Taylor Hackford says those in biz not concerned enough

It’s been a struggle for Hollywood to convince consumers of the urgency of piracy, but to hear director Taylor Hackford tell it, there’s also a problem getting attention from another constituency: showbiz itself.

“Our industry doesn’t get it, at all,” he said earlier this week. “And I am talking about top executives down to secretaries. I am talking about directors to craft service people. Unfortunately, in the Directors Guild, this is our No. 1 public priority. … But within our own members, they just don’t quite understand how serious this is.”

Hackford, the president of the DGA, was speaking to the converted: The Content Protection Summit gathered studio IT execs, tech experts and security chiefs, who spend entire days talking clouds and watermarks.

Messaging is not their forte — but it seems the industry as a whole has a problem getting out the news on piracy. A business built on storytelling can’t quite tell its own story.

Lawmakers in D.C. will tell you that it’s hard to overcome the public’s red carpet perceptions of the biz, a far cry from tumbleweeds at the studio gates. Detroit’s “Buy American” campaigns of old don’t translate easily into “Hollywood: Buy It Before You Take It.”

To Hackford and others in Hollywood, the foes aren’t just the pirates but an array of public interest groups in Washington like Public Knowledge and Free Press, along with tech titans such as Google.

They would challenge notions about who has the upper hand on Capitol Hill. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s bill to give the Justice Dept. new powers to shut down “rogue” websites passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously last month, and it probably has good prospects for being taken up in the next Congress, even with new Republican leadership in the House.

But the public interest groups have a potent message when it comes to consumers, and maybe even with many creative types, as they push back against what they see as a heavy-handed copyright caucus: It’s about Internet freedom.

“They just say the entertainment industry — they are just lazy and indulgent, they just haven’t developed a new business model that will allow them to harness the power of the Internet,” Hackford said. “That’s a really good soundbite. The problem is no business model that we can create will ever compete with free.”

Listening to Hackford, you wonder if his way to counter this problem isn’t so much a matter of messaging as of stirring passion. Piracy has been an issue largely fought in the abstract, better left to the lawyers and lobbyists, with the occasional pre-trailer PSAs.

“Hollywood is filled with very famous and successful people,” Hackford said. “And we are really famous for our causes. We care about things. We step out, and we have our pet causes. Whether it is Darfur or whether it’s the environment, whether it is stem cell research, whether it is Proposition 8. Whether it is Israel. The point is when we care about things, we back it with our money and we speak out. The problem is nobody in this community speaks out about the threat that is actually happening to our community. And if we let this threat continue, they will not have the money to contribute to those causes.”

Hackford says a good sign of what has happened is the studios’ dependence on big-budget, high-concept tentpoles, with serious dramas that take time to grow at the box office a bigger risk. Moguls need assurance that they will make their money back quickly, before their works show up on the host of pirate websites.

He also sees another phenomenon that may change the nature of the debate — and may even be a wakeup call: WikiLeaks.

As my colleague David Cohen pointed out in Daily Variety on Thursday, and as was said during the Content Summit, the problems with leaks in movie studios bear some similarities to those in the State Dept.

“Inevitably, as you can see with WikiLeaks and what is happening elsewhere, free and open access on the Internet can be destructive,” Hackford said. “And also, who is to say that we are not doing it now? You talk to Public Knowledge, and they say, ‘We can’t have that.’ It’s happening now. If there weren’t filters on the Internet, we would be swamped with child pornography. There would be so much spam on our sites we would be shut down every single day. So why can’t there be filters to protect content? Why does free and open access have to be stealing our content?”

If WikiLeaks muddles the message of unbridled online freedom, that’s the point. It stirs arguments and passions on both sides. It gets people talking, perhaps even about piracy.

Get it now?

ted.johnson@variety.com

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