One of the biggest frustrations of attending a film festival is never knowing when you’ll be able to watch some of your favorite films again. Despite audience acclaim and strong reviews, some titles linger in distribution hell for months or even years at a time, only popping up onto streaming platforms long after their buzz has worn off. So when fans caught wind that One Cut of the Dead, a hilarious Japanese comedy about zombies and DIY filmmaking, had been added to Amazon Prime over the weekend, they did everything in their power to make time for it.
There was just one very big problem. This version of the film released turned out to be another in a long line of bootlegs made available through Amazon’s self-distribution platform.
Despite the film’s small budget ($27,000) and lack of recognizable actors, One Cut of the Dead went on to be a huge success at the Japanese box office. In an October article, Variety noted that the film had sold more than two million tickets and played on as many as 340 screens at the height of its release. This far surpassed the filmmaker’s meager goals for the movie: as noted in the article, producer Koji Ichihashi claims the film would have broken even financially with a mere 5,000 ticket sales.
The film fared just as well on the festival circuit, winning the Audience Award at last year’s Fantastic Fest and receiving runner-up consideration for audience awards at Fantasia Fest and the New York Asian Film Festival. Critics were also impressed; our own review of the film calls it a “brilliant indie gem” and “the best movie about indie filmmaking in decades.” Fans who were unable to catch the film on the festival circuit were understandably happy to get a chance to check the film out.
But One Cut of the Dead should never have been on Amazon Prime to begin with. In an email to Film School Rejects, Third Window Films owner Adam Torel confirmed that the film had not been uploaded by either his company or Nikkatsu, the organization in charge of sales for the Asian marketplace. “I saw some posts on Twitter saying it was available on Amazon Prime in both the US and UK,” Torel explained. “Considering the UK theatrical [release] is January 4th, and as it was very hard to get an Asian independent film into cinemas, you can imagine how much I started to panic and fear for my chances of getting Asian indies into cinemas from now on.”
Torel spent most of the weekend responding to people on Twitter, informing them that the version now available on Amazon Prime was a pirated copy.
The @amazon and @AmazonUK PRIME version of ONE CUT OF THE DEAD is an unauthorized bootleg release of the film. As the film’s world sales agent and distributor, we didn’t put it on there and it shouldn’t be there. Please watch in UK cinemas from Jan 4!!
— Third Window Films (@thirdwindow) December 31, 2018
For many, this was an ugly introduction to Amazon Prime’s dual nature as both a streaming platform for Amazon’s high-profile acquisitions and a self-distribution platform with little oversight. “Amazon has this whole section that effectively operates like YouTube,” explains Todd Brown, head of international acquisitions for XYZ Films, “and is governed by the same laws as YouTube, which really absolves Amazon of a lot of responsibility for what people do on the platform — but, from the outside looking in, appears almost exactly the same as the fully Amazon-controlled, curated service.”
While Brown notes that XYZ Films has never used Prime Video Direct as a platform for their own films, he described it as a common practice for “conventional distributors who have been unable to make a sale for SVOD services.”
Much like other self-distribution platforms, Prime Direct Video puts the onus back on the uploader to verify copyright, including in its terms and conditions a simple qualifier that you must be the rights holder for the title in question. While Amazon does include language noting that a title can be pulled due to lack of verification, that particular clause is preceded by an “if” statement, indicating that rights verification is not a mandatory part of the Prime Direct Video process.
Since a bootleg copy of a film, like that of One Cut of the Dead, will appear fully searchable alongside standard acquisitions, audiences often assume what they’re watching was placed there through official channels, not uploaded without consent through Amazon’s self-distribution platform. “People watch these things assuming that they are supporting the creators — that fees have been paid to the appropriate people — when they are not,” Brown notes. “That’s a big problem.”
There were red flags for those who looked beyond the platform. Despite the ability to stream as a Prime member, there were no corresponding links to rent or purchase the film in a digital or physical format (even though, as mentioned by Torel, the film is about to receive a theatrical and home video UK release). More glaring, perhaps, was the film’s childish — and sometimes offensive — use of subtitles. Twitter user Kevin Lam was one of the first to draw attention to these errors, sharing a few screenshots on his account that were picked up by people already suspicious of the One Cut of the Dead release.
“As we were watching, a few of us commented on how the quality was kind of lacking and how that was weird,” Lam recalled via email to Film School Rejects. “Then, two-thirds of the way in, the subtitles during a lull in dialogue shows the name of who did the translation and their website.” Lam also recalled his surprise at a recurring “joke’” in the upload’s subtitles that, playing to ugly stereotypes, flips the ‘r’s and ‘l’s of one of the film’s secondary characters.
Sooo… after watching One Cut of The Dead on Prime last night and noticed only this lady having her "L's" switched with "R's".
— Kevin Lam (@kevinonthelam) December 30, 2018
What are the ramifications of the pirated upload? It’s a scenario where everyone loses. People who did stream One Cut of the Dead were treated to a subpar version of the film; meanwhile, this leak could also have devastating financial ramifications for both Third Window Films and the One Cut of the Dead filmmakers. “If this causes all American distribution companies to pull their offers off the table, not only will it ruin American audiences’ chances to see the film, but also [means] that, personally, I won’t get any payment,” Torel explains, noting that he — like most sales agents — works entirely on commission. “As a one-man independent company, something like this can be incredibly painful and hard to take.”
Brown can sympathize with this situation. He says, “It’s not so much the lost revenue in streaming fees that have gone to Amazon and whoever uploaded the film — although those certainly should, by rights, be in the hands of the rights holders — but the damage done to their ability to make any sales of the film in these territories. The lost revenues are significant.”
In the end, the film was removed from Amazon Prime and fans and publications that had mistakenly given the streaming title their full-throated support were quick to pull their links to the offending title. Only time will tell if these actions come too late to save the film’s North American distribution.
A request for additional information from Amazon was unanswered at the time of publication.