Two Filmmakers’ Views on Movie Piracy

By  · Published on May 22nd, 2010

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran back in November 2009, and is shockingly even more relevant with the events of last week regarding Nicolas Chartier, a few new lawsuits, and the outrageous response from people vehemently rationalizing the act of theft.

A month ago, a little film called Paranormal Activity muscled its way into the marketplace powered partly by the people and mostly by the giant mountain of Paramount. As much as it was touted as a the demands of the masses, it was ultimately a pretend democratic movement.

Almost a year ago, I received an email not unlike the usual random shots in the dark we get – arrows let loose against the blinding sun that a filmmaker or independent producer lets fly and then crosses their fingers hoping they hit the target. The email I received was from a husband and wife team of filmmakers who sent a trailer that made me lose my mind. So they sent me the movie, and I loved it. They then spent the entirety of 2009 bleeding themselves dry to either get noticed by the establishment or to release the movie on their own, city by city.

A week ago, that film was one of the most pirated films in the world and, subsequently, a truly independent film with zero studio ties jumped to #16 on IMDB. It was a real democratic movement.

I spoke with Kiowa Winans, the producer of Ink the day it happened, and what she had to offer was something far more nuanced than the “championing of piracy” meme that seems to be spreading like wildfire. After all, this is a complex situation – one that both helps and hurts – and Winans is more aware of that than anyone.

“We’re struggling filmmakers. You’re not ripping off the major studios,” she says to the initial question of how she feels about the piracy. They own 100% of the film, have done all the distribution themselves, paid for all the DVD and Blu-ray copies, so when people steal the film, they are stealing directly from the filmmakers. In this case, they seem fairly complicit.

Since the film is available through Netflix, Blockbuster and through several independent rental stores, it would seem like the filmmakers aren’t the only ones with something at stake, but when I bring that up, Winans informs me that Netflix doubled the amount of their orders on the day of the piracy and the resulting news blitz. The film was stolen, but it created an audience that wasn’t previously there. An audience that ended up legally attaining the movie and making more money for Netflix.

This seems like a tacit celebration of illegal downloading. But Winans dug deeper and gave their official stance:

It’s been astounding, but as indie filmmakers, as studio filmmakers, as any filmmakers we need to know there’s a financial model that works. If we’re unable to pay back our investors on Ink, we can’t go on. If the exposure equates to dollars, we’re gold. If these users only see it on bit torrent and don’t pay, we’re not.”

She then went on to say that it’s clear that the number of people illegally downloading is not balancing out with the few that have gone on to donate to them or buy the film outright. So it’s helping them in one way (exposure) and not helping them in another (money). Sadly, it’s in the way that really matters where people who want something for free are not doing filmmakers any favors.

Then, I bring up Rhett Reese, the co-writer/co-producer of Zombieland who quickly hinted that piracy was going to hurt the chances of seeing a sequel to the hit. Winans was empathetic to his position, saying, “I feel the worst for guys like Rhett,” and claiming that piracy is destroying the incentive for people trying to make a living in filmmaking from being able to do so. “People who think they are Robin Hood are wrong,” she said.

And she’s right. Believing that piracy is stealing from the already-thickly-lined pockets of Fat Cat executives is naive. It’s people like Reese, who are within the studio system but who have to stay on the grind to maintain their career trajectory, who deliver the content that get hurt most by piracy.

Reese went online today to expand on that idea:

No, I don’t believe that 1 download = 1 lost ticket sale or 1 lost DVD sale. Certainly, there are many people who both contribute to a movie’s legitimate B.O. and also download the movie… including, it turns out, the people I singled out on Twitter. There are also many people who download movies who would never pay to see those same movies in any format regardless. But I do believe that there is a significant, non-trivial population of people who might have (in an ideal world with no piracy) paid to see Zombieland, either in theaters or on DVD, but instead chose to watch it for free, because it was easy and didn’t cost them anything.

No, I don’t subscribe to the Robin Hood argument, which claims that rich, greedy Hollywood studios/actors/writers/etc. have enough $ and don’t need more. Nor do I subscribe to the argument that examines positive correlations between downloads and box office and concludes that popularity in the one (downloads) is somehow causing the popularity in the other (box office). Correlation does not imply causality.

Although he used the awesome online handle Super-Grover, Reese didn’t exactly explain how piracy would hurt their chances for a sequel, but extrapolating the logic isn’t all that difficult. Studios make money on the back end. They want a ton of people there opening weekend, but they really aim for the sales of DVDs and Blu-rays. If the studio believes they can’t make the money they want because of piracy, they might see fit not to make the movie at all.

On the other side of the argument is the proof of profitability that seems to have escaped those in the system, at least when it comes to Ink. Winans saw the piracy as unfortunate on face, but recognized the significance of what it meant and ultimately disagreed with Reese’s position on correlation.

“We’ve spent the past 10 months hearing ‘we can’t advertise your movie, it’s too weird, there’s no audience for it,’ from Hollywood. The activity on the torrent sites, the 400,000 that downloaded it has unequivocally proved there’s a massive audience for it,” Winans said.

It’s hard to say whether that’s true or not. It’s impossible to know whether downloads would translate to an audience – the very reason why piracy is such a hazy topic in the first place. One side argues that they are losing money, another argues that they never had that money to begin with because pirates weren’t going to pay in the first place. Unfortunately, there’s no dependable data on the issue so the arguments on both sides are speculative.

But even Winans doesn’t buy into the correlation completely. “I don’t see it as dollars lost. I see it as fans gained.”

And maybe that’s the entire point. For the big studio pictures, there is no upside to piracy. It’s cut and dry. How harmful it is should be up for discussion, but there’s no doubt that it is, in fact, harmful. But for filmmakers like the Winanses who have made a movie that seems to resonate with an audience that Hollywood never wanted to give them, piracy might not be all bad. It might not be good – considering that it hasn’t given the filmmakers any measurable money – but it might not be all bad. This is a question that most (including myself) don’t even want to consider. In a perfect world, stealing is wrong and filmmakers should be treated with respect. But now we have a very real example of filmmakers who are comfortable with their flick being stolen, a rental outlet who has made more money because of it, and a greater audience for a movie.

However, it’s my personal argument that it’s not the piracy that’s raised the profile for Ink. It’s easy to point to it as proof, but it’s certainly not the true cause. What is, is the blood sweat and tears that have gone into a two-person release team taking their film from city to city on their own, getting the word out, and filling theaters from word of mouth. I doubt that anyone would have pirated the film in the first place had they not read about it or seen the strong reviews coming from websites or from the recommendation of friends who got lucky enough to see it on the big screen. So if indie filmmakers are looking for an easy new marketing tool, I think they are out of luck.

Perhaps this is why even Winans doesn’t blindly celebrate piracy. She has the greatest reason to, but she sees the forest for the trees. It’s nice to see a certain brand of success, I’m sure, but as we’re ending our conversation, she raises an excellent question that applies not only to Ink, but to the rest of the film community.

“Now that we’re here, how do we keep going?”

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.