The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Shouldn't the MPAA crack down on Ashton Kutcher for promoting piracy?

June 1, 2010 |  2:38 pm

Ashton_kutcher The Motion Picture Association of America is always talking tough about cracking down on piracy anywhere and everywhere, so much so that it has even been sending out its fabled "you are breaking the law" copyright infringement notices not just to slacker college kids, but soldiers stationed in harm's way on overseas military bases in Iraq, threatening them with suspension of their Internet service provider accounts if they continue to watch pirated movies.

So if the MPAA is so serious about combating piracy, when is it going to go after Ashton Kutcher? In case you missed it, Kutcher (who has a huge following on Twitter, which in itself is a sad commentary on the taste level of the American public) has announced that he plans to "pirate" part of his upcoming film, "Killers," and put it online sometime this week. As he put it in Tweet-speak, he'll be "going live 2 the web & pirating the 1st 10 min of Killers from the premiere." He later told Ellen DeGeneres that he plans to "pirate the first 13 minutes of the movie."

As the Hollywood Reporter's legal eagle Matthew Belloni shrewdly points out, this is all simply a way to hype "Killers" -- and judging from its lackluster trailers, TV spots and weak early buzz, the movie needs all the hype it can get. As Belloni wrote Tuesday, "the free preview is a transparent marketing stunt by Lionsgate, the studio behind the film, which has decided to hide the movie from critics and instead put the first few minutes in front of its target audience during the run-up to its release. To that end, they've enlisted the movie's co-star, a genuine Internet phenomenon, to help promote that effort."

So Kutcher isn't actually pirating the movie, he's simply marketing the movie by putting up brief snippets of the film, a scheme other studios have used in the past to drum up excitement for opening weekend audiences. But of course, the actor is calling it piracy because calling it piracy gets more attention than calling it a sneak peek or a free preview. It is a conscious effort to make the whole thing seem illicit. And that's why the MPAA, if it expects us to actually have any sympathy for its often clumsy, often overwrought, boot heel on the throats of its most loyal customers-style enforcement efforts, should be cracking down on Kutcher and Lionsgate too.

If Lionsgate, even if it isn't a MPAA signatory, is going to turn piracy into a marketing scam, it makes a mockery of the MPAA's efforts to treat piracy as a serious offense. If Kutcher can boast about pirating his own movie with impunity, then why should college kids be treated like criminals when they actually do the deed themselves? Either piracy is cool or it isn't. And if the MPAA is bent on persuading us that that isn't cool, then they should come down on Kutcher and Lionsgate like a ton of bricks.

Lionsgate should certainly be hoping that some smart-aleck college kid doesn't put a pirated version of "Saw 7" up on the Web a month before the movie opens this fall because the studio won't get much sympathy from any enforcement officials or those of us in the media. Once you treat piracy like a gag, you don't get to treat it like a serious offense the next time around -- which is why the MPAA should be figuring out some very public way to show its disapproval.

Belloni concludes his post by cautioning Kutcher that he should "think twice next time about glamorizing theft in a cynical attempt to sell his movie." That goes double for Lionsgate, who should realize that cynical marketing leads to cynical moviegoers, who are exactly the kind of people most likely to view piracy as a perfectly acceptable response to the industry's recently jacked-up movie ticket prices.   

RELATED: Lionsgate keeping critics far, far away from 'Killers'  

Photo: Ashton Kutcher at the premiere of "The Joneses" in April. Credit: Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images