Piracy ≠ Theft? Movie Industry Workers Speak Out

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The mantra often heard from Hollywood's leaders is that pirates are thieves. However, not all people in the industry feel that way. Today we present the views of four regular filmmakers on this controversial topic, what the impact is on the industry, and what can be done in response.

A few weeks ago we published an interview with Hollywood director Lexi Alexander in which she explained her support for file-sharers.

This resulted in a lively discussion on Twitter and other media, so we decided to explore the topic a little further. Instead of letting movie industry bosses speak, we solicited the thoughts of various filmmakers.

There are just as many opinions as there are people working in the film business and we aimed to cover a broad spectrum. Our main goal is to show that the piracy issue isn’t as black and while as it’s sometimes portrayed.

The real challenge, perhaps, is to let people have their say without condemning their views. While this won’t solve the issue it’s a good way to move forward. That’s true for both “sides” of the debate.

Below are the four filmmakers who were kind enough to participate and answer five questions about piracy, how it affects the movie industry, and what can be done in response.

joshuaJoshua Caldwell (@Joshua_Caldwell) won an MTV Movie Award for Best Film in 2006. Recent films he produced, wrote and directed are Layover (2014), Resignation (2014) and Assassin (2015).

kevinKevin Koehler: (@kevrockcity) is a screenwriter whose work has been featured on the Hollywood blacklist. He worked with several well-known filmmakers including Wim Wenders and Gregg Araki.

brentBrent Weichsel (@bsweichsel) is a Local 600 camera assistant. He worked on several popular movies and TV-shows including Person Of Interest and White Collar.

johnkentJohn Kent (@JohnDoctorKent) works as a producer at Potent Media. He is known for his work on the films Booley (2010), Deer Crossing (2012) and Apocalypse Kiss (2014).

Do you think piracy equals theft?

Joshua Caldwell: No. I believe the Supreme Court has been very clear on the issue of whether file-sharing constitutes ‘theft’ or ‘copyright infringement.’ I harp on this because it seems to be the core argument from a lot of people. “It’s stealing. They’re thieves.” Even when presented with this ruling they say, “Well, I don’t believe that.” Okay, well the court system you’re supposedly relying on to “enact justice” on file-sharers does, so now what?

It’s an important distinction for me and how I think about this issue because of how it frames file-sharers. It’s a psychological thing. Thinking of someone as a thief is very different than thinking of them as an infringer. It’s much easier to think of a ‘thief’ as being an inherently bad person who must be punished by the law. Not to say that those who infringe upon copyright aren’t subject to consequences, but as a creator, I think of them as audience that we just haven’t been able to capture yet. So, I start from a place of “Why?” and ask questions in search of solutions rather than “sue them all and put them in jail.”

Kevin Koehler: No, they are not equivalent. Piracy is copyright infringement. I know this is a boring, pedantic answer. Sorry. However, while it is not theft, it is taking compensation from the folks that make the content and shifting it to the folks that distribute the content – not just piracy sites, but also legal streaming sites (Netflix, Spotify, iTunes, et cetera) who can leverage the threat of piracy into more favorable deals.

Brent Weichsel: Piracy in and of itself is not theft. It’s also not a loss. Studies have shown that people who pirate often spend far more money on media than those that do not. Now if you make money because of your piracy well that’s a gray area where I do not know what to think.

John Kent: Piracy of media is theft, in the legal sense of the word, but I do not think it is always “illegal”. Films and television shows are created for corporations and investors to realize a financial return, or for artistic purposes. The financial return cannot be realized if the media is experienced without viewers paying for it.

Without a financial return, no further media can be made. So everything can’t be free. However, there are thousands of hours of media which would be lost without YouTube, from old television shows their corporate masters no longer wish to exploit to a commercial fondly remembered from childhood. Should the films which were owned by Vestron Video in the 80s be lost forever because they are now a line item on the sheet of a corporation which put them out of business?

My personal stance and practice is that if a film or television show is available from the legal owner for a fee, it should be paid for.

How do you think piracy is affecting the movie industry?

Joshua Caldwell: It’s affecting it without a doubt. Whether it’s doing so to such a degree that it’s having an overall impact? I don’t think we know for sure yet. For one, the jury’s still out on whether it has a negative or positive impact. On a film-by-film basis, it’s easy to suggest that it might have a negative impact, but for the industry as a whole? It’s hard to make that case when the films that make the most money at the box office are also the most pirated. No one complains about piracy when the movie does well, but when a movie tanks and it was leaked online, it becomes an easy place to point fingers. And yes, I’m sure it has some impact; but at the same time, maybe the film just wasn’t very good.

I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the audiences that most studios rely on for box office aren’t file-sharers. I mean, /Film recently posted about how 70% of moviegoers don’t plan on a specific movie when going to the movie theater. It’s really, really difficult to equate a free download to a lost sale. There are just too many other factors. But piracy is an easy target for blame specifically because no one really knows.

On the flipside, if piracy is as harmful financially and as widespread as is being argued, I can’t figure out why you would want to alienate such a large audience further than you already have.

Kevin Koehler: Well, it has certainly helped obliterate the movie industry’s former business model, which was based around theatrical distribution (followed by timed DVD and television broadcast releases). This is no longer a workable model, so the industry is in search of a new one. For some releases – large studio tentpoles, franchised, with branded tie-ins, often in 3-D – they’ve found a successful model. For other kinds of films, they’re still looking, which is why the studios have stopped making certain genres altogether. Piracy isn’t the only reason, obviously, but it’s a contributing factor.

Brent Weichsel: It’s become a scapegoat. People blame dwindling sales on it. The studios use it as an excuse to pay the crew and talent less. Producers use it in negotiations to have shittier contracts with the unions. Has it had a truly negative impact that doesn’t have to do with its perception? Probably not much. Not any more than the folks selling dvds or VHS on Canal Street.

John Kent: Piracy has an effect on the film industry in different ways, depending on the genesis of the film. Downloading “The Avengers” probably doesn’t hurt the movie – it made a billion dollars in the theaters, and millions more through the secondary revenue streams. The people who worked on the film were paid for their work.

Piracy might kill off some sequels – the revenue that would have made the studio heads greenlight part two was lost in no-pay downloads. But what I can tell you for sure is that piracy hurts the independent filmmaker financially. I produced a direct-to-DVD movie called DEER CROSSING – a horror film, no artistic masterpiece, but something people might want to kill an evening watching.

During the first week of DVD release, on one popular torrent site only, there were over 30,000 downloads of the film. How many of these downloads could have been paid rentals or DVD purchases? When you add this to the deals that distributors offer for independent films, there is no way to make back the money the investors put in – and forget about a profit or paying off deferred deals.

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What can the movie industry itself do to reduce piracy?

Joshua Caldwell: Hollywood has always been slow to respond to emerging technologies and even when they finally do, it’s begrudgingly until they realize how they can make money from it. Home video, for example. As much as a lot of us may hate it, the audience is changing and we need to find a way to adapt with them. However, for the majority of file-sharers out there, I don’t think it’s entitlement, and I don’t think it’s just wanting everything they can get for free.

I think that access is the biggest problem and that spreads out to include geo-blocking, non-day and date release schedules and so on. I can’t tell you how many people reach out to me and say, “Yeah, we have Netflix, but the selection is so terrible compared to the States.” So, I think we need to find a way to give people worldwide access to that content at a fair price in multiple different ways and at the same time as everyone else. That’s probably where it will eventually get to.

The other thing is that I think there’s been a weird, slightly abusive relationship between studios and the audience, which hasn’t helped. Lately, Hollywood has put out a lot of really shitty content focused on a very narrow demographic. I mean, they’ve always put out really shitty content, but previously the ONLY way to see that was to pay for it in a theater or rent/buy it on VHS or DVD.

Now, many of those really shitty films are thrown up on torrent sites and downloaded for free. Why? Maybe it’s because people don’t think they’re worth paying money for? Maybe it’s because it’s not worth it to them to take the time and energy to go and see it in a theater or buy it on DVD? I mean, who wants to spend money on something not really worth it? No one. And I know the easy answer is, “Well, then you don’t get to see it.” That’s fine, but it’s not a solution because people are seeing it, and they’re doing it for free.

People want to know that what they’re spending their money on is worth the cost, whether it’s $.99 or $500,000. And I think Hollywood has been ripping people off for a long time now. Is this a course correction? A natural reaction to the market? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers, but it’s something I’ve wondered about. The expectation that we should pay for a shitty product is unfair; if there is a free version available, well, why wouldn’t you go for it? To be clear, I’m not advocating it, I’m just suggesting what the mindset might be.

With my feature film LAYOVER, we decided against going through a traditional distributor and instead released it on our own through our own website. The film is available worldwide, DRM-free and at a fair price and the profits go directly back to myself and my cast and crew. No middleman, no distributor. Just us. My hope is that people respect that and pay for it. Aside from making it free, we’ve done everything else we can to make it easy for someone to get the film.

Kevin Koehler: Same day worldwide release? More legal avenues for folks to access content in places they don’t already have it? Going after piracy sites seems like a case of whack-a-mole. I wish I had better answers. I don’t.

Brent Weichsel: Day and date releases of films on various digital download sites (iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, etc). Get rid of DRM. Price these at a reasonable level. I would also suggest adding far more rental options for digital downloads. Also just don’t go after people for these “perceived losses” It’s fucking stupid and makes us all look like assholes.

John Kent: I’m not really sure what the industry can do to reduce piracy. I think the “importance” of any particular film has been damaged.

If you think back to the early 80s, there were less blockbuster films and many more independent voices out there making films of varying quality, both through studios and through private funding. People seemed to enjoy going to the theater to see a film. When a blockbuster hit, it was “the summer of Indiana Jones” – for the whole summer! From a business standpoint, you had multiple solid revenue streams for a film – theatrical, broadcast tv, cable, videocassette – and the blockbusters were given giant pushes. Theaters could actually make money on the MOVIE and not popcorn sales because a movie could play for months at a time. People collected DVDs.

Where we are now is a summer with fifty blockbusters! Some weekends, there are no wide theatrical independent releases. The theatrical experience is 1000% more modern with intense sound systems and projection quality, but the sound system isn’t good enough to block out a group of people chatting and texting through an entire movie.

The corporations took over every revenue stream and killed off the video stores. Some movies play theaters and the theater gets NOTHING from the premium-priced tickets during week one; is it a coincidence that Hollywood is all about “the first weekend”? The funds offered from the major outlets for streaming rights to an independent movie are an insult. Walmart has multipack DVDs with ten movies on it for ten bucks; no filmmaker is making anything from that deal.

People who want to watch movies though are in a golden age. They have thousands of films accessible to them at any one time, and more through the torrent sites. You can get a film representative of any viewpoint with a little bit of searching. You just can’t get them from Hollywood.

Lexi mentioned quality being a factor in piracy when I spoke to her on Twitter; I think thousands of choices, intense competition from everything else for a ticket buyer’s money, and a relentless corporate push to get you to the theater every weekend for the next installment of Franchise of the Week have raised a generation that don’t think of the movie theater as a place to watch movies. “Better” movies won’t make a difference if the audience doesn’t see the need for the theatrical experience – and why would a younger person pay for a single movie at all when they can watch hundreds of other movies through a Netflix or torrents?

What would your message be to all those people who download and share content without permission?

Joshua Caldwell: I’m not going to try and lecture them. Too many others are doing that. I’d simply be asking, “What can I do that would make you pay for my film vs. downloading it for free?” “What would compel you to buy?” “Why would you torrent this film vs. buying another?” Maybe people are already asking these questions, I don’t know. But I would find a way to make it a conversation rather than a one-sided lecture.

To me, it’s about building a long-term relationship with your audience. It’s about building a trust with your audience. And it’s about putting them in a position of feeling like they’re supporting you, as an artist, directly.

Kevin Koehler: My worry is that we are creating a generation of folks who do not value films. Once something is made of ones and zeroes, it ceased to be worth anything. Even the smallest movies are expensive, and people spend years of their lives working on them. If we want a diverse array of films, then the people who make those films must be fairly compensated for making them. There are tons of films – great films – that will never get made now because it’s no longer profitable to make them. Ten, fifteen years ago, these films would have been made. Not anymore. So my message is: If you like movies, go out and support them with your money.

Brent Weichsel: You are going to keep doing it and that’s fine. I can’t stop you. All I can ask is if you like something buy it, rent it, or watch it on a streaming service. The only thing that makes a difference is the dollar. If you want to see more horror films, buy horror films. You want indie dramas, buy them. If you don’t want to see big action movies? Don’t buy them.

I want to also stress that the lower the budget of the film the more the filmmaker needs the film to be profitable. If you pirate “big action movie 7” It’s really not going to make a difference to the filmmaker’s bottom line. But you if pirate and don’t buy “first time director’s film” then you are doing them a disservice. Cory Doctorow has a great policy for this. If someone liked his book that they read for free, he encourages them to buy a copy of the book and then send it to a library or a school. Because in the end the only way he can keep writing his books and releasing them for free is if someone keeps buying them. Seems to be working out really well for him.

John Kent: No comment.

How do you see the future of the industry, and how does piracy fit in (or not)?

Joshua Caldwell: If I knew the answer to this, I’d probably be rich. I’ve focused much of my time lately on the independent film industry, though not with specific regard to piracy.

At the moment, I’m much more focused on the future of the independent film industry, which is the side of Hollywood that could be most harmed by piracy (and has been). I wrote about the need to rethink indie film for Seed&Spark, and while it doesn’t focus on piracy, I think it speaks to some of the symptoms of piracy, especially in independent film. http://www.seedandspark.com/content/rethinking-indie-film

Mainly, as I mentioned earlier, it’s the importance of building the relationship with your audience and making your films at a responsible budget (i.e. what they’re worth) so that you can provide a return on the investment.

If piracy is a natural course correction to the market and the direct result of emerging technologies, then it could have profound impact on the way Hollywood and Indie Film operate. However, this much is true: since the beginning of time, the human soul has always craved stories, and that will never change. It’s ingrained and it’s important, and it will always be a part of our humanity. What will change is its form. What that looks like is constantly evolving. Movies are only 100 years old. That’s nothing. So, it’s naïve to say that how they exist now is the only way they can be.

What movies will involve, no matter what, is one person conveying a story to another. And that relationship, that transference, is the whole goddamn point.

Kevin Koehler: I’m an optimist. People love movies, so the industry will live on. Perhaps technology is the answer, and someone will develop a digital means to restrict unauthorized copying/sharing. Maybe more filmmakers will tour with their films, like Kevin Smith, to make screenings more of an event. It’ll be something. The industry will evolve in ways that I am not smart enough to anticipate.

Brent Weichsel: What’s happened to the music industry is a good idea of what will happen to the film industry. Subscription services will start to slowly take over. Ala carte is slowly coming which I truly believe to be a good thing.

The biggest issue that is coming is distribution and handling the amount of content. If filmmakers are smart they will realize that they should accept that piracy will happen. Don’t worry about it and instead worry about making a better film. That will do more to put more money into your pocket then suing some random teenager that really loves you work.

John Kent: Generalizations…I’ve had them throughout these answers. And they aren’t necessarily true – there are surely teenagers who love film and want to pay for the media they consume as much as there are fifty-year-olds who steal every movie they can get their hands on. But that’s part of the paradox of this business – Hollywood is infamous for taking something unique and making it fit a generic template. The fantastic life story of a musician has to hit all the beats of Hollywood’s standard narrative tale. At the same time, there are independents out there doing truly unique tales (and probably making no money from it) to represent something other than the white male viewpoint.

I think that the future of the industry will be much the same as the industry is now. The gigantic corporations will make their large budget blockbusters, while the independents get their movies made and consigned to the choir of voices looking for recognition. The game changer will be something that achieves wide acceptance – a subscription service or a torrent service perhaps – that allows independent filmmakers to get money back for their productions without going through a corporation, for a small monetary transaction. Otherwise, all there will be to pirate is blockbusters.

We want to thank Joshua, Kevin, Brent and John for sharing their thoughts. Please feel free to continue the respectful discussion in the comment section.

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