Friday, July 3, 2009

Movie Economics

In advance of moving to Liberia, I spent days and days of time copying DVDs from Netflix and storing them in giant binder--the trashy entertainment equivalent of canned food in a fallout shelter. But the scale and sophistication of the movie pirating industry has exceded itself in the last four years. When I was last in West Africa, my taste for Hollywood garbage was sustained by one or two Indian hardware stores that dealt in poor quality DVDs from East Asia that lagged behind movie release dates by at least four months and contained, at most, five movies--one or two of which were regularly unwatchable.

Now, for less than $5, I can purchase something like "Movies of the Year III (70 in 1)." On the cover of this cardboard folder is the promise: "Broadcasting Time is up to 3000 Minutes." This disc includes everything from "The Orphanage" and "Meet the Spartans" to "American Pie 7" and "Bring it on 4." Plenty of movies are mislabled, some of them have subtitles in unfortunate languages; but most of them are of watchable quality.

These discs are arranged according to logic that is sometimes crystal clear and sometimes baffling. How "Senior Skip Day" and "Why did I get Married?" come to be on a disc called "Movies of the Year" is difficult to understand; whereas the archive on "Large Collection of Classic Disaster" makes perfect sense.

The filler movies can often be the real joy of these discs. Of course "The Large Collection of Classic Disaster" includes "The Perfect Storm," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Twister." But it also contains "Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York" and "The Swarm." One in five of the collections of I've seen contains "Star Ship Troopers 4."

An additional joy of these purchases is the mish-mash cover art--though it can be a real disappointment when the films on the front don't make it onto the disc (for instance: Will Ferrel, pictured below, does not feature in any film available on "US Top-Most Movies"). Nor is there any movie in which Tom Hanks is attacked by Transformers, something that I would definitely pay money to see.

Why "Don Movie" thought that two trumpet blowing babies in overalls surrounded by cupcake jellyfish would be a good branding move, escapes me completely.

So here are some economics that I find interesting. If you were to purchase all of the DVDs, legally, that each of these $5 collections has assembled, you would be paying on average, at least $400. If you were to rent them from blockbuster, you would be paying at least $100. If you were to try ordering them from netflix on a 5-a-day monthly plan, it would take you nearly two months and more than $40. And if you were to buy the pirated movies widely available in NYC (on the A-train for example), it would still set you back at least $70--though you'd never find half of these ridiculous titles. However the pirated discs in New York are more very likely to be unwatchable, which I find confusing--why do the pirated DVDs available in Liberia boast such ample offerings and such higher quality than the pirated discs in NYC?

But, even if you can get your visual Hollywood fix in Liberia, the money is still in the concessions that you crave: a large bag of Tostitos (if you are lucky enough to find it) will cost you a cool $10--and salsa's gonna set you back another $7-10.

So, the last relevant calculation: $20 on chips and salsa; $5 on all-night movie marathon; $10 on beer and you've got the monthly earnings of your average Liberian down the hatch in one brain dead evening!


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  2. my favorite post so far - approachable and really helps give a sense of some of the differences, similarities and particular gems liberianness... (also pictures are really great, and thanks for including those.)

    i'm sure you could have put together a less expensive munchy than chips and salsa though - anyway nice post and wanted to let you guys know i'm reading and have been remiss in commenting.

  3. Thanks, c. That's helpful feedback. Nice one.