Piracy & The Independent Filmmaker

Every once in a while my day job pokes its ugly head into my new life as an independent filmmaker.   Most recently this occurred when lawsuits were filed on behalf of the producers of “The Hurt Locker,” lawsuits they were essentially filing against their audience.  What crime did the audience commit?  They downloaded copies of the film from the internet.  Yet again frustration with film piracy leads to acts of desperation.

Full disclosure: until last year, when they were reduced to having only janitorial staff, I was employed by a major film industry trade association.  (I will not name them here for fear that this will make it into their daily news briefs.)  I fell into the anti-piracy* world quite by accident after working in government affairs and international relations, but I learned a lot and now I am going to bore you with that knowledge.

From my perspective there are two types of piracy.  The first and most offensive, is the piracy where pirates profit from stealing the hard work of others. Let me be clear, if you record my film off of a movie screen or steal a screener and sell it to a release group or a DVD bootlegger, you are a thief and deserve to go to jail.  If you broker deals with people who have access to acquire film content early, you both should go to jail.  I think often in the piracy debate it gets overlooked that the real pirates are making millions of dollars every year reproducing sub-par copies of films. The root of all piracy is money.  If someone somewhere wasn’t making money most piracy would disappear.  Just ask the hypocrites at Pirate Bay how much cash they continue to make every month.

The second type of piracy, the one that gets all the attention, is the sharing of content.  I guarantee you most people are guilty of this in some form or another.  We have all reproduced copyrighted material and shared it with our friends, even before the digital age gave us “millions” of new friends to share with.  Strictly speaking, we are all pirates.  That fact doesn’t really justify the volume of pirated material we all have access to, but where do you draw the line?

Is “file-sharing” stealing? Technically.  Is it immoral?  Maybe.  Is it preventable?  Definitely not.    Here are some thoughts to consider:

  1. Research has shown that people who consume numerous films online via file-sharing also tend to consume a high number of films legitimately.  Pirates are not people who refuse to pay.  In fact, very few people ONLY get their film and music via piracy.  In attacking pirates, you are attacking the core supporter of your business model.  The cure is worse than the disease.
  2. When you look at the total number of individuals that consume a movie through pirate means versus legitimate means, even when you use worse case scenario pirate data, pirate consumption is a very small fraction of how people see a film.   Also, there isn’t any compelling evidence that I have seen to support that piracy is doing significant harm to the legitimate market.  Theatrical is healthy and the home entertainment market is suffering for numerous reasons, not the least of is that, in my personal opinion, people got sick and tired of spending $20 to have a movie they will never watch again collect dust on a shelf.
  3. A film downloaded does not necessarily equal a lost sale.  Intrinsically there is no reason to believe that just because a person downloaded “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Robots That Change into Vehicles and Destroy Shit” they would have actually shelled out their hard earned money to watch it.  (The fact that anyone would pay to see that film is beyond me, but that’s best for another post.)  There is a lot out there competing for our money, that even if you wanted to you could not afford to see everything – although Netflix does make a compelling argument that, yes, maybe you could if you were patient.

So where does the independent filmmaker fit into all of this?   It is hard enough to make money from your film let alone if people are downloading it for free.  At the same time it is even harder to get people to watch your film even if you give it away for free.   Quite frankly, as an independent filmmaker worrying about piracy is about as productive as making your film with the lens cap on.  People download for a lot of different reasons, not just as an excuse to rip you off.   Maybe they want to kick the tires, or maybe they don’t have access to it anywhere else. (Ironically, I once came across a Russian bootleg of our lead actress’s first movie that had not yet released.  It was great for me to be able to evaluate her performance.)  Our goal as filmmakers is to connect with the audience in anyway possible. Some filmmakers are giving their films away for free as a choice, a choice not motivated by a sense of defeat, but by a sense of opportunity.   Anyone who sees your film has the potential of becoming a fan, and fans will generate you money in the long run.  If this scares you, keep your film locked in your closet.

If I was to see a torrent for our film THE WATERHOLE online I won’t lie, I would be angry.  At the same time I have to accept that there is little I can do about it and hope that those that watch it like it, talk about and even go on to buy it.  I certainly am not going to sue anyone that wants to watch my film.  The economics behind the “Hurt Locker” lawsuits are based on fear with the goal of getting quick settlements.  I will look forward to hearing the outcome as the first of these cases go to court.  The cherry on top of this story is that the producer, when challenged, further insulted and belittled his potential audience.  My advice to him: get out of the film business and seek a career where shitting on your consumers has no negative effect, like the oil industry.

*TRIVIA – Anti-Piracy in those circles is now known as Content Protection, way too late for Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” to reap any benefit.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Piracy & The Independent Filmmaker

  1. Emily Millay Haddad

    I appreciate that you also challenge the idea that file sharing is the source of massive profit losses in the film (and music) industry. It wasn’t true in the early 90s when music peer-to-peer networks were first trading tracks, and it isn’t true now with bit torrenting of all kinds of files. Believing (and arguing) that every download is a “lost sale” might be one way to look at it, but I do believe it is a faulty one, given a closer examination of this new digital exchange economy and the potential of free and open information exchange.

    I thought you might also appreciate this article that I just found while searching for studies of the sources of profit loss relating to file sharing — not just what people think or studios claim is happening, but what can be demonstrated and proven. Interestingly enough, this Dutch study concluded that the economy profited from file sharing (http://torrentfreak.com/economy-profits-from-file-sharing-report-concludes-090119/).

    Thanks again for taking the time to write this, and to share your thoughts from both sides of the table.

  2. Excellent points, very good analysis.

    I have an indie film “out there” that seems to be getting downloaded illegally by more people than who purchase the DVD. It would never cross my mind to sue, but on the other hand, I never consider it a “good thing.”

    I have no delusions that it is building a fan base of people who will do anything other than download my next movie if they want to. It might be a lost sale, it might not.

    But frankly, I wonder why someone would spend an hour locating and downloading something that is, and many pirates say this derisively and as their bullshit justification, “just another crappy movie from Hollywood.” I assume if they think all Hollywood movies (and of course, the irony is that this was an “indie”) are crap, then they are subliminally declaring that they are motivated by the thrill of stealing, I guess.

    But I don’t see them as being worthy of being “my audience.” Why would anyone want thieves to be their audience? I know this is esoteric, but that’s my feeling. Do I put my sweat and blood and life into a movie for THEM? No. I don’t want thieves as my audience.

    Pirates? Fuck ’em.

  3. Indiefreak

    Film Piracy majorly affects independent Filmmakers, as independent film making itself is a task and after finishing the movie the major task for filmmakers is how to market, promote and distribute it. Not all inde films can be as successful as The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal activity to name a few. Piracy not only effects the small players in the industry but, also major big studios as well and all of them are now trying to fight movie piracy.
    With new technologies and other formats such and Video On Demand (VoD) #L3 movie can now not only be self distributed but also these technologies help fight Piracy.
    At last my love for independent Cinema can be some up in these four words.
    Long Live Indie Cinema

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