Monday, June 24, 2013

Cinema's Black Weekends

The weekend before last was Black Saturday and Sunday for Spanish cinemas. Box-office takings were at their lowest ever. And they weren't just slightly lower; they were, as "El País"* reported, lower by a whopping 30%. Receipts amounted to not a great deal more than two million euros.

Weather may have had something to do with lower numbers, as also may have had the absence of a real box-office draw, but the slump was of such a level that these explanations aren't sufficient. The fact is that Spanish cinemas are in their own state of economic crisis. The national economic mess has only now really started to affect them; the previous record low before the 30% fall on Black Saturday and Sunday was in April this year.

A factor in this sudden fall, and it is impossible not to conclude that it must be a factor, is the rise in the cost of going to the cinema that was brought about by the increase in IVA to 21%. Though this increase was introduced some nine months ago, Spanish cinema-goers are suffering the cumulative effect of several months of 13% higher tax and have said enough is enough. Black Saturday and Sunday and the weekend in April have not been isolated weekends; four other weekends this year mean that 2013 has registered two-thirds of the worst weekends for box-office takings.

Economic crisis, though, has affected the cinema in a different way. Watching films hasn't become any less popular; indeed, it is probably more popular than ever. What better way of getting around the cost of an evening at the cinema and the 13% rise in IVA than by watching the latest film at home for free? Spain is acknowledged as Western Europe's leader when it comes to copyright piracy. 

For some years, the international film industry and especially Hollywood has taken a dim view of Spanish laxness in tackling illegal downloads and piracy. It also hasn't taken that kindly to Spanish courts having ruled on several occasions that file-sharing and the "torrenting" of copyright material, so long as it is for private use, is legal. Hollywood has applied more and more pressure, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has been monitoring Spain's responses to the accusation of piracy champion of Western Europe. It has recently looked favourably on Spain by not putting it back on the so-called 301 Watch List of naughty-boy countries. But Spain is on probation. The USTR performs what it calls "out-of-cycle reviews", which mean that it can add a country to its watch list at any time and not just when it issues its annual list (which it did in May).

The principal reason for Spain having avoided being put back on the naughty list is the law on intellectual property. Originally called the Sinde Law (after the minister in the previous government), it has become a double-barrelled law, Sinde-Wert Law. Yes, its that man again. José Ignacio Wert, this time firmly with his culture hat on rather than his educational one. The legislation was enough to allow the USTR to look kindly on Spain.

The Spanish Government has pretty much admitted that the mere threat of trade sanctions by the USA through a failure to improve its intellectual property record has been the reason for the law; it couldn't have said anything else, once Wikileaks had established the fact. Whether there would ever be trade sanctions is questionable, but the government hasn't been taking any chances. It also wanted to avoid not just being put back on the watch list but being put on the priority watch list along with international copyright pariahs such as China, Pakistan and Russia.

The probation may, though, prove only to be probation. The USTR out-of-cycle review could well unearth enough concerns to put Spain back on the naughty chair, and the reason why is because the law has been proving to be ineffective. Under the law, there is a committee which receives requests to inspect websites suspected of providing material for illegal download. A year after it was set up, the committee had investigated only just over a hundred websites that warranted serious consideration and under a quarter of these investigations resulted in content being removed. Various organisations, such as one for film producers, have already lost faith in the committee's effectiveness and don't bother lodging complaints.

While the cost of going to the cinema may be the main reason for declining box-office numbers, there is another reason, and it is one that the government is still failing to address.

* El País

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