How The Simpsons Took on Hollywood and Got Its Audience Back
An executive producer talks about the show's sendup of the film industry's illegal-downloading obsession, which earned rave reviews and big viewership.
Last month an Ohio man walked out of a showing of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit bespectacled with his Google glasses, probably wanting nothing more than a refund. What he got instead was a thorough grilling from the FBI, who suspected he intended to record and distribute the Chris Pine-fronted flick.
The headlines that resulted made for yet another example of The Simpsons presaging real life. (Other examples include the Manti Te’o fake-girlfriend affair and the Seahawks facing the Broncos at the Super Bowl). Days earlier, the show had tackled Hollywood’s zeal to prosecute movie pirates with an installment called "Steal This Episode." “It’s always magic when something in real life happens alongside the silly stuff in our show,” says Matt Selman, an executive producer on The Simpsons.
In “Steal This Episode,” Homer wants to see the latest Radioactive Man Re-Rises—so he illegally downloads it. That transgression kicks off a serial tirade of piracy until Marge sends a confessional letter to Hollywood (including a check), spurring Homer’s arrest by the FBI (who shut down one of his backyard screenings), followed by escape and immunity offering by the Swedish embassy.
It was unadulterated cultural commentary on piracy, mainlined through Homer’s naïve one-liners (“Illegally download it? Is that legal?”). The most-watched Simpsons episode in three years, it set Reddit ablaze with several threads and hundreds of comments and was praised by critics, who called it a return to form for the show. Shortly after the Google Glass incident, the episode’s prescience was proved yet again in ironic fashion: Fox ordered a man to pay $10.5 million in damages for hosting links to watch The Simpsons.
I spoke with Selman about what led to one of the most talked-about installments of The Simpsons in recent history.
At the beginning of the episode, Homer’s coworkers Lenny and Karl strike up a conversation at the water cooler about the latest Radioactive Man film. Is this a common occurrence?
Homer comes in and everyone’s talking about the movie and he doesn’t want it to be ruined. It’s what we felt was a common phenomenon of modern life, where you have to avoid something really popular that everyone has seen but you. It’s sometimes really hard to avoid finding out what happens. Certainly at work on The Simpsons, someone will come in Monday after a big [episode of] Game of Thrones and we’ll all be talking about it and we’ll be like, “If you haven’t seen it: get out.” Or a big episode of Breaking Bad or a serialized TV show. [“Steal This Episode”] is mainly about movies but I think a lot of the stuff talked about applies to TV shows with all the downloading and spoilers and the way people experience media now.
Has anything been ruined for you?
A small example is something from another Game of Thrones [episode], where I really didn’t want the show to be ruined and then I read an interview with George R. R. Martin about who would win—Jaime Lannister or Aragorn—in a fight. That’s a safe article for me to read, right? Spoiler alert if you’re reading this article at home, but the first thing out of George R. R. Martin’s mouth was, “Well of course the fight would take place before Jamie’s hand gets cut off.” And I was like, “Fuck!” I tried so hard to avoid that.
With this episode, are you trying to comment on things that have relevance now?
We were trying to be somewhat current, but reference bigger trends that will be around for a while. The Simpsons isn’t going to do an episode on Justin Bieber being arrested while drunk or whatever he did, but maybe we’d do a story on the trend of bad behavior in teen stars. When Homer was upset in the theater, I think we needed a reason for Homer to pirate movies that isn’t just him being greedy. You’re not as involved in his story if his reasons are selfish. His reasons are benevolent and you can’t really not relate to them. And that’s a way more involving story. When you’re sitting in a theater and you’ve paid and there’s a whole ton of ads—$20 for the 3D ticket and $20 for food and $20 for parking and a babysitter—and you go see a movie that probably isn’t even that great and now you’re going to show me an ad: I mean, come on! The line of integrity in even popular entertainment and advertising has been obliterated. Which is obviously the kind of point we’re making in that episode. At the end of the episode we’re trying to sell you aftershave.
Why is the topic of piracy relevant now?
I got into this story because of that guy Kim Dotcom. He’s a very entertaining character. Obviously, for whatever reasons media companies are fighting people’s feelings [about] media companies. It’s never going to be a black and white issue. And that’s what was interesting about it for us, that this is not a black and white issue. Movie streaming and downloading is a crime; however, the people they’re stealing from are also criminals.
I just like the overall theme that when there’s a conflict over money, both sides will try to cloak themselves in nobility. The movie corporations will say, “You’re putting craftsmen out of work.” The movie corporations, given the opportunity, will steal and deny the money they owe people until they are literally forced at gunpoint to hand it over. People streaming these movies and stealing them are definitely exploiting the hard work and creative content that other people are literally owed for, but they’re not really costing the companies that much money. The movie pirates are saying, “We’re doing it in the name of freedom! And openness and an open world!” But really, they’re just pocketing money. Corporations would say you’re stealing from craftsmen. You’re putting these good people out of business when they’re equally as malicious and rule-breaking as the pirates.
Marge sends money off to Hollywood with an apologetic note, and she naively says, “Now it will go to the people who made the magic happen on screen.”
Do you have any idea where this money goes that we pay at the box office?
Studio accounting is one of the murkiest financial calculations in the world, and it’s pretty much accepted in Hollywood that if a creator has ownership in a property, they will probably have to sue the company to get their agreed upon royalty. There are so many ways to hide that money. I mean, The Simpsons is still technically in the red. It’s hard to believe.
I don’t know. You’d have to ask News Corp. It’s because they bill off everything. They take the profits and they take the money spent in other areas and they take that away from the bill against The Simpsons. I don’t have any profits in The Simpsons so it doesn’t affect me, but it certainly is a famous thing in Hollywood that hugely successful movies—the guy that has the one net point—will get a profit statement saying, “This movie lost money.” Like Harry Potter lost money or a giant hit lost money because they find ways to hide the money.
I was going to ask about the dig at Hulu Plus in the episode [Subjected to ads in the cinema, Homer wails, “If I wanted to pay for commercials I can't skip, I'd sign up for Hulu Plus”]. Isn’t Fox one of the largest shareholders at Hulu?
Yeah, well we make fun of Fox a lot, but they know it’s good business to be made fun of. They always accept it in good humor because it makes them seem cool and it doesn’t cost them anything. Being made fun of is a form of flattery. The people at Hulu tweeted about that.
We once heard a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man. #simpsons MT/ @mattselman Hulu doesn't hold a grudge after our shot at Hulu Plus.— hulu (@hulu) January 7, 2014
It’s always entertaining when media companies have a sense of humor or at least act like they do. I believe we got thumb notes saying "don’t do that joke," and we just did it anyway because we’re a satirical show. We’re expressing a satirical idea, and that line got a lot of response from people that watch the show on Hulu.
Are you an advocate of pirating?
I don’t think I am. I guess I’m an advocate for people being honest about what they’re really up to. I don’t think piracy is as big a problem as everyone really thinks it is. I think the reason they pirate is because the companies don’t make things available. The tiny factory that makes a crappy bootleg of The Dark Knight sold on the streets of Taiwan the week it opens—that’s pure piracy, right there. But streaming episodes of a TV show that isn’t available anywhere else—it’s not on iTunes or whatever—is different. I think iTunes has proven if you make it easy and relatively cheap to buy something for a fair price, people will do it. So why can’t they do that for movies and TV as well?
I would say I’m 80 percent against piracy and 20 percent not. There are some arguments that say piracy actually makes shows make more money because they’re getting it out there. Putting Monty Python sketches on YouTube for free, it actually helps the sale of the back catalog of Monty Python. That point has been made. Young people will say, “Well, why should I pay for movies, especially for comedies, if there’s all this piracy?” And that’s sad because we’re a generation who has lost the experience of going to a comedy movie in a theatre and laughing with the crowd.
Was it difficult to structure this episode and tell the story through humor?
Piracy is such a complicated issue, and to try and get into the nitty gritty of it would be boring. It gets very technical and we’d have to do so much explaining before anyone would even understand what we’re talking about. We tried to keep it simple and give it an emotional story about Marge accidently ratting out Homer and then confessing to it. We kept adding layers because at one level, it’s purely satirical, at another it’s about a problem in a marriage and it’s a very self-referential episode. At the end of the episode, it’s using movie storytelling to come to a blockbuster movie conclusion.
What kind of feedback did you get from this episode?
I don’t read a lot of feedback because often it makes me want to kill myself. More than that, if anyone is talking about the show after 25 years in any capacity, I’m overjoyed. I knew this was a juicy issue when we started working on it, and we really worked hard to be really obnoxious about it and bring up a lot of areas that people could respond to. Kim Dotcom liked it. He tweeted about it, so even though I’m 80 percent against Kim Dotcom, I 20 percent love him. If both sides are mad at you, you’ve done a good job, you know?