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by Anthony Kaufman
October 12, 2011 4:30 AM
25 Comments
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Piracy May Be An Indie Filmmaker's Best Friend: Discuss.

Piracy might be a filmmaker's best friend. Or at least not the worst enemy.

Despite the conventional wisdom that BitTorrent websites and illegal downloading are destroying the fabric of entertainment industries, a number of advocates and activists believe that piracy can help independent filmmakers as both a distribution mechanism and promotional tool.

Revenue generation may be another matter, but as "Ink" producer Kiowa Winans says, "The torrent community spread the film everywhere and helped build an audience more effectively than any decent-budget ad campaign could have."

In 2009, Winans's sci-fi indie "Ink" was illegally downloaded more than 100,000 times via torrent sites like The Pirate Bay—where it was the number-one pirated film for a time—before its official release on the likes of iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and Blockbuster.

"Ink" became a brief cause celebre for its ability to find a niche audience online, albeit it one that didn't pay for the film.

"We were self-releasing the film and had absolutely no money for advertising," says Winans. "When 'Ink' was torrented, we immediately saw it as a positive because we knew that our biggest battle was keeping the film out of obscurity."

For British filmmaker and entrepreneur Jamie King, director of "Steal This Film" and "Steal This Film 2" and the founder of the free-to-share movie download site VODO, it's filmmakers "who don't have access to the traditional modes of distribution and monetization" that can potentially benefit from piracy.

"There wouldn't have been a route to the market for a film like that," he says of "Steal This Film." The documentary has been downloaded millions of times because of a distribution arrangement made with The Pirate Bay.

"Even for a film that could be distributed through a small indie distributor, there are plenty of those who are not going to make a cent,” he says. “The reality can be pretty grim. So for all those filmmakers, the main question would be: How does this way of getting an audience compare with other ways?"

King acknowledges that bigger specialized and Hollywood films may be losing business because of unauthorized downloading.

For instance, according to TorrentFreak, which posts a weekly chart of the top 10 most downloaded movies on BitTorrent, "Drive" and "Tree of Life" have been particularly hot titles, which potentially could have eaten into their theatrical and DVD sales.

However, some advocates say Hollywood is missing an opportunity. In a recent interview, Pirate Bay's Fredrik Neij suggested that the movie and music industries should set up their own torrent sites and monetize it through advertisements. “We would be out of business,” he said.

But for indies who aren't making much anyway, is there really a significant monetary difference between a pirated release that nets the filmmaker a few thousand dollars in donations and a $25,000 minimum guarantee from IFC Films?

New School professor Vladan Nikolic and the writer-director-producer of the futuristic indie thriller "Zenith" says piracy should be considered just one more element in a hybrid distribution strategy, along with the theatrical release, cable, VOD, DVD and legal download sites like iTunes.

"Viewers don't overlap that much,” he says. “Those who watch iTunes and cable don't use BitTorrents.” And "once the film is available on iTunes, it will be pirated anyways, so we wanted to use this to our advantage rather than to our detriment."

Nikolic posted the film to King's VODO site, where it's been downloaded an impressive 1.5 million times. He's received only around $10,000 in donations.

However, he adds, "even the paltry sum the film made on VODO is more than what it would make without having us having a hand in the BitTorrents."

Still, Nikolic admits that few downloaders will actually pay for content. "I think no," he says. "If you put a price on the download, they'll go somewhere else."

Nikolic and others believe that the torrents are best used for publicity instead of sales. "For now, this can be a viable method to gain attention and increase visibility for a film, but has to be combined with other avenues for revenue," he says.

Winans agrees. He estimates that only 1%-2% of downloaders went on to purchase the film or donate money.

"Our sales unquestionably went up as a result of the torrenting, but we by no means got rich," he says.

"At the same time, we've had a number of fans donate as much as $100 which blows my mind," he continues. "We also have to keep in mind a huge percentage of the fans that have torrented 'Ink' are actually in other countries where streaming services like Netflix and Hulu aren't available."

Indeed, judging from comments on the "Ink" website, consumers say they would never have found the film without the torrents.

One poster, Andrée Kathryn Thynne, wrote, "I would never have even known about this film let alone seen it had it not been for my brother downloading it. I live in Australia and it's a real struggle for us to get the majority of stuff that the US and Europe are exposed to.

Another, Olly Minnis agreed. "Its [sic] the only way that have been able to see this film - i'm in New Zealand. A lot of Downloaders are movie geeks! - We'll get behind this movie."

It's been two years since "Ink's" release and Winans says only now have they begun to turn a profit. If "Ink" had gone with a conventional distributor, there might have been more gross revenue, admits Winans, but he wonders, "would we see any of that money?"

Currently in development on a new sci-fi-fantasy project, Winans says they're not sure how they'll take the film out.

"But everything will certainly be on the table," he says. "More than anything I think we've learned the value of a passionate fan base, no matter how they find us.

"Had it not been for a really supportive community that carried 'Ink' for us, it certainly could have disappeared into obscurity. So our attitude going forward is to work hard to make our films available to our fans quickly and easily, because in a social networking world they're our greatest asset."

25 Comments

  • Tieuel Legacy! in Motion | March 13, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    It will be hard to let go of for such a low cost, at first, but it's something that I tossed around for a few years. Selling views online for a dollar could be profitable for films that have a mass attraction (like films by popular internet individuals). If you get millions of hits on Youtube, Vimeo, or others then it could translate into 50,000 or more hits if you drive viewers to your site and add a $1 fee.

    The use of ads can kill the emotion. I'd look at it more like product placement. (Examples: Reebok shoes in one of the Alien sequels. Jordan Shoes in Space Jam. Mac computers in many major films. Ford, Range Rover, and foreign sports cars in Casino Royale.) You'd either have to write a part specifically for those companies or just get the DP to point the camera for extra B roll. Those 'mom and pop' shops that you convinced might have a following that would help to boost sales.

    Waiting on donations should be icing on the cake rather than an expectation. When you do a movie, most people will feel that you are already somewhat more well off than they are which translates into "he/she doesn't really need it". Keep in mind that I say most.

    Bootlegging of larger budgeted films cost those distributors more than it would the small indie productions that are doing their first and second films.

    Tieuel Legacy! in Motion

  • pirate | February 13, 2012 12:26 PMReply

    If they continue to support piracy, i may CONSIDER downloading their next film so that they can be grateful I ever heard of their company. THEN, and IF i feel extremely generous I MAY consider going to the trouble of entrusting my cash to an online money service in order to transfer a few cents to them to cover bandwidth and production costs EQUAL to 5 000% of my fair share as a fraction of the viewers.
    If 2% of the viewers do not feel generous enough to give this way, or there are not that many million viewers, they may consider their film a failure and the would will not suffer if they never touched a camera again with the intent to make money.

    Or they could get a real job

  • Pete Ireland | December 5, 2011 7:13 AMReply

    If there is one thing you should take from this, it's that the sooner DVD's are dead, the better. DVD's are unsecured media in a pirates world. We need nothing but streaming and the film industry needs to hire some very smart people to embed codes into streams/downloads so that the "buyer" can be located and prosecuted for putting his version online. One successful prosecution will drop the pirate rate.

  • Jon Williams | October 17, 2011 10:23 AMReply

    Basic no-budget feature film economics (Diary of a Bad Lad).
    Below the line costs including marketing: $50,000
    Above the line costs (talent): everyone worked on a profit share agreement, i.e. they took a gamble. We costed out the value of everyone's input at basic industry rates and it worked out at approx $150,000.
    Break-even therefore is a net of $200,000, which could be made from, say, 30,000 DVD sales - or considerably fewer plus some foreign and TV deals.
    The film was released on DVD. In the first four weeks net returns were about $35,000, and our sales agent had strong interest across a very large number of territories.
    And then the film was pirated, massively pirated. Initially we were amazed at just how much awareness this was creating. But DVD sales immediately slumped to virtually zero, all but one of the inked-in foreign deals collapsed, TV buyers were no longer interested.
    The solution? Make films full of product placement aimed at corporate sponsors?
    And some idiot wrote the article I'm replying to, and Indiewire published it.

  • Mike B | October 17, 2011 2:45 AMReply

    We need to reexamine what the consumer is actually paying for ... and willing to pay for.

    see "What if Consumers Don't Value Content" http://www.mlbnyc.com

  • Mark Harris | October 13, 2011 8:21 AMReply

    I'm not for people ripping off movies, but I keep thinking about the model where you put the movie up on torrents for free, and sell ads within the movie or at the start or something. I think I read about them doing this in China because DVD piracy is so out of control.

    But if you reach a bazillion eyeballs, maybe convince sponsors to places ads in the movie and monetize that way?

  • Kia | October 13, 2011 4:21 AMReply

    Here's my concern: Piracy makes it harder--as someone already pointed out--to pay back investors, who are already skittish about financing micro--low budget films. I'm referring to those under 500K.

  • Will Buckley | October 13, 2011 2:40 AMReply

    These are the same arguments that have swirled around the the record business for years. Free is certainly a viable promotional tool, better yet why not steer viewers to low cost monthly subscription streaming sites featuring indie films? That way the filmmakers can at least share in a piece of the revenue.
    I firmly believe that everyone deserves the right to choose. The choice needs to come from the person who created the work or has licensed the content.

  • AnnaM | October 13, 2011 2:29 AMReply

    Superb points Ellen. Thank you.

  • Ellen Seidler | October 12, 2011 12:47 PMReply

    A few years ago, when DVD sales were still the primary means of distribution for indie filmmakers, the notion that online piracy could help "promote" a title might have had some merit. Today, the reality is that various digital delivery models are quickly supplanting DVD sales as the primary source of revenue for indie filmmakers. Since indie films often don't receive theatrical releases, filmmakers are dependent on back-end revenue to pay off production debts. These days as streaming technology has improved and online options increased, indie filmmakers are in direct competition with their pirate counterparts for that digital revenue. Why go to iTunes or some other legit online distribution portal when, with the click of a mouse one can stream an entire film of equal quality for FREE on Megavideo?

    It's also important to recognize that these online pirates are not "sharing" this content out of altruism. For the vast majority, it's become a way to make money. In today's online piracy business model, everyone makes money except the filmmakers.

    In today's world of piracy cyber-lockers (cloud-based UGC sites) have supplanted P2P torrent sites as the go-to destination for both pirates and those looking for "free" content. On any number of cyber-locker sites (Megavideo, Putlocker, Videobb, etc.) consumers can download or stream their favorite movie. It’s the same for music, e-books, software, etc. Consumers don't have to figure how torrents work and how to put the various pieces of a file together. It’s really just click and go. For content creators it's a nightmare scenario in that it's hard, if not impossible, to compete with FREE.

    These cyber-lockers essentially operate as a pyramid scheme. They offer cash-rewards to individuals who upload content (never vetted for ownership btw). The amount of the cash paid out depends on the number of times a file is downloaded--the more downloads (traffic), the more money the "affiliate" earns. This system creates an incentive for people who want to earn cash to spread the download links virally on as many forums, blogs and twitter accounts as possible.


    How do cyber-locker sites earn their profits (quite massive by all accounts)? These operators make money by placing ads adjacent to download links and by enticing users to become “subscribe” so as to access "high-speed" downloads. Essentially for $10 bucks a month one can download an entire feature film in 3 minutes as opposed to an hour. Ultimately it's a very lucrative proposition with no apparent downside.

    To be honest, online piracy makes me long for the good old days of bootleg DVDs. At least that illegal activity required an investment on the part of the thief (DVDs, replication, packaging, etc.). Sales were limited to corner stores or flea markets. They had a tangible "product" and had to spend resources to deliver it.

    Now, with a mere click of a mouse, a web pirate can steal a film and profit from it. This kind of activity, were it happening in the brick and mortar world, would be roundly condemned and stopped through legal means. Now, no matter how creative one’s business model, no matter that for the price of a coffee you can watch a legit copy these films online--it’s hard to compete with FREE.

    There are glimmers of hope in efforts to leverage the consumer’s desire to “share” creative content into something more positive for content creators. Youtube has developed a fairly effective content ID system that allows content creators to easily identify and remove content OR, should they choose, to MONETIZE it by earning a % of the ad income. Hopefully this type of system will become a model for all cyber-locker websites and ad service providers.

    Reasonable measures can be taken the protect consumers and content creators. It's in all our best interests to work together to find a solution. If nothing is done, the quality and diversity of creative content available will suffer.

  • David Holbert | October 12, 2011 12:10 PMReply

    Couldn't agree more with Orly. I'm strongly against piracy. I think the "information wants to be free" movement is an economic children's crusade (not that the pirates care, but it does give them some cover). But, like it or not, it seems unlikely the world will see strong control or punishment for piracy any time soon. Great comments also about the specific type of film. But when it happens, the next thing is to either pay to have it taken down, as Orly describes, or make the best of it - one can imagine promotional taking off points (that also discourage piracy.) Sadly, a lot of people believe that anyone making a movie is rich to begin with so doesn't deserve any money from them - who struggle to get by (I've met many.) Anyone on the commercial side (in any media) will get no sympathy - publishers, distributors, gallery owners, managers - villains all! The "cost" of a movie to a consumer is quite high - two hours of dedicated attention - regardless of the monetary part. That's time that could have been spent many other ways. So they paid that price, regardless of how they came to it. And that says something. I would love to know of research on consumer perception of filmmakers (or any creatives) and commercializers.

  • Anna M. | October 12, 2011 11:49 AMReply

    Independent filmmakers face enough distribution challenges without the sanctioning of bit torrent sites. While I appreciate how important (and difficult) it is to get out there, get seen, and get noticed, the suggestion that the stealing of one's work is a positive thing seems counterintuitive and didn't find this article to provide a compelling argument to the contrary. I have to agree with Jessica, "If filmmakers think the only way to get an audience for their work is to put it on line, than that is their choice, but to claim it is helping independent film distribution is absurd."

  • Orly Ravid | October 12, 2011 9:32 AMReply

    ps Jessica's point is indeed important too. Whilst I think the theatrical model of 5 - 7 screenings per day is absurd for smaller films, some form of it is valuable and important both to filmmakers who made work often intended for a bigger format community experience, and for audiences and members of society who do enjoy and benefit from it. Hi Jessica!

  • Orly Ravid | October 12, 2011 9:21 AMReply

    I truly have seen both sides of this issue. I was just discussing it yesterday because I was going to write a tips post about piracy so I will save some for that but to support this post I do want to note that in our new book we have an entire chapter devoted to films who have successfully monetized piracy. And I truly believe that for smaller indie films some of it is just good marketing and revenue generating at best and at worst business one may not have done anyway. It should also be noted that many distributors track an uptick in transactional sales after a film has been made available for free on ad-supported platforms such as SNAG and Hulu. However, now to speak from the other side of my mouth, I was speaking to Maria Lynn of Wolfe Video yesterday and she noted a very clear significant uptick in sales of a film that occurred only AFTER they pulled all the pirate links down. They spent $600 to take the links down and saw a very quick increase in VOD business to the tune of $10,000. And I would argue this is all very film-specific and strategy-specific stuff. Anyway, as Dana noted most distribs and filmmakers do not like piracy and Wolfe is even making a business out of combating it in a cost-effective manner. I have many a time been asked to help get films down from sites and I have to confess that when it's our film and we have spent money to distribute it, it is anxiety producing. But the key should be to think it through strategically before any DVDs are ever sent of the film to anyone. However, to see how it can work for you, apart from this blog, I sincerely encourage reading Sheri Candler's chapter in Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul.

    Over and out, for now...
    Thanks Anthony, great topic, and now I won't rush on my post :-)

  • Gorman Bechard | October 12, 2011 9:21 AMReply

    Thank you, Jessica. I wasn't even considering the effect on indie cinemas.

  • Jessica Rosner | October 12, 2011 8:41 AMReply

    As someone who actually books independent films to be seen by audiences, pirate sites and the people who use them are no better than thieves. It may be an old fashioned concept to want real live audiences to see films, but there are filmmakers and distributors who still believe in it. One thing not mentioned is how devastating illegal downloads are on independent film venues that are the ones screening films for audiences ( and sometimes even bring in a filmmaker or have a discussion). The people who are helping independent films be seen are places like the Gene Siskel Film Center, Cornell Cinema, Bear Tooth Cinema, and independent programmers around the country NOT Pirate Bay. If filmmakers think the only way to get an audience for their work is to put it on line, than that is their choice, but to claim it is helping independent film distribution is absurd.

  • Gorman Bechard | October 12, 2011 7:35 AMReply

    Dana and Reid, as I said, if someone WANTS their film available for free online, that's their right.

    My issue is when people post films (or music, or whatever) without permission. This is stealing, this is taking money out of the artist's pocket. This is taking control away from the artist. Its no different from breaking into someone house and stealing their belongings. It needs to be punished, by any means possible.

  • Victor Goss | October 12, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    The current copyright laws lobbied into law by the major studio multinational corporations is, in fact, piracy.

  • Dana Harris | October 12, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    Hi, Gorman. There's a lot to say on piracy. I think the examples we cited are instances in which filmmakers have tried to turn piracy to their advantage. And I know plenty of filmmakers who feel exactly as you do and would be keen to line up the pirates' heads for batting practice. I also know distributors -- large and small -- who are taking another hard look at piracy because it's clearly not going away and trying to figure out what it could mean for their business. We'll definitely continue to cover this topic from all angles.

  • Reid Rosefelt | October 12, 2011 7:15 AMReply

    I think it's different in every case. If you have a horror film, torrents will kill you if you have an unsold film looking for distribution. You should never let a copy out of your sight. You should assume that everybody at the lab, the editing room and the projection booth is guilty until proven innocent. You bring the print to the screening and you take it home with you afterwards. And you don't hand out any DVDs unless the name of the person who is watching it is printed in large letters on the DVD. But even that. Don't let out any DVDs unless you have to. And then... get your distributor and theatrical release, at which point it will instantly be all over the web. But at least you will have been able to sell the film.

    On the other hand, I think I made a pretty good argument here that it's possible that torrents can be very helpful in the right situation:
    http://my-life-as-a-blog.com/post/2010/01/03/Did-File-Sharing-Make-Wolverine-a-Hit.aspx

    Another example that is often given is "Battlestar Galactica" which was shown in the UK before the US and was all over the web. It's premiere did huge numbers here and the show became a hit.

    But I don't think you can make generalizations about torrents, except that if your goal is only to get your film seen, and money isn't a big issue, they are always a good thing.

  • Big Black | October 12, 2011 7:12 AMReply

    Gorman - who the fuck would pay to see your films, anyway?

  • Gorman Bechard | October 12, 2011 6:57 AMReply

    This is one of the most ridiculous articles I've ever read on IndieWire. There is nothing good about giving your film away for free UNLESS it is your decision to do so. These scumbags are stealing money from our pockets, and to even suggest they help is idiotic. Today there are so many avenues for indie filmmakers to make money off their films, and most of them involved streaming. But I'm sorry, if someone is not willing to watch my film the "legal" way, then they have no right to watch it.

    I have had my films pirated. Nothing angers me more. I would seriously take a baseball bat to the head of someone I discovered pirating my films. That's exactly what they deserve. (And no, I'm not exaggerating.)

    And c'mon, Indiewire...we expect more from you.

  • j | July 4, 2013 1:20 AM

    Make sure you take your first swing at the person at the person who wrote this article .If this is whats to be expected of the future then see yourself out of a job.

  • Curt Johnson | October 12, 2011 6:36 AMReply

    this has been a long time staple. it started with music back in the 90's with indie bands 'leaking' their albums and claiming that they didn't know.

    even Tarantino stated some years back that online piracy does more to raise awareness for your film than anything as many will wind up renting or buying to see it at it's best quality. by leaking out pieces from one of my earlier films, we wound up getting distributors contacting us from the work.

    so for those indie filmmaker bitching that piracy is bad, etc., don't be shocked when no one knows who you are or your film.

  • F.P. | October 12, 2011 5:31 AMReply

    Hollywood IS leaking its films online for free - on YouTube, on Hulu, et al.:
    http://www.youtube.com/movies?fl=f&pt=fm
    http://www.hulu.com/popular/feature_films?src=topnav

    Piracy has its place as a promotional tool, no doubt, just as broadcasts of films can boost awareness and sales of films. And yes, after everyone gets paid from that check, the filmmakers get little to no part of that check, but the vast majority of piracy doesn't lead to revenue in any direction, whereas the awareness factor from traditional distribution methods can help build future careers.

    Nonetheless, there are many short filmmakers who put their work online and, when they win awards or selections at major fests, producers and fans do come a-knocking, so the same could likely be said for feature filmmakers who would do the same. That pre-supposes a feature filmmaker who is willing to do that though, where piracy by definition takes that decision out of the filmmakers' hands.

    As for the ways that no-budget indie filmmakers are benefitting from torrents, I don't think that one can take the word of its supporters among filmmakers without first understanding the economics of those projects. Surely, no investor expecting ROI likes for a film to be pirated, so these Pro arguments all depend on one's definition of 'indie.'

    And Leonard Maltin's take on how torrents torpedoed cult hit "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil" feels like a more compelling argument against piracy:
    http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/archives/the_little_movie_that_could/