Joel Stein on why he'll ''steal'' from Ben Affleck. Lucy Liu and other celebs are pleading poverty in a PSA
Credit: Ben Affleck Ilustration by Eric Palma

Joel Stein on why he’ll ”steal” from Ben Affleck

Nothing makes someone more unlikable than their unawareness of what makes them unlikable. That’s the main reason why people don’t like Los Angeles. It’s not surprising, then, that Hollywood’s answer to the advent of DVD burners and Internet piracy is a clueless public service announcement in which Ben Affleck, Lucy Liu, and ”Titanic” director James Cameron ask you not to steal from them. Next they’ll produce a PSA about how small trailers can cause claustrophobia.

In May, Affleck’s 1-minute-12-second plea will unspool on movie screens nationwide; it’ll be the Will Rogers Institute can-rattle of our time. But this appeal is for the fair treatment of movie stars, not the compassionate support of sick kids — or sick horses, or sick kids who ride horses. Frankly, it was never clear to me what the Will Rogers fund was about — other than the chance to impress my date by kicking in some change.

I got a tape of the Twentieth Century Fox-produced PSA last weekend, while camped out at the Mandalay Bay, a billion-dollar Vegas casino and resort that wanted 60 bucks to rent me a VCR. Rather than pony up, I knocked on the door of the Mandalay Bay medic’s office, which I was told had video gear. The freelance EMTs on call let me in without question. Affleck hadn’t finished his first line when one of them yelled, ”When you’re making $300 million a year, don’t say, ‘I need more.’ ” When I told her that I was writing a column precisely about this absurdity, she asked for anonymity, afraid that she’d ”get in trouble.” Affleck, it turns out, is even more powerful than I thought. ”It would be a cute commercial if there was a real cause behind it,” the other EMT offered. ”But they could at least have said something about drunk driving. I’m going home and downloading ‘Daredevil’ tonight.”

But Affleck’s point, on second viewing, wasn’t that he’s Benny from the Block and in need of scratch. It’s that the less well-paid are in jeopardy if piracy blunts studios’ profits. ”The movie you’re about to see is the work of hundreds of people,” says Affleck in the PSA. ”Not just the stars you see on screen,” but writers, cameramen, costumers, and countless others. Apparently, there is a world in which the proletariat includes the guy who penned ”Point Break.”

Basically, the PSA argues that fewer movies will be made if piracy runs amok. A fewer-movie policy, I would counterargue, might spare us ”The Core.” Also, I can’t figure out why they would show this PSA to people who’ve just paid full price for admission, instead of shoving it at the front end of a DVD, where actual criminals might see it, since the only people Internet pirates truly put out of business are the in-theater camcorder crooks.

When I asked Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti whether the director of the highest-grossing movie of all time was the ideal spokesperson against petty theft, he tap-danced. ”I found the most convincing part to be the working stiffs,” said Valenti of the PSA, ”the guys who have a modest home and kids who go to public schools. They make $75,000 to $100,000 a year. That’s not much to live on. I don’t have to tell you that,” he said, vastly overestimating the U.S. poverty level and what I get paid for this column. I vowed right then not only to pirate a movie but also to find a way to use the Internet to steal directly from Jack Valenti’s home.

So now I’m pro-piracy. First, piracy is too cool-sounding to oppose. And the ownership of ”intellectual property” is a myth created by ingenious nerds. Can ideas be owned? Am I supposed to pay Metallica every time I hum ”Enter Sandman” or mail Pam Anderson a wad of cash each time I’m alone in a hotel room recounting the lone plot twist from ”Barb Wire”? Wouldn’t that moral dilemma be resolved if Time Inc. would just allow me to expense Spectravision?

I’ll still rent DVDs and see movies in theaters. But I’ll download them too. And after watching that PSA, I’m especially going to steal Affleck flicks. As soon as he makes one worth stealing.