Is Piracy a Danger to Independent Film? Part 1: The Search – In Which I Can’t Find Much of Anything

Is Piracy a Danger to Independent Film? Part 1: The Search - In Which I Can't Find Much of Anything

Last month, Tim League and Ruth Vitale, founder of and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and the Executive Director of CreativeFuture respectively, released an op-ed they jointly penned. In this post that appeared on Indiewire, they argued strongly that piracy is a danger to indie film.

It’s a post that’s very impassioned. It’s also lite on articulating a definitive link between piracy and independent film.

No one can debate that piracy is inherently good or benign. While there are still no definitive studies that have demonstrated the impact illegal downloading has on box office numbers, what happened to Expendables 3 rightfully put the fear into any studio, distributor and exhibitor. The initial number of 100,000 downloads in the first 24 hours has ticked up to 250,000 and tracking firm Exicipio reports 2 million downloads of the film and growing.

Expendables 2 opened to $28 million domestic and Expendables opened to $34 million. The average price of a ticket according to Box Office Mojo is $8.15. Assuming those 2 million downloads had been planning to attend the movie and will now skip the film in theaters, that’s a healthy $16.3 million that Lionsgate may lose. Watching 50 to 60 percent of your opening weekend evaporate thanks to a single leak of a DVD should give us all pause. 

Yet, the film has yet to open. Where the third installment of the franchise lands, we won’t know till Monday, August 18. Conjecture at this point would be conjecture. If the film opens north of Expendables, expect many posts arguing that piracy didn’t hurt and maybe even helped, if it does worse than 2, then the piracy hurts posts will come, if it lands in the middle, the wild all over the place posts will likely outnumber the previous two combined. 

Back to independent film. League and Vitale’s piece stressed two major points: "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."

The first, is that independent film is not immune to piracy and we can "assume that piracy" is hurting the financial viability of indie film: "We know piracy won’t go away altogether, and we won’t always agree on the best way to go about disrupting it. But we can agree on a vision for a digital future that better serves audiences and artists alike, and that future depends on reducing piracy."

The second, reducing piracy will "better serve audiences and artists."

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.

U.S. DOCUMENTARY

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

All the Beautiful Things

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart

The Case Against 8

Cesar’s Last Fast

Dinosaur 13

E-Team

Fed Up

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Ivory Tower

Marmato

No No: A Dockumentary

The Overnighters

Private Violence

Rich Hill

Watchers of the Sky

U.S. DRAMATIC

Camp X-Ray

Cold in July

Dear White People

Fishing Without Nets

God’s Pocket

Happy Christmas

Hellion

Infinitely Polar Bear

Jamie Marks Is Dead

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Life After Beth

Low Down

The Skeleton Twins

The Sleepwalker

Song One

Whiplash

PREMIERES NON-COMPETITION

Boyhood

Calvary

Frank

Hits

I Origins

Laggies

Little Accidents

Love Is Strange

A Most Wanted Man

Nick Offerman: American Ham

The One I Love

The Raid 2: Berandal

Rudderless

They Came Together

The Trip to Italy

The Voices

White Bird in a Blizzard

Wish I Was Here

Young Ones

The MPAA has asked Google to delist the Kickass Torrents in the past. Last year, a ruling in London required "Sky, BT, Everything Everywhere, TalkTalk, O2 and Virgin Media to block access to [three sites] which were found to have significant traffic in the UK," of which Kickass was one of the named sites. If can find the films, I should be able to there. 

This is search only. No downloads. In cases it was difficult to use the title, I also used each film’s IMDB id number to ensure I was searching for the right film.

Of the 51 films I found torrents for 9 films. As of six months after Sundance, 20 percent of the films are available. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, Cold in July, Happy Christmas, Hellion, Life After Beth, Calvary, The Raid 2: Berandal, They Came Together and The Trip to Italy are the films I could find.

A few aren’t surprises. Raid 2, Life After Beth and They Came Together seem obvious candidates. 

What’s curious is that I couldn’t find Dear White People, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Nick Offerman: American Ham or even Wish I Was Here, aka the film by one of the internet’s favorite whipping boys thanks to his crowdfunding campaign.

Half-a-year is a long time in internet time. Remember, Expendables 3 had at least a 100,000 downloads in the first 24 hours. The 2 million download number isn’t in dispute. I should easily find films from independent films’s most high profile event, right?

Here are a few more notable takeaways:

  • Trip to Italy only has one torrent listed
  • a TV version, if the file name is correct, and it was uploaded sometime in July
  • 5 months after Sundance and after it played four film festivals
  • Life After Beth just hit the torrents 5 days ago
  • the torrent with the most seeds of 600 has been downloaded 2,682 times
  • The Raid 2’s first 8 torrents are camera rips
  • the first one having been downloaded 939 times
  • the 339 seeded one being downloaded 34,044 times,
  • there’s a Blu-Ray rip that has been downloaded 6,258 times since it showed up a month ago
  • the USA release date for the film was March, which is about 2 months before the first camera rip

My searching is not to disprove that independent films are being pirated. I’m searching to test the assumption that piracy is hurting business. It may very well be. How much is the vital question we should ask. If League and Vitale want independent filmmakers to take the fight against piracy seriously and to be proactive, we have ask if that will lead to any tangible benefits for filmmakers themselves. 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.

So far though, it doesn’t appear that pirates have much interest in indie films. Not to the extent they do mainstream releases. 

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?

My next task will be to compare the numbers of indie films from the last few years to discover how widely they are shared compared to mainstream films and TV shows.

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.

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Comments

Daryl

The reality of why you can't change this, piracy is the biggest criminal enterprise in the history of the world because you have tens of millions of people participated, the difference with piracy than other crimes a lot of people do it and don't care if they get paid, how do you stop millions of people doing crimes when finance is not the reason they are doing it. You can't, you should concentrate on the segment of the audience that are going to support the artist and indie films, example if you have 5,000 people that are going to pay $5 for your film you should do your film for $10,000 not a $100,000 or you a musician and you have 10,000 people that are going to buy your music at $5 and your album budget is $500,000 and then start blaming piracy when you knew the deal in the first place. Piracy is not a threat to indie films it's indie filmmakers that are making low budget studio films calling themselves independent. The bottom line is artist are not going to see the royalty checks they once saw, in away this could be a good thing forcing them to be smart about their business instead of having a baller or diva lifestyle with us footing the bill. In a nutshell piracy is a threat to indie filmmakers that don't understand they can't go by the 90's and 2000's business model. This article sounds like a guy saying why can't things be like they use to be, it's not going to happen, your solutions to solve the problems are farfetched, we should be focusing on adapting and having a business plan that fits into the digital era. You can still make money and be profitable if your films appeals to people you just have to understand your market.

Tom Jolliffe

From the experience of a friend, piracy does hurt Indie film-makers. He self funded a docu and got it released. It got pirated pretty much as soon as it got released and it definitely effected the numbers. In the build up to the film, as it was specialist, underground with a small but devoted fan base, there was plenty of buzz in that community, but ultimately sales were effected by pirates. Even underground films can spread like wildfire online. He could have paid a specialist service to identify and report illegal download links, but it ultimately would have cost too much.

Miles Ellison

I'm not certain that piracy is a danger to independent film, because the distribution is so limited in many cases that there aren't as many opportunities to make the movies available for free on the internet. Overall, piracy might eventually have the same effect on movies that it had on music. File sharing and free music downloading destroyed the music industry, but not music. There is more great music available in a wider variety of genres than there's ever been, partially because corporations have been removed from their positions as arbiters of taste. The same thing could happen with movies. Piracy may destroy the movie industry, but not movies. That could help independent film.

CareyCarey

I am loving it. s

One of my favorite longtime Shadow and Act readers and writer, Charles Judson, is presenting his case (and vehemently ripping about the "defenses" case) with the knowledge and precision of a skilled Prosecuting Attorney. As always Charles, my hat is tipped in your direction.

Now, while reading your post I instantly thought of Andre Seewood's May 27th 2014 post "Bootlegging And Plot Against African American Cinema."

I am sure you've read it, so would you care to share your thoughts on how your "messages" are similar to his and how, where or why they may differ?

And Andre, if you're reading along… please chime in.

Thanks in advance,

Carey

Daryl

Pandora box has been let out and it's not going back in, the internet is too broad a place to realistically say you are going to stop piracy without turning the internet into something that will not resemble free speech and look more like tyranny. It's a lot of hustlers, and people that just don't care that much about art to pay for it or just love sharing pirate movies to stick it to the studios., it's not helped by the outrageous price of movies either, really it cost almost 10 dollars for one person to go to the theaters, you still selling dvd's and vod for almost 15 dollars when wages are stagnant and you wonder why people are ready to buy bootlegs or get it for free. Hollywood shot themselves in the foot by their greed and now they think they can change things back to how they use to be, it's not going to happen, you just have to adapt or fall by the wayside, it's simple as that.

Daryl

Let's be real over 90% of people that buy pirate films don't care about indie films or do they like them enough to pay to see them, that's the market. That's why I gave the Red Hook Summer example, Spike Lee knew his name was worth at least a million dollars so he did a film under a million dollars guaranteeing him a profit, It's about understanding your market and making the film based off that market ratio. I talked about greed but on the other end of the spectrum when talking about indie films, it's also greed and ego, thinking their film is worth more than it really, having a stupid budget and get mad when the film is a financial disaster. Yeah piracy is a problem and it is not going nowhere you just have to learn how to be able to deal with it.

Jen

Yes, piracy is a threat to indie film and this article does nothing to counter that assertion.

Charles Judson

Folks seem to be missing the point. The question at hand, isn't about why priacy exists. Nor, is it about the good or bad of priacy. The questions are:

Is piracy a danger to independent film?
If it is a danger, how large?
Based off those first two answers, is it then worth it for independent filmmakers to fight piracy?

CreativeFuture is an organization backed by the majors as well as smaller outfits. As of now, the expense of P&A, aggregators as gatekeepers, and studios defacto monoply on the best screening times and screens during primetime hours on weekends, all have a greater impact on independent film than piracy. More independent films screening at 8pm on a Friday, and not shoved into a 6pm or 10pm slot, will give them a greater chance of success than stopping piracy.

Studios have the resources to fight piracy. Independent filmmakers do not. Whereever we expend out resources, we need to be confident we get a return. As of now, going after illegal downloads will help studios and distributors, it is not apparent it will help indie filmmakers. Studios and distributors, and others, can say we need to be concerned. I'll see your concern and raise you a better chunk of the screening times during the week if you want to see a vibrant indepenent film scene.

Johnnyray Gasca - known in the media as The Prince of Piracy.

There is just too much to comment on here. But in the case of Expendables 3, the movie sucks. So if it bombs and people say it was because it was downloaded, that will be a factor no one can really determine. In the cases where films (crystal clear copies) appeared online BEFORE their major release dates, the films still went on to do massive business. X-Men Origins: Wolverine; The Avengers were "seemingly" unaffected by their online debuts. These are major films (not independents), but they are also targeted at the same demographic that are the highest ratio of downloaders. These independence dramas are not suffering from downloaders. At the AFM last year, no one wanted dramas. I was told at virtually every room I entered that if it was a horror or action, they didn't want to see what I had. (I had neither.) As technology, in general, advances, the biggest problem is instant word of mouth. If a teenager is inside a theater messaging that the movie sucks, that will do more to divert his friends from seeing it than if he messages, "A great copy just appeared online, so download it instead." Teens go to the movies and will go regardless of what's online. What they choose to see and how they select that has no bigger deciding factor than what their friends are saying is good. There are so many variables (such as sucky movie off a popular book becoming a hit because that is the it thing to do – see that movie) that this issue truly has no solution. All it has are various people at different times writing about it from different angles, and much are from people taking out their ass without even really knowing all that takes place in the "piracy" world. When the MPAA throws in all their bullshit hype, the teens sense it and only rebel at anything they have to say. Jack Valenti used to go around saying that downloading a movie was like stealing a DVD out of Blockbuster. Laughed at. The studio once dished out a heavy campaign crying about the money all the actors and technicians were losing because a movie would get pirated. Yet out the other side of their mouths they vehemently fight against releasing "cents" to actors and others who work on their films. When you have ANY hypocrisy or hype in your approach to dealing with ANY issues concerning teens, you can forget it. They smell it instantly, message about it endlessly, and not only laugh at you, but rebel even more. In the very early stages of video piracy — before it became prevalent that every teen had a computer and a high-speed connection — there were solutions, but all them were looked over in the pursuit of greed for every dollar. In the same way that Blockbuster held onto its ridiculous high rental and late-fee charges while Netflix sprung up right in their face and helped them out the door, the factions claiming to rep the studios (The major studios don't have time to bother with piracy) including the MPAA, attempted to curtail piracy with all the restrictive maneuvers of a parent trying to control a teen. Fear, threat of punishment. When reasonable options were suggested, they were overlooked instantly because they dealt with having to be more accountable for the content, having to make SURE it was better content. And the studios didn't want that. The main reason? At the dawn of video piracy ONLINE (2001) the model was still: release a movie (regardless if its crap) in certain regions, and country by country blast through with marketing and make money from it. A movie would be getting released 7 months later in Spain and still racking up money for the studios. But as the Internet became ubiquitous and high-speed connection more common, this became more difficult to do. A person wants to see a movie. May even be willing to wait to see it in the theater, but not months. It's online, they are going to snatch it, and more so, the "bootleggers" are going to have it ready for them. The studio's solution? Release movies massively worldwide on the same release date. So now… A movie comes out, and even it it's not a studio copy that gets released, the camcorded versions that come out are very watchable. Someone in a foreign country will set up an HD cam from the projectionist's booth and film it. While it is too late to implement the many viable solutions offered over the past decade (and even earlier), the one thing remains. Make a great movie, so that so many people see it, it really doesn't matter how many didn't buy a ticket. The start of the technology battle online over piracy was with the music industry, and the RIAA made all the initial mistakes the MPAA would later be dumb enough to repeat. But by the time we get to 2002, the music industry had been shoveling us garbage for years – ONE good song on a CD. It was said that year (I forgot who but it was well reported at the time) that the days of selling a million albums was over and blamed online piracy for the plummeting sales. Then Nora Jones released her debut album. The album sold 1 million copies in one week. The album has sold more than 10 million copies in the United States, 1 million copies in Canada, 3 million copies in the United Kingdom, and over 26 million copies worldwide. The whole album was great. Piracy no doubt affected the entertainment industry at many levels, but the overarching factor has always been that the more crappy your product, the more you need hype to sell it, and the more piracy will impact you.

Anne Thompson

Lite?

Daryl

Piracy is catch 22 situation, I would also argue some of the films that get bootlegged would never be seen by those people that watch bootlegs. Films and tv are turning more and more to be niche market dominated. A lot of this is really about greed. The studios and Hollywood A-list actors know their big paydays are numbered. This is what this is really about. It's always going to be enough of the audience that are going to pay to see films, you just have to understand your market, example Spike Lee Red Hook Summer was made for $600,000, it made 350,000 at the box office, Spike Lee was paid a million dollars for the rights. This film is a profitable film, then when you add in tv rights, vod, and other rights the film was made for the right price, that's understanding your market. It may not make 100's of millions of dollars but the film is going to make at least 3 to 10 million in the upcoming years it is a success, because the thing about bootleg, most people that buy bootlegs are only interested in new stuff so your film might get bootlegged today but get purchased tomorrow.

Amari Sali

What I will never understand is why is everyone ignoring the elephant in the room: Who is releasing DVD/ Blu-Ray quality screeners online? A bootleg isn't going to interest a lot of pirates, but a clear picture quality will make them think twice about going to the movies. So who in the company, or involved with the movie, is releasing the film online? If you want to fight piracy, find that person for they are the source. How else would Expendables 3 come out damn near a month before its theatrical release? Or the Wolverine movie without special effects? Start fixing your own house before you start coming after people and start asking for hundred of thousands of dollars, if not millions you know they won't have.

IGBO

Another thing that needs to be considered and a reason why piracy poses a particular threat to indie films is due to their releasing strategy. Indie films are typically released more slowly and in fewer markets than their big budget counterparts. Also, because of their smaller marketing budgets it takes longer for audiences to be aware of these films. This could explain why fewer indie films seem to be pirated pre-release than big budget films.

What you need to look at is the impact of post-release pirating of indie films. If a film, for example, opens in just two markets (say New York and Los Angeles), it may take weeks or even months for a film to arrive in certain smaller markets (if at all). This gives a pirate a lot of time to do their dirty work. Also, once the film is in release, there are more opportunities for a pirate to obtain an unauthorized copy of the film.

It's during an indie film's theatrical run, not while it's on the festival circuit, that pirates can do the most damage to a film's box office.

robert steele

Who writes this stuff? US Home Video Revenues including Netflix, Amazon, BluRay, DVD, VOD, PPV are down 25% from $26B in 2006 to $18B in 2013. This is an industry that had not declined in decades. BitTorrent search engines appeared roughly 2004.

Max

The majority of pre-release indie films on torrent sites have either an international DVD release or has been on VOD. Festival screeners don't really make it out into the pirate scene, which might be a bigger factor in your search results than the "not much interest" angle.

There was a screener torrent of Jodorowsky's Dune months before its release, and that's the only exception I can think of.

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