Discussion: Piracy

This week we dive into the ongoing epidemic of piracy. Where is the line between unacceptable and ok, or is there even one? While everyone has pirated in some way (come on we all used Napster at some point), we’re examining if there is such a thing as justified piracy.
By Adam Holtzapfel
So over the past month or two I have seen an increase of piracy of newer well known indie horror films. It all started when I saw a channel on Roku advertising the films Night Of Something Strange and The Greasy Strangler. This is a channel I had paid for and have not watched in over a year, I shrugged it off as maybe they asked for permission and because I purchased the blu ray of the films. On Sunday (7/9) I had decided to see what was on this station and they were showing The Barn. While waiting for the station to load my fiancé and I were discussing how they get the content i.e. is it pirated, is permission given, etc. I had reached out to directors of NOSS and The Barn (I see them at several conventions and film festivals and always make it a point to chat with them) to see if they had given permission to stream and learned they had not.

From there they had messaged the channel and were met with I only play public domain films (think Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls), horror hosts, and films I am allowed to play on my free channel (there is a page only for the free channel that shows the mentioned programming). Due to the pay channel being “private” the owner saw no problem with this equating it to exposure and I bought the DVD and was doing a private showing with friends (if memory serves right the private group had close to 200 members). Is it truly the same as having a group of people over to watch the DVD when it streams twice a day (example if it plays at 7am, it will play again at 7pm) for a week or longer and you’re taking a one time fee of $20 for unlimited access to the channel?



This shows the issue isn’t just with torrents, but also with pay channels. Most of these films can be rented online for under $3 or in store if you have a cool video store in your area. Sometimes these films also show in theaters depending on where you live. I equate this in a way to walking into a restaurant, eating, leaving and saying oh I’ll tell everyone about you and you’ll get great “exposure”.



Is there a line for piracy? So far I’ve seen 3 types. The first is the it’s getting exposure and they should be glad it’s getting out there pirate. The 2nd is the Robin Hood pirate; they pirate from the big studios, but leave the indies alone. The 3rd is one that is a slippery slope, you see several vendors at shows selling films on DVD (think Rawhead Rex, Open House, Fatal Games, etc) that had a limited DVD release or hasn’t seen a release since their VHS era. At one time the vendors were considered a service, but now with studios like Massacre, Arrow, Severin, Vinegar Syndrome, and others releasing more niche titles do they now fall into piracy?



One thing to also keep in mind is a lot of these filmmakers are still touring the convention and film festival circuit. If they don’t have money for a table, hotel, food, etc or if they don’t sell movies it means several things such as no more films from them to not screening at a festival because of the submission fee to not being able to pay their bills. It’s a trickle down effect as most of the crew works for pizza and the love of making art.



Is there a way to prevent piracy? This happens in music, art, films, and more. Music at least has an option with Bandcamp where they work directly with artists versus sites like Amazon, iTunes, etc. The film industry has Vimeo, but is there a better option not yet discovered or created for film, that remains to be seen.



I talked to several filmmakers regarding how piracy has impacted them and below is our Q & A session.



When asked how has piracy impacted you as a filmmaker? Have you seen a decline of digital or physical sales due to it? Billy Pon had stated “They (distribution companies) are saying that there's more money in digital these days. It's been the complete opposite for me. My hard copies are selling 20 to 1 compared to the four VOD platforms I'm on. (iTunes, Amazon, Vudu & Google Play) I am aware that I need to spend more money promoting the VOD side but alas, I'd rather spend what little bit I have to promote the hard copies.”  While Scott Schirmer has similar sentiments as Billy, Jonathan Straiton stated”Night of Something Strange was pirated the day it was released on VOD. I knew it was going to happen. I knew it would affect sales, but what bothered me the most was the mere fact it was getting lifted. I spent so much time trying to make it look great and here it is all over the net in lo res shitty quality. The icing on the cake was the slew of negative reviews on IMDb from people who watched it illegally. Not only did they feel entitled to rip the film off, but felt the need to be vocal about it in a negative way. Some will argue that those who steal movies would never buy it in the first place, which isn’t exactly true. I’ve had several people at conventions that saw an illegal version buy the blu ray because they liked the film that much. I think if piracy didn’t exist, people would pay for it in the end. What are they going to do? Stop watching movies? James Bickert adds “My worst experience was with a Foreign Sales agent giving a watermarked copy to a pirate at Cannes who was posing as a potential buyer. The torrent leak happened 3 days before we received our physical DVDs. There is no way to determine that initial financial damage but when a retail copy was pirated on torrents and illegal streaming services the Amazon Prime and iTunes sales dropped immediately by 63.5%Zoe Kavanagh also stated “It's tough I mean, you look at the situation. Your film gets out there, gets distributed, not in every territory at the same time but as soon as it gets released say in UK & Ireland and all of a sudden someone in India has leaked your festival screener the next day with those subtitles intact too. It's hard to pin point if the weekly dip is connected to it but I do believe it's certainly made an impact. The film is self financed so the fact that it's being pirated and equalized to Blockbusters that cost multi-million dollars make it all the more unfair.Stephanie Hensley also shared her experience “Dane Granger was my first film, and it was a bitch from beginning to end, but I was thrilled with the end results. I was beyond proud of the cast and crew and what we were able to accomplish since many of us were beginners. We made something that we wanted to world to see despite its flaws (sound is always a bitch)... We decided to hit some smaller festivals with the film and I submitted to four and within a day (I'll never know which festival did it) Dane was online. We were in talks with a distributor that was actually going to buy the film (for what we made but still breaking even is good) and after they researched and saw it online they withdrew the offer.... So piracy cost me $15000 and trust. With our second and third film we paid more to submit to legit festivals and haven't had a problem other than the cost of submitting to better known fests...Which adds up quickly.” Brandon Slagle factored in from his days as an actor by stating “There were multiple films I was in whose distribution deals were squashed completely because a rogue "reviewer" was requesting screeners of unreleased films and tossing them onto piratebay.  One film in particular lost a deal with Lion's Gate when one of their sales guys took a quick peek online and saw that a few hundred thousand people had downloaded it.  If you think about it, the average indie film, when acquired by a distributor - may get an 18,500-22,500 DVD purchase order from Wal-Mart, Target will likely pass completely (they're picky), MAYBE a 24,500 order from Redbox but usually not (who pay outright and don't offer royalties beyond the initial purchase), then a couple thousand more circulate online vendors.  If a film has been illegally downloaded four times as many time as physical copies will be made, then you're fucked, for lack of better words.” And Justin M. Seaman had this to say “Piracy has definitely hurt myself and many others in the indie community. Some people outside of the self distro film world don’t understand the calculated steps, risks and sacrifices that we go through to try and make a living at creating art and how quickly that can all come crashing down with theft. Since I only do physical sales, I def see a decrease when a something goes up online. But I also see an increase in sales when I website posts a review or a customer shares they love for the film. So it’s a balancing act between the pirates and the supporters.



When asked Do you think people see you have a successful crowdfunding campaign and get the idea that you have money versus all of that going into your current project or next project and therefore feel it's ok to pirate a film? Most of the filmmakers did not crowdfund, but from the ones who did Brooklyn Ewing stated “Absolutely, especially if you have a higher dollar campaign. Pirates think they deserve to see a film, and only support it if it's "good". That's just not how the world should work. I have purchased 1,000's of movies without viewing them prior. We offer a rental of our film for $.99 on Vimeo.  If you can't risk $1, you should probably stop living. Pirating prevents future filmmaking. The more you steal from a filmmaker, the less cash they have to pursue their next project. It hurts everyone.” While Zoe Kavanagh shares a different view “People don't look at the budget not do they see the difference between Indie and Big Budget. I think viewers just see content and if it's good then all the better. Pro's and Cons to this in a whole. The Pros being that people aren't discriminating what they watch on budget but it means you as an Indie Filmmaker takes the hit unlike the Hollywood films which can afford to take the hit.” And Scott Schirmer has a different take on it “I think the majority of people who steal movies expect that we are the studios, honestly. On the torrent sites, our titles will sit there right next to Marvel and Pixar movies. There's no difference between big studio movies and no-budget indie movies on torrent sites. I think it puts most indie movies at a disadvantage, because the thiefs go into our movies expecting Hollywood production values and whatever else they expect in a big-budget summer movie, and when they don't get that, they troll our movies and give them bad ratings and reviews on IMDb, Amazon and such. The problem is more complicated than just theft of intellectual property -- it's also theft of control of distribution methods and audience targeting. It completely destroys the last stage of a movie, which is marketing it to the right audience, the right way, to maximize critical and fiscal success.” As does James BickertI have no idea what they're thinking. Hell, they may not be thinking about it at all. I think it may be the mentality of a generation that doesn't grasp that they are making these pirates wealthy from ad placements on these websites that are using stolen copyrighted material - causing the content generators a massive struggle to break even.  You'll often hear bone-headed counter arguments of "all art should be free" or "it's free publicity". These people don't comprehend the financial difficulties of producing a quality production. I don't think they love film at all!



When asked What steps do you take to try to fight piracy on your end (since you can't watermark everything)? Most filmmakers are in consensus that you have to be vigilant, but you can’t spend 24 hours checking sites, YouTube etc. James Bickert had stated “You can't do a multi-platform release anymore. You pretty much have to get the most bang out of physical media first. The model Magnolia/Magnet/Landmark was using can't really apply to the micro-budget Indie. Splitting a Blu on a dual layer seems to help because a pirate ripping the disc would have to physically put that back together.Scott Schirmer had a different take “Unfortunately, film festivals despise watermarking. You'll make enemies going that route. And unfortunately, there are very precious few websites out there who respond to Cease & Desist letters. They are legally required to say that they will accept and respond, but none have ever actually responded to my messages so far. The only good one -- and thank God, because they're the largest -- is YouTube. YouTube makes it fairly painless for filmmakers to notify them of theft and they are usually pretty swift and taking down pirated content. The world is working on a solution to the problem, though. Hopefully, every single torrent site in the world can be brought down some day. Because let's face it -- they are there solely for theft of intellectual property. No other reason that I can see.” And Jonathon Straiton has an idea to help fight piracy on YouTube”YouTube sucks donkey balls! You report each claim and it’s a 50/50 shot of them taking it down. They do offer a program to protect against piracy where you upload your film and it’s scanned and marked for uploads to stop it before it starts, BUT this caters to the big guns. You have to have a library of I think 25 or more films to be eligible. I’ve thought maybe we should start an organization to represent indie films as a whole, combining our films, into one large catalog for things like this. Shit as much time as I spend on YouTube filling out copyright infringements, they should give me a corner office with a view.



I also inquired Is there a line being crossed? As mentioned above you have the Robin Hood pirates that are fine taking from the big studios but not the indies and vendors that sell DVD copies of films that may have gotten a limited DVD release or no release at all. Everyone agreed it was theft regardless of if it’s independent, big studio, or long list films being put on DVD. Richard Tanner had this to say “Man, It's all wrong and I used to bootleg... I think as teens of my generation, we all have.  Hacked Fire sticks, bootleg vendors and you tube rips... It’s all wrong though.  Yeah, I can justify and say... well where else am I going to get the Star Wars Holiday Special?  How am I going to get a sold out copy of the hot new underground horror flick?  Its normalizing an issue that is ruining modern film... hell, it's ruining modern artistic endeavors in general.  It’s the cart before the horse.  Now you can't make anything unless you are known but you can't be known unless you make it.Brandon Slagle said “This goes beyond the above-the-line producers and actors too - films often employ hundreds if not thousands of crew members.  There's a trickle-down-effect at play.  Producers tend to be gun shy and cut budgets in half/quarters/thirds and this impacts the working crew members abilities to make a living.  Only a small fraction of people in the film business are "rich".  Most are working class.  Years ago 5-10 million dollars was considered a low budget or even micro budget indie.  Now you have films being made for pennies on the dollar of that.  Most straight-to-DVD action films in Redbox starring people you recognize are made for WELL under a million dollars, and that's a big WELL.” 



When the filmmakers were asked as a whole where do you see this taking the indie scene? Across the board everyone sees it as hurting the scene and meaning if piracy continues art won’t get made. Brooklyn Ewing had this to say “Indie filmmaking won't stop. Most creatives have to create. It's their passion. But I believe that this will prevent indie filmmakers from taking on a second project. When they cannot make their money back from their first film, a lot of folks won't be able to afford another project. I think a lot of folks forget that many indie artists have "real" jobs outside of making movies. Along with real jobs, they also have homes, families, and bills too. So, not only are we supporting our lives, but we are supporting the "lives" of these movies. That's where crowdfunding comes in. Studios aren't investing in ideas like they used to, so now fans are being asked to invest in the films and film makers they want to see more work from.” While Richard Tanner added “The indie scene has to change if it wants to survive as anything more then a bunch of art house snobs stuck in a circle jerk that keeps getting smaller and smaller.  We can't make everyone see that piracy is wrong... they have been raised in a world where the entire world does this... it’s a silly law like loitering to them.  Yes, there are reasons we have laws... but of course they can't see themselves as singularly causing issues.  Somehow, we have to find a way to adapt.  Jeremy Gardner was a genius with putting his movie, Tex Montana Will Survive, out there as public domain but I don't think anyone outside of filmmakers and people in this field understand why that was amazing.  Lloyd Kauffman is starting his own online streaming service and Charles Band with Full Moon Pictures has done the same.” While James Bickert feels that “The reality is it's here to stay. Piracy has lowered budgets and caused less of your favorite genres stars to be cast. All those former studio directors whose films appear on con t-shirts are now unemployable. The budgets they require can't offset the revenue piracy has stolen. Disney can offset that cost and niche film in other genres with less appeal to this demographic can still flourish. Indie horror, not so much.Justin M. Seaman stated “I think there is a strong support system of passionate individuals within the indie film circle and there are many people who understand that hardships that comes along with making art. I hope that more people like that continue to join the cause and help keep the indie world alive or I’m sure we will continue to see less and less low budget films being produced.



I had also asked if filmmakers had received retaliation as a result of having a torrent or site shut down, while Scott, Richard, Jonathan, Billy, Stephanie, and Brandon have not, the others have. James stated “The initial reaction is obviously anger but that feeds these people. They can put you on every torrent on the planet within a day so you have to keep it together. I was naive back then and thought I could combat it with e-mails proclaiming copyright violation but the backlash from these pirates was brutal. One notorious site in particular posted my e-mail along with my home address, IP address and other personal information, The uploader called for people to do me physical harm and to hack my computers. This unleashed all sorts of hate post on boards from trolls and an attack on the rating of the film on IMDb.Within 5 daysmy operating system was fucked and I had to swap drives and change my IP. I'm not positive it was related but the timing was suspicious. It's international websites so it's not like contacting the FBI would do any good.Zoe had a similar experience on IMDb after taking down a Facebook torrent page with 48,000 likes “He must of sent an army of trolls to rate my film on IMDb a 1/10 and it fell from a 7.7 to a 4.6 because of it. Then on YouTube a comment said I should be executed for making the film.” And Brooklyn’s is probably the most disturbing I have heard “I have been trolled, called names, and verbally attacked. One guy sent me photos to my email of a printed photo of my movie with cum on it. He said, "That's what your movie is worth, Cunt". People are crazy, and terrifying.



We finished off the discussion with what advice do you have for filmmakers experiencing the same issues, the group mostly felt the same with fight the fight, stay positive, don’t take it personally, and build a community with other fans and filmmakers. Brandon had this to add “I used to be incredibly aggressive towards people who admit pirating either my films or any films in general.  It's sort of like arresting the drug addict but not the dealer.  Many of them don't understand how they are impacting filmmakers by illegally downloading a film.  Educate them.  Let them know it's not just the 1% who's being hurt.Justin added “Well in my experience I would say start by reaching out to the people within your film community and asking for help about the issue. I have filmmakers and fans contact me frequently about sites that are illegal streaming my content and in return I do the same for others. I’ve noticed that when you publicly announce that people are stealing your film that it can have the opposite affect that you’re looking for. You would assume that people would be angry that this is happening to you and would then in return want to show you their support by buying your film. Anymore it seems as if you make a post on social media about pirating all it does is basically let the “uniformed” become the “informed” that they can now go and find your film for free online somewhere. So it’s a gamble for sure.



Filmmakers be sure to keep an eye here for updates to the DCMA document.



(Image taken from Google)