Yes Charles, online piracy does pose a threat to the health of independent film
Charles Judson, a self-described “Writer, Film Critic/Consultant,” raised some eyebrows–mine included–with a piece published this week on cinematlmagazine.com which featured the headline, ” Is Piracy a Danger to Independent Film? Part 1: The Search-In Which I Can’t Find Much of Anything” It’s a (sort-of) rebuttal to the recent post on indiewire.com “Here’s How Piracy Hurts Indie Film,” co-authored by Creative Future’s Executive Director Ruth Vitale and Tim League Founder/CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in which they examined how online piracy undermines independent filmmakers:
The fact is: pirate sites don’t discriminate based on a movie’s budget. As long as they can generate revenue from advertising and credit card payments—while giving away your stolen content for free—pirate site operators have little reason to care if a film starts with an investment of $10,000 or $200 million. Whether you’re employed by a major studio or a do-it-yourself creator, if you’re involved in the making of TV or film, it’s safe to assume that piracy takes a big cut out of your business.
In his piece Mr. Judson appears to be skeptical of their assertions and goes to great lengths to prove them wrong. He recounts conducting his own (unscientific) online research to determine the extent to which independent films are pirated online. His first mistake was limiting his searches for listings on Kickass Torrents:
Let’s start with something easy to test that first claim, we’ll do that by using Kickass Torrents to search for films that screened at Sundance this year. We’ll use the films from the U.S. Documentary (16), U.S. Dramatic (16), and Premiere (19) sections. With 51 films listed and this being six months after their initial screenings, it should give us a strong picture.
His findings lead him to draw this questionable conclusion with a caveat: “So far though, it doesn’t appear that pirates have much interest in indie films. Not to the extent they do mainstream releases.”
Mr. Judson also asks, “ If piracy is a threat, why is [it] so hard to find films that have been screening and available in various forms since January?”
The answer to Judson’s query is simple: he’s looking in the wrong place.
Aside from the fact Judson’s focus on Sundance-screened films is myopic (a selection that fails to reflect a true cross-section of American independent film) his use of KickAss Torrents as a bellwether for online piracy is simply naive. Though torrents garner much attention, it’s a big mistake to view this type of pirated download as the only game in town.
In fact, for many niche indie films the threat of piracy comes not from torrents, but from cyber-locker (and even Google-hosted) pirated movie downloads and streams that provide a viewing experience akin to Netflix. On this blog I’ve documented numerous examples of online pirates who ply their wares by providing consumers with convenient (and free) movie watching experiences.
Why use Wolfeondemand.com when you can find your favorite LGBT films on a Blogger-hosted pirate site that offers hundreds of titles for free?
As a matter of fact I searched for a few of the titles on Judson’s list (those he found torrents for, and some he did not) and easily found dozens of non-torrent links to pirate streams and downloads. A few links had already reported for “copyright infringement.”
In those cases, the filmmakers or their distributors were obviously working to protect their productions. But links for other movies on his list (see graphic above) were still active and ripe for download or streaming. While I don’t claim my results are scientific, they do lend credence to the fact hat today’s piracy has moved beyond torrents.
Mr. Judson’s conclusions about piracy’s (non) impact based on searching for torrents is not only questionable, but also relies on fuzzy math.
It’s a given that indie films aren’t pirated to the same extent that major Hollywood releases are, but so what? That’s really beside the point isn’t it? The financial hit piracy can have on an indie film made on a shoe-string budget can be just as great, percentage-wise, as piracy on a blockbuster film like Expendables 3.
Indie filmmakers don’t generally have deep pockets and have often begged from others and borrowed from themselves in order to make their films. Every penny earned on the backend counts. Just this week filmmaker Zach Forsman wrote a piece for FilmSchoolRejects.com where he recounted his experience with online piracy and the damage it caused:
Six weeks after Down and Dangerous was released domestically on iTunes and VOD, our distributor estimated that it had sold 10,000 streams and downloads, topping out at number 13 on the iTunes Thrillers Chart. Not too shabby. By that time, torrents of the movie had been downloaded at least as many times. Now it would be ridiculous to count all 10,000 downloaded torrents as lost revenue. But if only 10% of those could have been converted to legit sales, that’s another $7,000 we could have grossed. Not a massive amount of money, but to an outfit that crowd funded a $38,000 budget to make the sucker, it’s significant.
Judson tries to split hairs a bit acknowledging that , “Having someone pick your pockets to the point you are losing money isn’t a good. It’s a path that will make funding that next feature, and making a living while developing that feature, impossible.” Yet, based on his research, he appears to be skeptical that online piracy is damaging to indie filmmakers:
Shouldn’t it be a concern that every minute a filmmaker spends policing piracy, is a minute they aren’t promoting their film to the audience that will pay for their film? If piracy is a threat, why is so hard to find films that have been screening and available in various forms since January?
…If indie filmmakers are going to be recruited to join a battle against illegal downloads, if doing this “better serves audiences and artists,” we better be damn sure it’s time well spent.
Of course an indie filmmaker’s time would be better spent making new films, BUT if your work is being ripped off right and left by online pirate profiteers, the sad truth is that it does impact the bottom line. Views lost to piracy can be the difference between paying off production debts or not. Those losses can mean the difference between making another movie or finding a day job.
I’d suggest that the skeptical Mr. Judson take a look at the video embedded below to learn just how pervasive online piracy is, even for small indie films (btw, none of the pirate links mentioned in the video are torrents). Frankly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that piracy takes a toll on filmmakers both large and small.