Jeff Bezos thinks our cultural heritage is just ‘intellectual property’

This week, Amazon acquired the hallowed movie studio MGM for a sum of $8.45bn, second in size to the company’s $13.4bn purchase of Whole Foods in 2017. The day before, the attorney general of Washington DC sued Amazon over antitrust concerns in the retail market; it joins attorneys general from California, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington state who have also raised similar concerns. Chief executive Jeff Bezos, who is stepping down from the position in July, said in a statement: “MGM has a vast, deep catalogue of much beloved intellectual property. We can reimagine and develop that IP for the 21st century.”

It’s chilling, and unsurprising, that Bezos – a man who makes almost $3,000 a second; who makes a couple million dollars every 15 minutes; who, given that the sun is a little over 3bn miles away from Pluto, could travel there and back over 25 times and be paid $1 for each mile – sees a trove of cinematic history as IP to be exploited rather than an important, increasingly vulnerable facet of culture. Really, it’s a flippant and, by this point, almost stereotypical feature of writing about Bezos to try and make practical sense of his wealth. More difficult is trying to rationalize how that wealth has distorted his understanding of art and its role in society.

The purchase of MGM has so far mostly been written about in the context of the fate of the studio’s most notable productions: Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz and the James Bond franchise, among other. This week, Variety published an article that was broken down into sections regarding various films and TV shows and what could become of them. Do some fall under the Amazon Prime umbrella? Do others belong to separate property holders due to previous contracts? Such speculation about the ownership of various movies and shows reduces everything down to numbers and titles, emphasizing the fact that these properties are indeed products. Not everything MGM owns is so culturally significant as to warrant pearl-clutching paranoia about its preservation. That’s not the point. And anyone concerned about how this deal tests antitrust laws when it comes to Amazon’s size and potential for monopoly will be disappointed given how small a portion of the film market MGM occupies. But that line of thought is also misleading. What’s consequential is the dilution of both quality and vitality for the cinematic form.

The “streaming wars”, as a concept, has taken over the public’s perception of how the entertainment industry approaches the production of its movies and shows: commodities to be traded and hoarded in order to capture subscriptions. Bloomberg framed the MGM deal in terms of hours. “Amazon’s studios produce a few hundred hours worth of television shows and movies a year. MGM adds a back catalog of 25,000 hours that Amazon could divvy up between its Prime Video offering, or its free-to-stream, ad-supported IMDB TV.” Every major studio has developed or is developing its own platform, which has supposedly put pressure on Amazon to expand its streaming options. The result is a selection of subscriptions dizzying and frustrating for any potential audience that wishes to easily access any number of films.

What gets lost in both the micro and macro conversations about streaming is why the preservation and celebration of cinema, as well as any other threatened art form, not only matters, but why its new life online is so tenuous. As more and more companies bar their “content” behind fluctuating monthly fees, the collective ownership of cinema deteriorates. Physical media like DVDs and CDs, integral artifacts when it comes to the idiosyncratic and long-lived ways that movies are passed on and made precious, are quickly being phased out. Instead, audiences must settle for inferior image reproduction, dead pixels and distracting screen buttons. The theatrical experience, seemingly always on the brink of obliteration, has been overtaken by flashy gimmicks hopefully engineered to get people to arrive and stay. Even the movie studios themselves can’t be trusted to understand what’s best for their archives. Kevin Ulrich, chief of Anchorage Capital Group, MGM’s main shareholder, commented on the studio’s deal with Amazon by saying: “I am very proud that MGM’s Lion, which has long evoked the Golden Age of Hollywood, will continue its storied history, and the idea born from the creation of United Artists lives on in a way the founders originally intended, driven by the talent and their vision.”

In this black hole of capital and devaluation, curation is one of the few avenues left to help guard cinema against the ever-growing cynicism and hunger of ever-growing mega companies. Boutique theaters, independent platforms like Criterion and Mubi, preservation initiatives, and the impassioned invective of those who worry about cinema’s future: these current measures seem puny by comparison but they are far from insignificant.

In an essay for Harper’s, Martin Scorsese, a film-maker whose legacy and contributions to the art form seems infuriatingly difficult to protect and replicate in our current landscape, wrote: “Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away.”

Art’s utility, power and social value can never be quantified and never should. These “treasures of our culture”, as Scorsese rightly calls them, should proliferate and inspire. To do so, they have to be allowed to exist freely, with the tacit knowledge that they are among the few truly universal things that make life on a dying planet worth living.

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