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The Digital Black Market: How A Festival Used Copyright Laws To Sell The Films It Screened

IndieWire investigates how the Lucerne International Film Festival used Amazon, Vimeo, and copyright laws to get away with selling films by Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodovar, and dozens of indies.

Ethan Steinman shooting "Glacial Balance"

“Glacial Balance” director and whistle blower Ethan Steinman

It sounds impossible: The founder of an obscure Swiss film festival used Amazon, Vimeo, and other streaming sites to sell Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” as well as dozens of films that played his Lucerne International Film Festival (LiFF). And, according to filmmakers and distributors, he did all of this without their permission or the proper copyright.

However, what’s just as improbable is the current landscape for digital distribution and copyright is what allowed someone like LiFF founder and director Guido Baechler to sell these films in plain sight.

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Ethan Steinman screened his documentary, “Glacial Balance,” in competition at LiFF in 2014. A month later, he was stunned to receive a Google Alert: His film was available for sale via LiFF’s Vimeo store. He wrote Baechler to demand its removal. A year later, Steinman discovered LiFF was selling “Glacial Balance” again — this time, via Amazon.

That was around the same time another LiFF filmmaker, Ferdinand John Balanag, discovered the festival was selling his film, “Walking the Waking Journey,” on Vimeo.

"Walking the Waking Journey"

“Walking the Waking Journey”

Ferdinand John Balanag

“I wanted to take legal action against the organizers of LiFF, but later just let the matter go when they took the documentary down from their Vimeo channel,” said Balanag.  “I just thought that going through the legal process would be tedious and take too much time.”

Baechler denies any wrongdoing. According to him, these incidents were a “misunderstanding” that boils down to filmmakers not reading the fine print in their festival agreements.

As of 2014, he said films submitted to LiFF that weren’t accepted into competition received an offer to participate in smaller and more loosely organized “LiFF Showcase” screenings. These included an option for a post-festival digital showcase that allowed the public to buy or rent the films via Vimeo On Demand.

“When they said ‘yes’ to the Showcase, they got a certificate which said, ‘showcased at the festival,’ and also in the small rules and conditions it said that we are going to have an online showcase as well,” said Baechler in an interview with IndieWire. “And a lot of them didn’t read it or forgot about it, and then two months later when we had this online showcase, we get emails from the filmmakers saying, ‘Why is my movie up there? I didn’t want it up there.’ So we had about eight to 10 cases where there was just misunderstandings with the filmmakers.”

However, Steinman and Balanag’s films played in competition, not the showcase. And Balanag’s film screened in 2011, three years before Baechler said he launched the digital showcase. Nor are they the only filmmakers to complain; IndieWire has spoken with three other LiFF competition filmmakers who also claim Baechler sold their LiFF competition films without permission.

When asked why he also sold the competition films on Amazon, CreateSpace, smart TV app Viaway, and as DVDs, Baechler then said his agreement could apply to all LiFF films and to any platform.

“Anyone who screens a film at the festival has the choice, or the possibility to be added into the showcase, or has the possibility to sell their movie or license their movie to Jeridoo or another distributor,” he said. Baechler owns Jeridoo, a production and distribution company based in Switzerland, Miami, and Toronto.

That “possibility” Baechler referred to appears to be an aggregation service for filmmakers. Like other aggregator services, LiFF charges a fee to get a client’s film on various digital platforms. The fee varies; at $5, the filmmaker receives 50% of the royalties, while $299 will give them 100%. There’s another fee for each platform; for example, LiFF charges $875 to make a title available for YouTube rental. And both LiFF and Jeridoo have channels on the Viaway App, which in certain regions is pre-installed on Samsung ($325), LG ($250) and Sony ($250) smart TVs.

At different points, Baechler emailed Steinman and another LiFF competition director, Vivian Ducat, with his pitch for LiFF’s aggregator services. Both Ducat and Steinman said they weren’t interested; their films already had distribution.

Last fall, Ducat discovered her LiFF competition documentary, “All Me: The Life & Times of Winfred Rembert,” for sale on Amazon with LiFF branding. The Amazon sales page, offered both VOD and DVD sales, with LiFF and Jeridoo listed as the “studio,” and Baechler as one the film’s five producers. On the Jeridoo website, Ducat’s documentary is one of 57 LiFF competition titles listed in the company’s distribution library. LiFF has not commented on whether it lacks distribution rights for any of the other 55 titles on the list.

“All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert” for sale on Amazon

Baechler did not reply to IndieWire’s inquiry if he had the rights to sell Ducat and Steinman’s films. However, IndieWire was able to confirm that the Amazon sale violated her North American distribution rights via SnagFilms.

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