SOPA watch: Hollywood loses its thundershirt

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My Dad once said that, if he had to pick any career other than teaching, he would have been a “futurist.” His reasoning was sound: You get to use your imagination, everybody treats you like you’re terribly smart, and by the time you’re proved wrong, you’re already dead.

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But that was before the advent of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Now, being a futurist means boldly predicting what’s going to happen in a week’s time, tops. So you have to learn to shoot high -- reality having a way of out-outlandishing fantasy with the speed of lightning -- and to cover your ass with endlessly interpretable weasel phrases like “I was only half-joking.”

For instance, it turns out I had only half the story right when I predicted very recently that a blackout of major Internet sites would bring SOPA/PIPA to its knees. I said this would happen as soon as the nation’s students realized they couldn’t rely on Wikipedia to write their reports for them. As it turns out, I overestimated the extent of the actual protest: The likes of the mighty Google settled for a pansy-ass black bar of objection while Wikipedia bravely went for the full, 24-hour shutdown. But I sure underestimated the panic that resulted when the country had to go a single day without its most cherished source of dubious, user-submitted information. Not only were frat rats far and wide positively outraged at the loss -- had they known in advance, they tweeted furiously, they might have actually taken notes this semester -- but even some of their teachers were caught wondering how they were going to get their own assignments done. Honestly, you can’t make this shit up; you can only make up half of it and count on Philip K. Dick to handle the other half.

Naturally, members of Congress swiftly commenced to cave like the craven panderers they are, withdrawing support for the measure and forcing a “delay” of the vote until the proposed regulation could be scaled back and reworked into something everybody could live with. But let’s not kid ourselves that anti-piracy flip-floppers like Marco Rubio were responding to the will of the people. What they really got hip to is the true lesson of this week’s events: Silicon Valley has emerged atop the “A” list of Washington power brokers, and Hollywood is now its bitch.

This was a victory for the tech sector, not John Q. Google and his downloading needs. When even President Obama came out against SOPA/PIPA, it was clear the real money was elsewhere. A Democratic president doesn’t just publicly alienate his donors in Big Entertainment -- during an election year, yet -- on a whim. I can’t imagine either of the Clintons doing it, that’s for sure; then again, when Bill Clinton was in office, the Internet was responsible for slightly less commercial activity than pogs. Obama apparently knew that whatever bridges he burned to the Tom Rothmans of the world were less important than the ones he had to maintain to its Mark Zuckerbergs. (Besides, have you ever caught Rothman on TCM? Nobody’s going to be asking Jesse Eisenberg to play this dweeb.)

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That’s why it’s hilariously satisfying to watch the so-called content providers throw a hissy over this act of supposed betrayal. Top Hollywood donors -- most of them anonymous -- are huffing that they won’t give the President one more dime in campaign contributions. Meanwhile, MPAA head Chris Dodd got to lick his wounds in an absurdly biased Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter, whose Alex Ben Block egged him on to cast his studio masters as the victims of some sort of unprovoked attack by the “Internet community.” According to Dodd, the Wikis of the world had intentionally picked a fight with Tinseltown, and all because they didn’t have the balls to take on -- wait for it -- the defense, pharmaceutical or aerospace industries. Um

yeah. (He was also quick to point out that legislation co-sponsor John Conyers is black. Not sure what that was meant to establish.)

Of course, he said all of that yesterday; today, Dodd is plaintively lobbying for a White House sit-down between the movie studios and the giants of the Web. Again, 24 hours is a long time in the modern news cycle, so I guess that’s all it takes for somebody like Dodd to go from hurling bombs hither and yon to coming on like Tessio in The Godfather. Sorry, Chris, but we all remember how that turned out. And Obama already used up all the beer Bush left lying around the White House -- on Henry Louis Gates.

What we’re seeing here is what the cast of The Big Bang Theory might call a paradigm shift. Just as the distributors of filmed and recorded entertainment are witnessing their domination of the American consumer vanish into the ether, so are they being forced to recognize that their control of the political landscape, too, has a highly legible shelf life. In that context, any threats they issue are patently hollow ones -- no more to be feared than the desperate cries of a big, lumbering, soon-to-be-extinct animal caught in the tar pits.

Daily Kos, in its reporting on the studio fallout from Obama’s little show of uppity-nesss, got the subtext exactly right: “Hollywood bought its politicians, and it expects them to stay bought.” I don’t know if Mr. Moulitsas recognizes it, but that’s an almost-verbatim quote from the classic Robert Zemeckis comedy Used Cars. If he did, the irony is all the sweeter. And if he hasn’t seen it, I’m sure somebody can hook him up with a torrent.

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