When I was living in New York I used to go down to Astoria to get all of my Indian cooking spices. I’d also stop in at the local Indian video store, as they would sometimes have the random Indian arthouse film on DVD. I was thumbing through the racks when I came across a copy of my first film, 19 Revolutions. The film had only been in festivals at that point and I didn’t have a distributor, so this was an obviously pirated disc. They’d done a pretty good job with it, using a wisely-selected screencap for the cover and a fairly decent summation of the plot on the back cover. They even used a quote from the Variety review of the film. Obviously whomever did the pirating was a pro, and a film buff.
I took the disc up to the cashier and he was ready to ring me up. I told him that I wasn’t going to buy it, and then gave him the news - this was my movie. His eyes lit up and he said “congratulations!” and I also told him that the film hadn’t released. His smile went away and his eyes turned to paranoia. I told him I wasn’t with the feds and I wasn’t going to rat him out - if that were the case then every video store in NYC would be shut down. He apologized to me, and I told him it was okay, that I was actually flattered that someone thought my film was worthy enough to pirate. I signed the disc and gave it back to him, and I walked out, feeling kind of happy. Sure I wasn’t going to see any of the $7.99 it was selling for, but it was still a victory in some sorts. I had this sense of validation.
Of course this was all before the bandwith explosion that empowered YouTube, Netflix, iTunes and bittorrents. Oh how things have changed.
This weekend I found that Lilith - in its HD entirety - was being seeded on a Russian torrent site. I looked up the seeding and download data and saw that the film had been downloaded 5,866 times. That’s a lot more than one DVD in an Indian video store in Astoria. The film hasn’t even released yet, and the equivalent of one large theater being sold out for an entire week has already been logged. And nobody paid for it. I calculated that in terms of gross revenue, this would have amounted to $76k of revenue. After distribution and P&A costs, this would be roughly $25-30k that should have gone to me.
But I’ll never see that, and as we speak there are people still downloading my film without paying for it. I’m still a bit flattered that people would seek my film out, that there are folks out there who want to see what Julia Voth and the rest of my talented cast have put together, but they’re not paying for it, and it’s in such a large volume because of the digital format. It’s pretty bittersweet, because as an independent contractor, I need all the money i can get to pay for health insurance, for home and car insurance, for taxes, for food, for basically my livelihood. And here’s it’s being stolen away from me.
This is a tough debate. On one side I understand that the economics of going to the theater have become cost prohibitive. It’s just way too fucking much to buy a movie ticket these days, and with the advent of digital distribution, the cost of distribution and manufacture has gone down, while prices of tickets and Blu-Rays has gone up. The consumer is getting fleeced, and there needs to be some consumer rights advocacy in terms of this. Film budgets are over-inflated and studios are unfairly making exhibitors upgrade to digital projection at the exhibitor’s expense (an expense which has to be passed on to the consumer). It’s no shock that piracy is at its absolute peak, an maybe it needs to happen as a shock to the system, enough that it will enact change. So far it’s only acted as a justification for the studios to charge more for tickets - “piracy is cutting our margins, we’re forced to charge more!”
On the flip side is the plight of the producer, and more so the independent producer. As an indie I don’t have the luxury of a multimillion dollar P&A budget, nor do I have the buffer of a theatrical release to preserve my revenues. A large chunk of my revenues will come from paid digital downloads and DVD sales. And already almost 6k people have decided that they want to see my film, but they’re not going to pay for it. If it costs me money to make a film, then how can I recoup my expenses if a large part of my revenue is being, in essence, stolen?
This is not an issue of digital rights management. As long as media is encoded in binary 1’s and 0’s, the code can be cracked and shared. It’s a losing battle that’s not even worth fighting. We’re dealing with an internet culture that feels it is its birthright to not pay for content, that they are entitled to whatever they want. Can’t fight that with technology. It’s going to happen regardless.
This is an issue of ethics. Just because one can steal something doesn’t give them the right to steal it. “Nobody stopped me” is not a defense. It’s called the honor system - as a producer of media I am putting faith that people won’t steal my shit, that their moral compass is strong enough to understand that to make my movie cost me money and time, and in order for me to keep making movies, I need to have revenue come in. As Walt Disney famously said, “we don’t make movies to make money, we make movies to make more movies.”
But adhering to the honor system is being far too idealistic. There are assholes out there who have no problem downloading anything they want, and there are non-assholes out there who just really want to see a film and have no other way to see it because it’s not showing in their region/ country. Which is why I allowed DVD/ legal downloads of Lilith before we even start our theatrical run, I want those people who are not able to see the film to be able to. You still have to pay for it, but you can see the film from the comfort of your home, wherever you are.
But if you are going to steal from filmmakers and musicians, then have a moral compass about it. Fess up that you indeed are stealing, and I propose that you offset it. Say you want to see Beasts of the Southern Wild - you’ve heard so much about it and it was even nominated for a bunch of Oscars, but - dammit - it’s not playing in your town and it won’t be released on DVD/ VOD/ Whatever for quite some time. But you’re itching to see it and you’re not going to fly to Chicago to just see a film. You find the film on a torrent site, and take the plunge and steal it. The movie is great, you really enjoyed, and you delete it or save it for another viewing. At this stage you’ll probably forget about your theft, and at this stage you need to give something back.
First option: Find where in the country Beasts is playing, go to Fandango or TicketWeb or whatever and fucking buy an online ticket for the screening. Filmmakers get money, you still got your movie. Offset.
But if you really love the film, pre-order it on Amazon right away. Don’t wait for it to come out, because you won’t get to it, because you have it on your laptop. Offset.
Say you’re a jerk and you still don’t want to pay, here’s how you can offset. Write a review, tweet about the movie, give a rating on IMDB / Rotten Tomatoes, whatever - just help promote the film. It won’t cost you anything, just like the made-with-heart-and-blood film you pirated didn’t cost you anything. Indie films don’t have the benefit of marketing budgets, so any kind of word-of-mouth viral marketing helps us a ton. Offset. You’ll help the ethical people who pay for the hard work of others make the decision to watch my movie.
But if your desire is to just download a movie, watch it, and then trash it, you’re an entitled piece of shit. I’m sorry, there’s no other way to put it. And nobody, not me, not the RIAA, the MPAA, the FBI or Interpol, or your own fucking grandma can make you stop being a piece of shit. Only you can stop yourself from being a piece of shit. You’ve got to be able to face your conscience that you are stealing from people like me, people who have mortgaged their personal and financial lives to give you a movie, an experience, that you might enjoy. When you decide to see a movie or listen to a piece of music, you enter an agreement with the artist, that you are investing in an enriching experience. It may or may not work out, but that’s the investment you make.
People will probably keep illegally downloading Lilith, and I can’t do anything to stop it. All I can ask is that if you do illegally download my film, throw me a fucking bone and help me promote it so that I can try to recoup some of the money that you’ve stolen from me. It shouldn’t have to come to that in the first place, but such is the world we live in. There are shitty people out there, and the rest of us suffer for their transgressions. It’s been like that for millennia. The only thing that will make it get any better is our own conscience, our own moral compass to do what is right and fair. Support artists by buying their wares, don’t steal from the people who put everything they have on the line to make your world a more beautiful, interesting place. That’s just a shitty thing to do. I have to go pay my bills now with whatever money I do have.