The SOPA Debate Hits Center Stage at the Times Talks Cinema Cafe with MPAA

Former Senator Christopher Dodd and NATO President John Fithian at Cinema Cafe. Photo by Stephen Speckman.

Claiborne Smith

Moderator and New York Times media columnist David Carr kicked off Monday’s Cinema Cafe panel at the Filmmaker Lodge with an allusion to the “giant elephant in the room,” the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy bills whose passage was recently waylaid as a result of an internet uprising voicing concern and anger over the bill’s perceived threats to free speech.

The Cinema Cafe series of panels is designed to foster free-ranging conversation among artists and industry leaders about issues that affect independent filmmakers. Presided over by a trio of knowledgeable and high-powered panelists former Senator Christopher Dodd, the chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, John Fithian, the president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, and independent producer Christine Vachon—today’s Cinema Cafe landed right on top of the news, with an illuminating debate of the issues surrounding copyright protection and the creative community.

Dodd and Fithian disputed the idea that those bills are agents of censorship. It wasn’t until about an hour into the panel that Dodd explained why the MPAA didn’t feel there was a way to respond rationally to the protestors’ fight.

“How do you have a thoughtful, rational, intelligent discussion about a legitimate issue without being overwhelmed and swamped … with a lot of misinformation?” Dodd asked. He acknowledged that the bills could use some tweaking, but denied claims that they threaten free speech.

To support his argument, Dodd referenced two politicians he had worked with for many years when he was a senator — Michigan Democrat John Conyers and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy. “John Conyers is one of the leading civil rights advocates of the last 40 years,” Dodd said. “Pat Leahy’s been the leading advocate of First Amendment rights on the Judiciary Committee for 36 years. The idea that they would write legislation to deprive people of their rights is just patently false.”

Vachon weighted in with her insights into how indie filmmakers have been financially impacted by piracy. “Our budgets have come down drastically but the methodology of making a movie hasn’t come down,” she explained. To make a profit, film productions are often forced to slash creative costs, forcing filmmakers to compromise in areas that are vital to the film’s integrity.

“We are constantly looking at new ways of going around a distributor to directly market our work,” she said. “How do we aggregate communities? I never had to think of these things before. You made a movie, you took it to market, you got a distributor, and our films could stay in the theaters longer than a weekend. What we’re protecting now is a revenue stream that is getting harder and harder for us to get.”

Throughout the panel, the conversation kept returning to the recent scuffle between Hollywood and Internet companies who perceive a threat to free speech in the SOPA and PIPA bills and the desire of the MPAA and NATO to fight piracy. Dodd laid out a scenario in which someone in the future will be writing a book about the fight. “There was a place called America,” said Dodd quoting this imagined writer, “and a state called California, in which arguably the global capitol of content was in one place and a car ride away was arguably the global capitol of technology.”

Los Angeles and Silicon Valley are so close yet “they couldn’t figure out how both needed each other,” Dodd said. “Content without technology, technology without content makes no sense and asking people to make a choice between the two is ludicrous on its face, in my view.” He explained that he wants to devote his tenure at the MPAA to resolving this conundrum: “How do we get these two communities to realize that they need each other instead of asking consumers to pick a side?”

Carr cast a skeptical eye on Dodd’s argument, saying that he’s not certain tech companies “set up that false choice.”

“I do,” Fithian quickly countered, acknowledging that Senator Dodd is “a much better diplomat than I am.” Like Dodd, Fithian claims the fight against the bills was based on an inaccurate perception. “The stuff I read now misses what happened in this legislative debate,” he said.

Out of 50 meetings he and his fellow NATO lobbyists had with legislators leading up to the initial votes on the bills, zero politicians said the bills needed to be clearer or somehow changed. Then there was a drastic backlash, even though the blocking technology the bills’ opponents said would kill the internet is already in use to block child pornography sites and “hasn’t shut down the internet,” Fithian said.

Vast internet players like Google and Wikipedia “decided to make this statement and boy, did they make it,” he acknowledged. “When my 21-year-old is calling me asking me why I’m trying to shut down the Internet, I know we have a messaging problem.”

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