it must take a lot of time and energy to promote all those movies! By the way, what happened to Gigli? It only came out a few weeks ago, and yet it no longer seems to be playing at my local Cineplex.

But that’s not why I’m writing. I recently went to see S.W.A.T. I just love that Samuel L. Jackson! He’s the epitome of cool, strutting around with an automatic weapon in one hand and a refreshing Dr. Pepper in the other. Heck, I didn’t even mind it when one of the good guys actually turned out to be the bad guy. If it works for Murder, She Wrote, then I say why not!

But that’s not why I’m writing either. Before S.W.A.T. began, the other moviegoers and I were treated to the usual twenty minutes’ worth of advertisements and trailers, including that commercial for BOD Man (‘I Want Your Bod’) fragrances. Those guitarists are really built! I sure hope that their amplifiers are grounded properly.

Anyway, there was also a commercial promoting you, Hollywood. Yeah, I was surprised, too. The commercial features a set painter named David Goldstein. Apparently, he’s worked on films like Dick Tracy, Beverly Hills Cop, and Father of the Bride. What a résumé! Did you know that he even met his future wife on the set of The Big Chill? (By the way, David, is that a two-toned beard? Makeup!)

In any event, it turns out that people like David—the construction, sound, and lighting personnel—are worried about the effects of piracy on the movie industry. Piracy sure has turned the world of popular music upside down. And you’ve got to reckon that—sooner or later—those rascals on the Internet will figure out how to pirate DVDs at a much faster rate. And when that happens—well, let’s just say that it will no longer take four hours to download Ishtar…

But that’s not why I’m writing. What really gets my gander is how piracy, it seems, will affect ordinary people like David and not the rich producers behind the movies we all love—you know, films like Analyze This, Bad Boys II, and Pay It Forward. Heck, just thinking about Haley Joel Osment gives me hope for the future. Long live the Republic!

In the commercial, David reports that piracy will have a ‘miniscule’ effect on the producers, yet it could ultimately put guys like him out of work altogether. ‘We are not million-dollar employees,’ he tells us. ‘We’re lucky if we can put together twelve straight months, and all’s I wanna do is work and do the best product I can put out.’ So here’s my question, Hollywood: Why are you and your producers going to sacrifice David so readily if and when piracy takes the movie industry by storm?

See, that’s what really upsets me. David’s a working man, just like me. If nothing else, the ad makes that fact abundantly clear. Why does he have to suffer in order to protect the rich producers’ profit margins? If piracy damages the movie industry, then surely the producers (or ‘the money,’ as they’re known out there in California—I learned that in The Player!) would see their earnings drop. How can they fire guys like David? Will the producers start building sets themselves? Will they outsource David’s job to Mexico or the Far East?

But that’s not really why I’m writing to you today. I’m writing because I visited Amazon.com this morning in an effort to buy the first season of The West Wing on DVD. You see, I don’t mind buying DVDs at all. You’d love me, Hollywood—I’ve got like 250 of them!

Anyway, my friends in Europe have really been enjoying the opportunity to relive The West Wing on DVD, and I can hardly wait to pick up a copy myself. But here’s the thing: It’s not available in the United States. That’s right—it’s region-encoded so that I can’t play it on my DVD player at home. And I just found out why we can’t buy it yet: It seems that the show’s producers have made a deal with the Bravo channel—you know, the network where the urbane James Lipton interviews consummate Hollywood actors like Mike Myers—wherein they will delay the release of The West Wing on DVD in North America until November (just in time for the holiday shopping season) and reap big bucks by providing Bravo with exclusive syndication rights in the interim. I heard that Bravo is paying them a million dollars per episode! I guess that’s good for the entertainment industry: The producers will make a killing. I wonder how much of those earnings David will get?

But that’s not really why I’m writing either. You see, at the end of the commercial, we learn the ad campaign’s slogan: ‘Movies. They’re worth it.’ Really? I’m not so sure anymore. I used to tear up at the Oscars when you screened those poignant montages of films past and present. But that was twenty years ago. Now it also seems so calculated, as if the mere juxtaposition of the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Paul Newman alongside the images of Julia Stiles and Vin Diesel would yield a Pavlovian tear or two. When did it all go so terribly wrong? What happened to the Hollywood that I once knew?

But are movies really ‘worth it’ in the first place? Let’s parse that idea for a moment, just as the talking heads do on the political talk shows every Sunday morning. And make no mistake about it, you’re crafting a political statement when you wink and tell American consumers that movies merit a portion of their disposable income. Heck, in those terms, the commercial you play in your own theaters might even be construed as propaganda…

Which brings me to why I’m really writing this letter: Why shouldn’t I feel like pirating movies or buying contraband DVDs on the Internet? You’ve been obviously lining your pockets at my expense for decades, and now you’re threatening to fire some poor guy so that you can make me feel guilty. Who do you think you are?

And worse, your behavior isn’t fair. I didn’t mind it when you made me feel guilty for the plight of Native Americans at the conclusion of Dances with Wolves—I deserved that—but I’ll be damned if you’re going to rake me over the coals for the economic difficulties that might or might not befall David’s family. Make no mistake about it: Your bottom-line attitude will breed cynicism among consumers—and cynical consumers will think nothing of purchasing pirated DVDs. Heck, they’ll buy them as stocking-stuffers. And after a while, those same consumers will begin to feel like piracy is their economic birthright. If you don’t believe me, just ask the recording industry (who will be too busy fleecing 12-year-old downloaders to answer the phone).

But, alas, I’m no pirate.

I have a better idea, Hollywood. Perhaps we should talk more. Heck, you might even learn something from me. After all, I’m not just a movie fan—I’m your client, and a loyal one, I might add.

I am reminded of Ezra Pound’s ‘A Pact,’ the poet’s transhistorical gesture of peace and friendship to Walt Whitman, his prodigious literary precursor. Pound writes: ‘Now is a time for carving. / We have one sap and one root—/ Let there be commerce between us.’

Would you like to make a pact with me, Hollywood? Or would you rather keep insulting me with condescending commercials—ad campaigns that do little more than underscore the overarching profit motive that drives absolutely everything you do?

In the commercial, David seems genuinely worried about the future of his career. You know what? He probably should be.

Mom and the kids send their love.

Fondly,
Ken
 

Ken Womack is Professor of English at Penn State University’s Altoona College. He is the author of Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles. More by Ken Womack