Reclaiming Rewards From Rip-Offs: How to Live with Piracy

As soon as a moviemaker fortunate enough to score a release is finished with the high fives, one of the first things he or she will notice is the film’s “unofficial” presence online.

A somewhat frantic Google search will inevitably yield a number of sites advertising its current or upcoming availability for streaming or download, free of charge.

As if getting your labor of love into theaters isn’t enough of a challenge, moviemakers can now count on a global tribe of pick-pockets to dress their films up and take ’em to market before the ink is dry on the coveted and hard-negotiated distribution deal. That’s the brave new world we live in: If DVDs of your indie hit aren’t already being hawked on the streets of New York and Shanghai the day before the art house opening, then it’s getting prepped for a release via pirate portals across the Internet within days of the premiere. Any amount of good press or notoriety is a double-edged sword in a world where pirates stock the airwaves.

Studio blockbusters like Lionsgate’s The Expendables 3 (reportedly downloaded two million times before its August 2014 premiere) are the most prominent victims of piracy. Lower budgets and profiles won’t protect independent films, though, for whom the financial punches land even harder. “The Internet has become this insane mall where everyone is hawking something,” says writer-director Allison Burnett (Ask Me AnythingUntraceable). “The fact is, there just aren’t enough screens for indie films, so piracy is outrageous to someone who is just trying to live another day and make another movie.”

Creators have a stake in seeing their film re-coup financially, of course. But, reflects Burnett, “Deep in the lizard brain, in some sort of selfish center, the much larger stake is in having as many people see the movie as possible. Part of me says, ‘Well, if people are ripping if off, at least they’re watching it.’ But another part of me knows that I have skin in this game and this is theft.”

What can be done about this far-reaching network of off-the-grid distribution, delivering content to viewers directly without the consent of creators? Where does it all lead? Is there a way to harness that technology and that community of consumers for benefit? Has piracy led us to the edge of oblivion, or into a new era of innovation in both distribution and content?

A Double-Edged Sword

Illegal downloads of motion pictures have hit the tens, and even hundreds, of millions. But while it’s difficult to predict with absolute certainty how many illegal downloads would have translated into ticket sales, there’s little doubt that creatives and producers alike are feeling the impact. Indian director Leena Yadav, currently in post-production on her latest feature, Parched, has seen piracy directly impact the life of her films, both in terms of how they are released and how they are constructed.

The presence of a star alone can attract the wrong kind of attention. “My first two films, Teen Patti and Shabd, had big stars,” Yadav says. “I could never send my films to festivals, because the stakes were high and the chance of piracy too great. There have been cases of films premiering at a festival and being released by pirate channels the next day. Audiences are willing to sacrifice picture and sound quality so they can say they saw the film.”

The financial threat of piracy infiltrates creative decisions, as well. In Yadav’s experience, producers pressure directors to play things safe, hoping to reach as wide a paying audience as possible. “But the ones you are trying to spoon-feed usually don’t get it anyway,” she says, “and your real audience is put off, because they feel that you over-explained things. It ties your hands; it kills the life of a film.”

Yadav can’t honestly say that she hasn’t benefited from piracy on a personal level, though. “When I began to get into film and wanted to expand my worldview, a lot of the films I wanted to see weren’t available to me. My assistants would give me downloads of films to watch, which I would otherwise be unable to see.

“I would happily pay to see a film in theaters. But I’m torn because—although the film has to make its money back—piracy also helps the film to be seen. When a film finds an audience, even a non-paying audience, that expands its life.”

Fortress Hollywood

Many industry players are fighting back. Industry advocacy group CreativeFuture is one such entity, dedicated to the prevention of for-profit theft of creative works. (Many sites, like the infamous, and perhaps de-fanged, Pirate Bay, do make money, collecting advertising revenue on the backs of product featured for illegal download or streaming on their sites.)

Ruth Vitale, executive director at CreativeFuture, sees the mission of groups like hers as both far-reaching and imminently relevant. In addition to educating both the film industry and audiences (particularly young audiences) about the damages caused by copyright infringement and piracy, Vitale and company have also been pointed in calling out big fish like Google for not doing enough to stem the flow of advertising dollars to sites offering illegal downloads. That fight is still in full swing.

Director David Charles of the documentary Mythical Creatures (about artist Gary Baseman) believes that advocacy is the way forward. “I think we are going to win the battle against piracy if we help change user behavior,” he says. “I feel that a shift is slowly coming. Once you embed in peoples’ minds that paying for content is more beneficial for culture and for their own personal use, that’s how we’ll win the battle. Offense is our best defense.”

But going up against what is in many ways both a technological and socio-cultural revolution invokes major resistance, if not indifference, from many quarters. Not everyone agrees on the definition of piracy, or the extent to which it can or should be combated, so mere advocacy can only go so far. While CreativeFuture and its allies fight to dismantle pirate strongholds, some moviemakers look to get out ahead of the storm and ride the new wave of technology to their advantage.

The Mythical Creatures Bittorrent bundle includes various bonus materials, such as these storyboards for artist Gary Baseman's "Buckingham Warrior" music video.

The Mythical Creatures BitTorrent bundle includes various bonus materials, such as these storyboards for artist Gary Baseman’s “Buckingham Warrior” music video. Courtesy of BitTorrent

 Legitimizing the Illegitimate

Charles is promoting Mythical Creatures, a selection of the 2013 Sundance Institute New Frontier Story Lab, as a bundle on BitTorrent—perhaps the most controversial foil in this battle. The company’s founder, Bram Cohen, created a protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing called BitTorrent. An open source tool, and therefore free and universally available, it is for many copyright advocates the smoking gun at the center of most—if not all—Internet piracy.

While the name BitTorrent has become synonymous with piracy in the popular imagination, BitTorrent the company disavows any link to piracy, and bristles at being held responsible for how people use BitTorrent the code. The Motion Picture Association of America and CreativeFuture nonetheless insist that BitTorrent Inc., with its significant in-house brain trust, could do more to fight cyber cutthroats—if it really wanted to.

Chief content officer Matt Mason (who took part in a 2014 Fantastic Fest Debate against Twitch founder Todd Brown, entitled “BitTorrent is the savior of independent film; not the enemy”) says the technology’s utility for non-illegal functions has always been the focus. “BitTorrent is a couple of pages of code. We don’t operate a giant server farm that we control, the way Google or Facebook do. Lots of people use the protocol to move around large files. For example, the Human Genome project uses the BitTorrent protocol to process data from shotgun sequencing DNA. They don’t need to ask our permission to use those lines of code; if we as a company shut down tomorrow, they would still do it, and we don’t make any money from them.”

Yet the struggle that BitTorrent faces in reclaiming their name—i.e. undoing the negative connotations—is perhaps representative of a larger struggle to repurpose the basic mechanisms of piracy for good. The company launched BitTorrent Bundle (bundles.bittorrent.com) in 2014, a platform through which artists of all stripes can package, promote, and distribute their wares into downloads. With the introduction of a pay gate, moviemakers and musicians can now put a cash register into the bundle and charge for each download. BitTorrent takes 10 percent of proceeds with the other 90 going to the creator, a highly advantageous model that’s comparable to Vimeo on Demand.

Mason describes the new platform as, essentially, a competitive option for VOD distribution. “You get to set the price yourself, and you choose what to provide for free, such as a trailer or ancillary content. And you get the data back on the people who chose to buy your film: email addresses, geographic locations.”

The Audience Becomes the Studio

Indie writer-producer Marco Weber (Igby Goes Down, The Informers) saw a unique opportunity in BitTorrent Bundles. “I said, ‘We should do a complete 360 and make a BitTorrent original: Instead of having our work on BitTorrent at the end of the food chain, let’s premiere it on BitTorrent.’” The first season of Weber’s original series Children of the Machine will be released via BitTorrent Bundle in the fall of 2015. “Only then,” he says, “will the series go through various ancillary outlets, including DVD and a second run on traditional TV.

“There is a huge appetite from advertisers to become sponsors of the show; advertisers who are targeting a BitTorrent audience, which is a millennial audience.” Advertisers might get a presentation credit, get featured in the ancillary content surrounding the show, or even positioned within the content itself.

“If this model works—and it looks like it is working—we have eliminated a lot of gatekeepers,” Weber concludes. Like crowdfunding, BitTorrent’s direct-to-customer process puts the audience in the position of a traditional studio, greenlighting projects through their sponsorship, and enabling creatives to keep control of their work.

Evan Husney, former creative director at Drafthouse Films, used BitTorrent Bundles to promote Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated documentary, The Art of Killing. “My belief,” he says, “is that if you make something worth seeing, and make it as accessible as possible, people will transact for it.”

The Pirate Turns Privateer

When actual pirates terrorized the high seas, their skills were sometimes harnessed by the Crown—making raids and capturing bounty for official use. This may be the best and most rational response to digital piracy and the technology that supports it: adopting some of piracy’s own tricks by making content accessible as efficiently as possible. The film industry as a whole will need to get better at outsmarting freebooters, and deliver content to audience faster and, probably, cheaper. Indirectly, then, piracy spurs us on to innovation.

Most players get it. A new initiative sponsored by the MPAA, Where to Watch, is designed to make it easier for viewers to find the movies and TV shows they want to watch—legitimately.

Robert Levine, author of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, describes piracy’s shifting tides succinctly. “Piracy will never be wiped out, but it can be made inconvenient. If you want to sell something, make it easy to buy legally and hard to buy illegally, which involves a combination of marketing and convenience on one side, and enforcement on the other.

“If you want to give something away, the Internet offers numerous ways to do that. What’s the best solution? That depends on who you are and what you’re trying to do. To me, the important part is that this choice needs to be up to creators.” MM

Top illustration by Ryan Yount. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2015 issue, available on newsstands now. Find more information on torrenting here.

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2 Comments

  1. Jason Love

    February 13, 2015 at 8:30 am

    I don’t know much from the technology side of things & I’m unfamiliar with how it all works, but I wonder if there is more creative ways to solve the problem.

    Is it possible to flood the torrents with files that are not popular titled. Full version of [movie title] and then have it be not the actual movie?
    Or do torrent versions that look like the movie but turn out to be only part of the movie and the rest something else.

    Maybe this would be too much work, but it surprises me there isn’t more experimentation in limiting piracy and/or utilizing it.

  2. robert steele

    February 11, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    In my opinion, if BitTorrent, Inc. had any concern for creative workers, they would include a feature in their tracker software that allows creators to send them hash values of torrents that the trackers should not track and therefore could not be shared. This would be somewhat like a takedown notice, but much more effective. It would take them a couple minutes to write the code to do that. Why don’t they do this? In my opinion, no one would use their software and they wouldn’t be able to sell any ads if it wasn’t for all the illegal free content you can obtain by using their software. In my opinion, they are a for-profit piracy company. Period. Every predecessor peer-to-peer company was sued and lost for good reason. It is incomprehensible to see them continue to get away with duping bloggers and much of the public that they have no ability to prevent all of the damage that they do to creative workers.

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